Chile Historical Geography

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Spain instituted a viceroyalty system to govern its possessions in the New World. During the nearly three centuries of the colonial period, legal records and documents were subject to the jurisdiction of the appropriate viceroyalties.

The following viceroyalties functioned in Latin America during the following time periods:

Viceroyalties of Latin America


Santo Domingo

the Caribbean


Nueva España

Central America, the Caribbean, Mexico, the modern southwestern United States, the Philippines, Venezuela



Chile, Peru, parts of Bolivia



Nueva Granada

Colombia, Ecuador, Panama, Venezuela

1776 –1810

Río de la Plata

Argentina, Paraguay,Uruguay, parts of Bolivia

The viceroyalties were subdivided into legislative divisions called audiencias. These audiencias supervised local courts, applied Spanish law, and established a legal tradition that has persisted in Hispanic America. The jurisdictions of the audiencias formed the basic territories of the Latin American republics once they gained independence from Spain.

The following list indicates the years in which audiencias were established under the viceroyalty for Perú, which included Chile:

• Cuzco—1787

• Lima—1542

• Santiago—1609

During the 19th century, international conflicts and border disputes altered many political jurisdictions in South America. These changes affected the subsequent registration of the local population.

Chile acquired the mineral-rich Atacama Desert when it prevailed in the 1879–1883 War of the Pacific against Peru and Bolivia. The acquisition extended Chile’s northern border and completely cut off Bolivia’s access to the sea. The border with Argentina on the southern part (Patagonia) was not established until 1902.

The country of Chile included 25 provinces and 88 departments. In 1919 the departments were divided into 901 subdelegations and 3,228 municipal districts. In 1970 there were 520 municipalities under the jurisdiction of the departments.

You may need to determine previous boundaries and jurisdictions to locate your ancestors’ records. Gazetteers and histories are helpful sources of information about these changes.

The following book explains more about the historical geography of South America. You can find this and similar materials at the Family History Library and many other research libraries.

John Bartholomew (John George). A literary & historical atlas of America. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1910. (FHL book 912.19812 B283.)

Other sources about boundary changes are found in the FamilySearch Catalog under: