Now Available Online: Department of State Records, 1789-1906

Today’s post was written by David Langbart, archivist in Textual Reference at the National Archives in College Park, MD.

The National Archives is pleased to announce that many important records of the Department of State are being digitized and made available online through the National Archives Catalog.  The records consist largely of the various series of records that constitute the Department’s central files for the period from 1789 to 1906.  Also included, however, are other series of value and interest.

Background/General Information

For many years, the National Archives had an extensive program under which important and heavily-used records were reproduced on National Archives Microfilm Publications.  This accomplished two things.  First, the resulting publications were (and are, as digitized copies) offered for sale, thus making the records more widely available to researchers.  Second, since the original records were withdrawn from circulation, the microfilming aided in the preservation of the records.  National Archives Microfilm Publications cover a wide range of subjects including foreign relations; justice and law enforcement; land issues; military and intelligence matters; relations with Native Americans, Black Americans, and other people of color; communications; and immigration.

Over the past few years, Research Services has been carrying out a major effort to systematically digitize microfilm publications in the Microfilm Library.  The goal is to create a Digital Microfilm Reading Room – accessible to anyone, anywhere, any time via the National Archives Catalog.  Some commercial organizations such as Ancestry, Fold3, and FamilySearch have digitized some National Archives Microfilm Publications, either by scanning purchased copies of microfilm publications or through partnership agreements.  Those organizations, however, have concentrated on publications with genealogy topics.  The Research Services project covers all the microfilm publications.  Because the records of the Department of State are among the most important and heavily used records in the holdings and the high demand for those records, the Digitization Division is making a concerted effort to digitize the microfilm publications of Department of State records. 

Image Quality

Image quality varies across all of the microfilm publications, depending on the quality of both the records themselves and the original filming.  The vendor with which the Archives worked made some image corrections to render the best image available but this did not always lead to improvements in the images.  The vendor provided comprehensive audits of every digitized microfilm roll and identified major issues with images.  Research Services will use that information to target future efforts to digitize the original records.

Roll-out

In October 2020, the microfilm publications of Despatches from Diplomatic Officers, 1789-1906, Notes from Foreign Missions, 1789-1906, and other series were uploaded to the Catalog.  See below for descriptions of those records and links to the online resources.  Still to come are the microfilm publications of the Despatches from Consular Offices, 1789-1906, other series constituting the central files, and additional Department of State files.  Those microfilm publications will be posted throughout FY21.  Future posts will announce and describe the records as they are uploaded to the Catalog.

National Archives Catalog Availability

As the images are uploaded, the Microfilm Catalog is modified to indicate that a publication is available digitally in the National Archives Catalog and include a direct link.  Each microfilm publication will be described as a file unit and attached to the appropriate series description in the Catalog. Each roll within the microfilm publication will be described as an item with images and will be attached to its parent file unit description.  Individual JPEGs will display for each microfilm frame/page and each roll of microfilm/item description will have a consolidated PDF of all of the frame/pages.

More Information

To assist researchers with using the records from the microfilm publications, supplemental information of varying detail about each publication is in the Microfilm Catalog.  That information might be as simple as a roll listing or there might be a detailed description and guide to the records in a given microfilm publication.  You will find the supplemental information by searching the Microfilm Catalog under the publication number.  Once you reach the entry for the publication of interest, click on “View Important Publication Details” in the upper-right-hand corner of the screen.


Citing the online Records

Full and accurate citations are necessary in order to properly identify the documents and other materials used in preparing books, articles, legal briefs, and other documentary-based works.  Citing online resources presents unique challenges.  The following guidance applies to the online Department of State records. 

In general, the first citation to documents from a series of records should include the full series title and other archival details about the records (record group number, entry number, etc.).  Subsequent notes to the same series can be in the form of short-hand references, but should still include the key information.  A good citation to the records must include several elements. 

  • Originating office (“From”).  The place where the document originated.  This might be the Department of State, an office within the Department, a Foreign Service Post, another agency, or an individual.
  • Addressee (“To”).  The destination of the communication.  Similarly, this might be the Department of State, a Foreign Service Post, another agency, or an individual.
  • Type of document and document number.  In most cases instructions, despatches, notes to, and notes from are numbered.  Because there can be more than one of each type of document on the same day, especially for despatches, including the number identifies the specific document. 
  • Date of document.
  • Series title.  Examples include “Despatches from U.S. Ministers to Great Britain,” “Notes to Foreign Consuls,” and “Miscellaneous Letters.”
  • Record group number and title.
  • Repository (i.e. “U.S. National Archives”).
  • URL.  Documents should never be cited using only the URL.  While not useful for identifying the records, the citation can include a note in brackets containing the date on which the records were retrieved online.

Example (long form): U.S. Legation Great Britain to Department of State, Despatch 1166, March 8, 1866, Despatches from Great Britain, RG 59: General Records of the Department of State, U.S. National Archives.  https://catalog.archives.gov/id/188543169 (accessed January 19, 2021).

Example (short form):  Great Britain to Department of State, Despatch 1166, March 8, 1866, Despatches from Great Britain, RG 59, USNA.  https://catalog.archives.gov/id/188543169 (accessed January 19, 2021).


The Records

The Department of State central files from the years between 1789 and 1906, are divided into three main categories, each of which is arranged in multiple series as follows.  The series of records listed in green have been uploaded into the Catalog and are described herein; those in red are forthcoming.

I. Diplomatic Correspondence

  • Diplomatic Instructions
  • Despatches
  • Notes to Foreign Missions
  • Notes from Foreign Missions

II. Consular Correspondence

  • Consular Instructions
  • Despatches
  • Notes to Foreign Consuls
  • Notes from Foreign Consuls 

III. Miscellaneous Correspondence

  • Domestic Letters (Letters Sent)
  • Miscellaneous Letters (Letters Received)

DESPATCHES, 1789-1906.  RG 59 Entry A1-13 (NAID 603720).  These records consist of the despatches (reports), with related enclosures, sent to the Department of State by American diplomats overseas.  They are often referred to as the “Diplomatic Despatches” to differentiate them from the despatches sent by consular officers.  They are arranged by name of country and thereunder chronologically, except in cases where a U.S. diplomatic officer was accredited to more than one government, in which cases the despatches from several countries were bound together. The despatches relate to all phases of U.S. diplomatic relations with foreign countries and to the administration of U.S. legations and embassies.  These records cover subjects such as the negotiation of treaties; political and economic issues between the U.S. and the host country; boundary matters; claims matters; fishing rights; trade and trade relations; protections of U.S. citizens abroad and foreigners in the U.S.; international conferences, commissions, and expositions; extraditions of fugitives; and the internal political, economic, and social conditions of the host country.  The despatches also cover administrative matters such as appointments to positions; arrival and departure of staff; and official expenses.  Among the enclosures are newspaper clippings, copies of notes to and from the countries’ foreign offices, copies of death notices and marriage certificates, publications, and ceremonial letters.

CountryDatesPub No.
Argentina1817-1906M69
Austria-Hungary1832-1906T157
Belgium1832-1906M193
Bolivia1848-1906T51
Brazil1809-1906M121
Central America1824-1906M219
Chile1823-1906M10
China1843-1906M92
Colombia1820-1906T33
Cuba1902-1906T158
Denmark1811-1906M41
Dominican Republic1883-1906M93
Ecuador1848-1906T50
France1789-1906M34
German States & Germany1799-1801, 1835-1906, 1799-1906M44
Great Britain1791-1906M30
Greece1868-1906T159
Haiti1862-1906M82
Hawaii1843-1900T30
Italian States1832-1906M90
Japan1855-1906M133
Korea1883-1905M134
Liberia1863-1906M170
Mexico1823-1906M97
Montenegro1905-1906T525
Morocco1905-1906T725
Netherlands1794-1906M42
Panama1903-1906T726
Paraguay & Uruguay1858-1906M128
Persia1883-1906M223
Peru1826-1906T52
Portugal1790-1906M43
Rumania1880-1906T727
Russia1808-1906M35
Serbia1900-1906T630
Siam1882-1906M172
Spain1792-1906M31
Sweden & Norway1813-1906M45
Switzerland1853-1906T98
Texas1836-1845.T728
Turkey1818-1906M46
Venezuela1835-1906M79
Country names are linked to the Catalog record

NOTES FROM FOREIGN MISSIONS, 1789-1906. RG 59 Entry A1-28 (NAID 594363).  Original communications and related enclosures received by the Department of State from foreign legations and embassies in the United States.  The records relate to all aspects of American diplomatic relations with those countries.  Enclosures include printed material and ceremonial letters from heads of foreign states. 

