4.20.16  Searching for ‘The Lost Years’ of Juan Bautista Chapa


Through his own extensive writings, and some great research, we know a surprising amount about the life of Juan Bautista Chapa (JBC). We know that he was the anonymous author of La Historia de Nuevo Leon (Israel Garza Cavazos) and where he lived when he first came to Nuevo Leon.  Additionally, we know where he lived as a child (a small house that still stands in Albisola, near Genoa), what his grandfather did (innkeeper and grocer) and that both his parents died when he was eleven. We know he travelled at the age of thirteen to Cadiz, Spain (Luigi Schiappaprieta & Davide Gambino) and that he almost for sure left Cadiz in 1647, at the age of 19, probably on a ship bound for a new life in New Spain.  However, no one has been able to discover when and how he departed on this trip across the Atlantic, or what he did between 1647 and the fall of 1650, when he first arrived in Cadereyta, Nuevo Leon. 


Earlier this month, we traveled where others have gone before to search for this information: to the Archivo General de Indias, or La Casa de Las Indias, in Seville. It’s a fascinating place and we thought we would share the experience in case anyone else might want to visit in their own hunt for information. The Achivo General is the repository for all of the documents produced over the centuries of Spanish exploration and governance of its Latin American colonies.


Our visit had one major goal in mind: to try to find a passenger manifest that included the name of Juan Bautista Chapa.  If we could find it, we’d know for certain when and how he travelled to the Americas. We knew others had tried to find this information and failed but were still game to give it a try.


We wandered through the ornate halls of the famous Casa de las Indias, adjacent to the famous Gothic cathedral in Sevilla, looking for the research office in vain, until a security guard pointed us to an old palace across the street.  We went in the discretely marked entrance and up to the reception desk (2nd floor), telling the first fellow we met that we were interested in searching the archive for traces of Juan Bautista Chapa.  He looked at us askance, but let us explain ourselves.  After we explained our search and told him that we had written a fictional account of his life, he took our ID’s, photographed us and registered us in their database, giving us user names and passwords to allow us to access their online and onsite digital databases.


He then led us to another office, where we met a young and very helpful research assistant who helped show us how to make some initial queries into the archive database and explained its quirks and limitations – some documents have been totally digitized, and tagged with each name/keyword, others are digitized and named, but not tagged, and yet others are listed in the database by their title, but are found only in their original folios in the library itself. He tried a number of different possible spellings to find Chapa’s name in the passenger lists – which should all be tagged and digitized, but to no avail.


He acknowledged that, as a foreigner, Chapa most likely would have had to bribe a ship captain and travel ‘unofficially’ to New Spain, as only Spanish nationals were granted permission to emigrate (and even then only after a careful application proving they were not of Jewish origin, were good Catholics, had committed no crimes, etc.) There was a thriving trade in such ‘unofficial travel’, and the colonies actually had many foreigners who managed to get there by one means or another.


However, he suggested we also look through the naturalization records contained within the archives, as either he or his uncle might have applied for naturalization.  These archives have not yet been digitized and so can only be searched in their original form.  He wrote down the folios we would need to look through, and sent us to the reading room to request them, noting that we needed to first leave all of our belongings, including our phones, in lockers at the front desk. 


We handed over the folio numbers to the research librarian, and she asked us to sit at our assigned desks, noting that the documents would be delivered to us within 15 minutes. We sat and quietly watched graduate students, professors and others sitting at computers and leafing through old books and loose papers, making notes on tiny pieces of scratch paper (the only papers allowed).


Our names were called and we walked up to the desk, where we each were handed a large bundle of documents, at least 18” high, bound with yellowed paperboard and tied up with a network of cotton strings.  We gingerly untied the bundles, pushing aside the paperboard cover until we were looking at sheaves of old documents – the brittle detritus of 16th and 17th century Spanish bureaucracy.  Each folio contained all of the evidence associated with an individual’s application for Spanish citizenship – detailed information on each person’s place of birth, his home and activities in Spain, affidavits from the church, other character witnesses – everything needed to vouch for this person’s fitness to become a legal subject of the Spanish crown.  


The documents themselves were nearly impenetrable, loose leaves of 15th, 16th or 17th century papers, spidery writing on tattered pages. One would need to be a paleograph (an expert on ancient handwriting) to decipher it all, but names, dates and other information can be picked out in some of them.  Our folios contained the applications of those from Genoa, other regions in Italy, and the odd Frenchman or Dutch individual.  Because there was such a large colony of Genovese traders in Cadiz and Seville, there were at least a hundred applications for naturalization, and we leafed through each one, looking for dates that would coincide with Chapa’s time in Spain, then drilling deeper to see the names and other details of the applicants.  Throughout all of this, we marveled at the experience of handling documents that were 400, 500, even 600 years old, the feel of the old, fragile papers of different sizes, colors and condition, the wild variety of handwriting styles, the musty smell of the old pages.  It really was an incredible experience.


At the end of the day, the search proved as fruitless for us as for those who had searched before.  However, the experience of the hunt, the unwrapping and perusing of these old bundles, hunting for clues in the applications of men who lived so long ago, was something that we will always remember.  For those with an interest in searching for clues in the voluminous archives of the Casa De Las Indias, we guarantee that it will be a thrilling and unforgettable experience.

4.13.16  History of the Schiappaprieta/Schiapapria/Chapa Surnames

As you might know, Juan Bautista Chapa is the progenitor of all of the thousands of people who carry the surname Chapa in Mexico and the United States. The Chapa name is somewhat unique in that it is not a traditional Spanish surname, but rather a ‘hispanicized’ version of a very old Ligurian last name – Schiappaprieta or Schiapapria (both were used almost interchangeably, even by Chapa himself). This allows anyone carrying the Chapa family name in their ancestry to know most certainly that their roots can be traced back to that one single individual.

Even more interesting is the fact that scholars in Italy have put together documentation that trace the roots of the name all the way back to Roman times. A modern member of the Schiappapietra family, Luigi Schiappapietra, commissioned an Italian translation of Juan Bautista Chapa’s book 'Historia De Nuevo Leon’. In that translation,’ Giovanni Battista Schiappapietra, Da Albisola a Nuevo Leon’, he also included a wealth of information on the ancient origins of the Schiappapietra family – a history that stretches from a first reference to a ‘Gens Petreia’ , thought to be of Greek origin, recorded near Rome in Campania and Lazio in the 3rd century B.C. The name is recorded many times throughout antiquity, including the landing of a Marco Petreio at the small port of Alba Docilia (now Albisola) in the year 46 B.C. The record goes silent through the Dark Ages, with the name finally reappearing in records dating from the 11th Century in Lower Lombardy. Shortly thereafter, some members of the family moved to Genoa, and at the time of the first crusade, the first reference was made to the Genovese branch of the family as Famiglia Petra de Monteardino, and in 1097, this family was first referred to as Shia de Petra or Sihadepria (meaning the Signore (Lords) del Castello de Pietra). The name refers to the ancient mountain holdfast of the Pietra family in Robbia just outside of Genoa (pictured below).

From that point onward, some version of the name Schiappapietra appears throughout the recorded history of Genoa and Liguria. In 1394, the first officialr census in Savona / Albisola only listed surnames of people living in the province, but it does not provide the numbers of households with each surname. Later censuses show the following number of households with the Schiappaprieta surname:

Years Numbers

1566 – 1600 12
1640 – 1650 19
1740 – 1750 56
1840 – 1850 49

For more of this fascinating history, please visit the website for the Foundation that Luigi Schiappapietra has created to preserve and study the history of the Schiappapietra family: http://fondazioneschiappapietra.org