CountryDatesPub No.
Argentina1811-1906M47
Austria-Hungary1820-1906M48
Belgium1832-1906M194
Bolivia1837-1906T795
Brazil1824-1906M49
Central America1823-1906T34
Chile1811-1906M73
China1868-1906M98
Colombia1810-1906M51
Costa Rica1878-1906T799
Cuba1844-1906T800
Denmark1801-1906M52
Dominican Republic1844-1906T801
Ecuador1839-1906T810
El Salvador1879-1906T798
France1789-1906M53
German States & Germany1817-1906M58
Great Britain1791-1906M50
Greece1823-1892T808
Haiti1861-1906T803
Hawaii1841-1899T160
Honduras1878-1906T796
Italy1861-1906M202
Japan1858-1906M163
Kingdom of the Two Sicilies1826-1860M55
Korea1883-1906M166
Liberia1862-1898T807
Luxembourg1876-1903T814
Madagascar1883-1894T806
Mexico1821-1906M54
Montenegro1896-1905T614
Netherlands1784-1906M56
Nicaragua1862-1906T797
Norway1905-1906T811
Panama1903-1906T812
Paraguay1853-1906M350
Persia1887-1906M511
Peru1827-1906T802
Portugal1796-1906M57
Russia1809-1906M39
Samoa1856-1894T805
Sardinia1838-1861M201
Siam1876-1906M512
Spain1790-1906M59
Sweden1813-1906M60
Switzerland1882-1906T813
Texas1836-1845T809
Tunisia1805-1806M67
Turkey1867-1906T815
Uruguay1834-1906T804
Venezuela1835-1906T93
Country names are linked to the Catalog record

A series of records separate from, but very closely related to, the NOTES FROM FOREIGN MISSIONS, is:MISCELLANEOUS NOTES FROM OTHER STATES, 1817‑1906.  RG 59 Entry A1-29 (NAID 820133). The records consists of communications from states, territories, or regimes that did not have a recognized diplomatic presence in the United States.  Included are notes from representatives of:

♦Borneo
♦Bosnia‑Herzegovina
♦British Colonies
♦Bulgaria
♦Colombia
♦the Congo
♦Counani
♦Egypt
♦Gilbert Islands
♦Guerrero
♦Johanna Island
♦Johore
♦Monaco
♦Morocco
♦New Zealand
♦Orange Free State     
♦Panama
♦Papal States
♦Pernambuco
♦Rumania
♦Saint Croix Island
♦Servia [Serbia]
♦South African Republic
♦Tahiti
♦Tonga
♦Trinidad
♦Tripoli
♦Tunis
♦West Africa
♦Yucatan
♦Zanzibar

More information about these records is in the Microfilm Catalog under T953.  This series is in the Catalog under NAID 183303966.

NOTES TO FOREIGN CONSULS, 1853-1906.  RG 59 Entry A1-96 (NAID 1076611).  The records consist of copies of communications sent by the Department of State to foreign consular officers in the United States.  Those communications relate to many phases of their consular duties.  They are arranged in one large chronological file.  Notes sent before 1853 are found in the Domestic Letters (see below) and the Notes to Foreign Legations and Embassies.  More information about these records is in the Microfilm Catalog under M663. This series is in the Catalog under NAID 1076611.

MISCELLEANEOUS LETTERS (LETTERS RECEIVED), 1789-1906.  RG 59 Entry A1-113 (NAID 583574).  Arranged chronologically.  The records consist of letters, with related enclosures, received by the Department of State from sources other than U.S. and foreign diplomatic and consular officers.  That includes the President, heads of other U.S. Government agencies, members of Congress, governors of states and territories, other state and territorial officers, and the public.  These records cover a wide range of subjects relating to both domestic and international affairs.  Many of the letters relate solely to the domestic duties of the Department, such as the administration of the Territories, the printing and distribution of the laws, the registration of copyrights, the taking of the census, and the publication of the Biennial Register.  Many letters concerning patent applications and immigration originally part of this series were transferred, along with those functions, to other Government agencies.  The answers to these letters are found in the DOMESTIC LETTERS (see below)More information about these records is in the Microfilm Catalog under M179.  This series is in the catalog under NAID 152775387.

Also available online through the Catalog, but not as part of this project, is the following series of records from the Miscellaneous Correspondence.

DOMESTIC LETTERS (LETTERS SENT), 1784‑1906.  RG 59 Entry A1-100 (NAID 568025).  Arranged chronologically. This series consists principally of copies of letters sent by the Department of State to persons other than U.S. and foreign diplomatic and consular officers.  That includes the President, heads of other U.S. Government agencies, members of Congress, governors of states and territories, other state and territorial officers, and the public.  There are some letters, principally for the years 1789‑1828, to U.S. and foreign diplomatic and consular officers.  These records cover a wide range of foreign and domestic subjects.  Many of the letters relate solely to such domestic duties of the Department as the administration of the Territories, the printing and distribution of the laws, the registration of copyrights, the taking of the census, and the publication of the Biennial Register.  Other letters concern foreign affairs. The domestic letters for 1799‑1802 are missing.  More information about these records is in the Microfilm Catalog under M40. This series is in the catalog under NAID 568025.

6 thoughts on “Now Available Online: Department of State Records, 1789-1906

  1. Hello! My library is reducing our microfilm collection and I’d like to know about some of the State Department MF sets we’re looking to discard.
    Can you tell me if you will be digitizing the Diplomatic & Consular Instructions of the Department of State, 1791-1801, File microcopies of records in the National Archives: no. 28. Rolls 1-5, OCLC no. 7068078?
    How about the Foreign letters of the Continental Congress and the Department of State, National Archives microfilm publications. M ; microcopy no. 61., OCLC no. 18362224?
    Notes from the Dept. of State to Foreign Ministers and Consuls in the United States, 1793-1834, National Archives microfilm publications. M ; microcopy no. 38., OCLC no. 13016114?
    Finally, do you have plans to digitize the Records of the Dept. of State relating to internal affairs of various countries 1910-1929, as well? Even if copyright is an issue, those 1929 items should be entering the public domain in just 4 years, right?

  2. Thank you for your inquiry, Ms. Brekhus.

    M28, M30, and M61 were digitized and will be available in the National Archives Catalog later this year.

    We do plan to digitize the State Department Internal Affairs of various countries for the 1910-1929 period in the future. At this time, we are not able to provide an estimated timeframe as to when they will be scanned or available online.

    Denise Henderson
    Director of Digitization
    Office of Research Services

  3. Thank you for this response, Ms Henderson.

    I’d asked about M38, Notes from the Dept. of State to Foreign Ministers and Consuls in the United States, 1793-1834. Did you mean to say that, instead of M30? Or are both M30 and M38 digitized?

    Rachel Brekhus
    University of Missouri Libraries

  4. Hi,

    Is it possible to know when the records from 1906 to 1914 should be digitized yet? And the diplomatic instructions (1789-1906) aswell ? Thank you !

  5. Hi Marin,

    The State Department Numerical Files, 1906-1910 and Minor Files, 1906-1910 were digitized and are available in the National Archives Catalog. For more information about these records, David Langbart’s blog post may be of interest: https://text-message.blogs.archives.gov/2021/02/16/now-available-online-numerical-and-minor-files/

    The next major time block for the State Department microfilm publications are 1910-1929. We do not have a timeframe on when we will start scanning these publications.

    Mr. Langbart will be posting more Text Message blog posts about State Department microfilm publications in the coming months, so please be sure to check back.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *