Ratified Indian Treaties Digitization Project

This is the first of three blog posts about the digitization of the Ratified Indian Treaties. The posts were written through the different perspectives of NARA’s archival, conservation, and digitization staff. Today’s post is by Gina Kim Perry, Archives Specialist at the National Archives in Washington, DC.


For the last three years I have had the privilege of working with 374 ratified Indian treaties in the series “Indian Treaties, 1722–1869” (National Archives Identifier 299798), housed in the vault at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) in Washington, DC. This work was part of the vault digitization project made possible by an anonymous donor and the National Archives Foundation. My responsibilities – in support of NARA’s Strategic Goal 1 to “Make Access Happen” – consisted of preparing each treaty file for digitization and then working with the digitized images for inclusion in the National Archives Catalog, thus enabling free public access to these treaties in a digital format for the first time. Part One below summarizes my workflow. In Part Two, I describe five aspects of this series that were of particular interest to me. First, however, here is a quick look at the work I put into this project.


Treaties reviewed374
Accompanying documents reviewed2,531
JPEG and TIFF images audited*26,178
File unit descriptions created378
Item-level descriptions created2,521
PDFs created*2,286
Files (images and PDFs) sent to the NARA Catalog*28,464
Terabytes of files sent to the NARA Catalog*3.61TB
*Because of the COVID-19 public health emergency, NARA closed its building in Washington, DC, in March 2020, before the remaining 6 treaties in this project could be imaged. Therefore, the numbers marked with asterisks will increase slightly when NARA reopens to allow the remaining treaties to be imaged and submitted to the Catalog.

Part One: Workflow

The size of this project required the work to be done in batches over a three-year period. Thus, at any given time, particular treaties and their accompanying documents (such as Presidential Proclamations, Instruments of Ratification, or the Senate’s Advice and Consent Resolutions) were passing through various stages of the overall workflow. With each batch, my first task was to prepare six to ten treaties for the NARA imaging lab. This involved checking each document to make sure that all pages could be safely scanned without obscuring any information, arranging the documents in reading order, and adding special instructions for the imager if necessary.

Prior to my taking these actions, other NARA staff had already done certain preliminary work to prepare these treaties for digitization. First, the vault manager (Jane Fitzgerald) and an archivist (Joshua Mason) created in NARA’s Holdings Maintenance System (HMS) 378 folder-level descriptions and 2,521 item-level descriptions for 374 treaties and their accompanying documents. Next, following the initial organization and coordination of record movement by Conservation Digitization Coordinator Halaina Demba, Conservation Project Lead Dong Eun Kim completed conservation work for the treaties, such as repairing and stabilizing any torn or fragile paper or parchment, with help from Conservators Beatriz Centeno-Pineiro, Yoonjoo Strumfels, and Morgan Browning.

Once the prepped treaties were delivered to Sheri Hill in the imaging lab, she created digital images in both TIFF and JPEG formats and then copied them to an external drive for my use. I audited those images by comparing them to the original documents to make sure that nothing was missed and that the images were captured in the correct sequence.

I then started working with those audited images to prepare them for the Catalog. The first task was to create descriptions of the digitized treaties in NARA’s description and authority service (DAS), which in turn generated the National Archives Identifier (NAID) numbers. For each treaty, I created (1) a file unit description (that is, a description that encompasses the treaty and its accompanying documents grouped together as a unit), and (2) an item-level description for each individual document in that treaty file.

I started each description with the basic information in HMS and then reviewed pertinent parts of the treaty documents to verify the accuracy of the following: (1) parties to the treaty; (2) names and spelling variations of the Indian tribes; (3) dates and locations of events, such as signing, amending, assenting, ratifying or proclaiming; and (4) types of documents in the treaty file (for example, whether a particular document signed by the President was a Proclamation or an Instrument of Ratification).

Although time-consuming, the above step in the workflow yielded several benefits. For example, I discovered a few documents that had been misfiled in the past when they were bundled together with their original ribbons. In another instance, several documents had been swapped between two treaties that had been concluded on the same day and at the same location. All those documents, which came arranged in this manner from the State Department (the custodian of the original treaties), have now been returned to their correct files. This step in the workflow was also an opportunity to update any incorrect or missing information in the HMS entries, thus improving the overall accuracy of HMS, as well as generating more accurate treaty descriptions that would lead to better search results and a better research experience for the public.

After the descriptions and resulting NAIDs were created and approved, I took the following seven remaining steps to prepare each batch for the NARA Catalog: (1) created individual digital folders for the NAID numbers; (2) populated the new folders with the corresponding JPEG and TIFF images and renamed all images with the NAID numbers as the prefix; (3) created PDF documents (one per folder) by combining the JPEG images in the respective folders; (4) created a metadata spreadsheet to submit with each batch; (5) uploaded the folders (containing the JPEGs, TIFFs, and PDFs) and the spreadsheet to NARA’s shared drive; (6) waited for the batch to be added to the Catalog’s cloud storage service; and (7) listed the batch on the Catalog submission board. Gary H. Stern and Jon Fletcher, from the Office of Innovation, then handled the importing of each batch, and the digitized treaties appeared in the Catalog a few weeks after submission.

Throughout the process, Jennifer Seitz (Digitization Division) and I maintained several spreadsheets to track the progress of each treaty file. Using the information from those spreadsheets and the Catalog, I collaborated with Rose Buchanan from the Reference Branch in Washington, DC, last fall to create a web page, from which all 374 treaties can be explored by date or by tribe and then viewed via the Catalog links on the page. These treaties can also be viewed and downloaded directly from the NARA Catalog, as well as through the Indigenous Digital Archive’s Treaties Explorer where, in partnership with The Museum of Indian Arts and Culture, the treaties can be accessed along with additional historical and contextual information.

Part Two: Notable Aspects of the Series

Before starting this project, I had not worked with any treaties, so the opportunity to work with the entire series of the ratified Indian treaties was a great learning experience. Described below are five aspects of this series that stood out to me.

1. Appearance vs. Format

The 374 treaties in this series – covering a period of 147 years – vary greatly in appearance, from the materials used to the size of the documents and how well or poorly they have aged. Some early treaties, 40 in total, were handwritten on large parchment sheets, where we can still see some remnants of waxed seals, and two treaties (Treaties #155 and #156) even have attached wampum strings. The rest of the treaties were handwritten on paper – from regular letter-size sheets to much larger oversized sheets requiring custom folders, with the longest one being over seven feet long (Treaty #15). Some treaties have faded so much that the handwriting has become faint – like the 1778 Treaty #8 with the Delaware Indians at Fort Pitt, the first treaty in this series to which the United States was a party. Some treaties have aged well and are still quite legible, like the 1785 Treaty #10 with the Wyandot, Delaware, Chippewa, and Ottawa Indians at Fort McIntosh.

By contrast, the formats of certain treaty documents have remained rather consistent throughout the series. One type of document that best exemplifies this is the Instrument of Ratification. The first one in the series appears in the 1789 Treaty #15 with the Wyandot, Delaware, Ottawa, Chippewa, Potawatomi, and Sauk Indians concluded at Fort Harmar.

Here are the first and last pages of that first Instrument of Ratification in the series.

 (Image 1 from National Archives Identifier 162246299 showing the first page of the Instrument of Ratification).
 (Image 2 from National Archives Identifier 162246299 showing the last page of the Instrument of Ratification signed by President George Washington and Secretary of War Henry Knox).

To compare, here are the first and last pages of the Instrument of Ratification from the 1868 Treaty #373 with the Eastern Band of Shoshoni and Bannock Indians at Fort Bridger, Utah Territory.

 (Image 1 from National Archives Identifier 179036097 showing the first page of the Instrument of Ratification).
(Image 20 from National Archives Identifier 179036097 showing the last page of the Instrument of Ratification).

Even though the two Instruments of Ratification were executed 80 years apart, both documents follow the same basic format, with a word or phrase added or substituted here and there. On the first page, both employ the standard introduction at the beginning: “[name] President of the United States of America. To all [and singular] to whom these presents shall come. Greeting.” Both contain “whereas” clauses and a key word at the end of the first page, such as “viz” or “to wit” to indicate that the articles of the treaty follow next. The last page of the documents contains standard closing paragraphs, including the date, seal, and signatures. Only four Instruments of Ratification in the entire series (in Treaties #262, #263, #264, and #268, all signed by President Franklin Pierce) have skipped this format by forgoing the introductory first page and reducing the document to just the signature page, as shown below.

Instrument of Ratification from Treaty #268 (National Archives Identifier 176561885).

2. Organizing Framework

The State Department assigned a number to each treaty chronologically according to when the treaty was signed. Of the 374 treaties in this series, the United States (not yet an entity) was not a party to the first seven treaties from 1722 to 1768. Instead, the first six treaties were made with various States, and Treaty #7 was a land grant to King George III.

In general, the documents in the treaty files were not always organized and presented in chronological order. Instead, the treaty itself – and later the treaty, Senate resolution, and assent to amendments – was inserted between the pages of the Instrument of Ratification. In short, the Instrument of Ratification, functioning like a wrapper, provided a framework for organizing the treaty and its core accompanying documents in the file.

In addition to the Instrument of Ratification and the Senate resolution, other documents – such as a printed copy of the treaty, a presidential Proclamation, or correspondence – can be found in a treaty file, with some exceptions. For example, both the Instrument of Ratification and the Senate resolution are absent from eleven early treaty files, and of those, six contain just the treaty. In fact, the first Senate resolution in the series is a typed copy for the 1796 Treaty #25 with the Creek Indians at Colerain, Georgia. In addition, the Senate sometimes advised and consented to the ratification of a batch of treaties in one resolution, but the attested copy of the resolution was placed in only one of those treaty files (see, for example, the resolution from Treaty #95). In those cases, I included in the Catalog description a cross-reference to the file unit where the attested Senate resolution can be found.

3. Spelling Variations

The most challenging aspect of this project for me was the tribe names. There were numerous spelling variations throughout the series, with a tribe name spelled one way in an early treaty and a different way in a later treaty. Sometimes the spelling of a tribe name changed from document to document in a treaty file. And occasionally a tribe name was spelled differently even within the same document or page.

The name with the most spelling variations in this series was the Potawatomi tribe, with 28 spelling variations in 43 treaties and their accompanying documents. For example, the documents in Treaty #175 spelled Potawatomi in four ways – Potawatamie, Pottawatimie, Pottawatamie, and Pottawatomie – with the treaty itself spelling it three different ways, and even using two different spellings on the same page (Article 3 spelling it as “Pottawatimie” and Articles 4 and 5 spelling it as “Pottawatomie”).

To account for the spelling variations, I adhered to the following scheme. For the catalog title, if the tribe name’s original spelling in a treaty has changed over time, I used the standard spelling contained in NARA’s Special List No. 6. However, to assist researchers who might search by the original spelling, I flagged the spelling change in the general note section of the catalog description so that the treaty can be found by the tribe’s standard name as well as any of the original spellings in the document. On rare occasions when the spelling in Special List No. 6 differed from the authority name in DAS, I still used the spelling in Special List No. 6 but added the authority name in brackets. For example, the tribe name in the catalog title for Treaty #294 appears as “Quinaielt [Quinault]” because it is spelled as “Quinaielt” in the treaty itself and Special List No. 6, but “Quinault” is the authority name recognized by DAS and is also how the tribe currently spells its name.

4. Tools, Technology, and Terminology

Sometimes online tools such as Google Maps and Google Search came in handy when I encountered a hard-to-decipher word, name, or place in a treaty document. For example, in Treaty #256, I noticed that the place name where the treaty was signed was spelled “Abiquiu” in the treaty itself but was “Abiquin” in the accompanying documents, including the Instrument of Ratification, the Senate resolution, and the printed copy of the treaty. To determine which spelling was correct, I entered both spellings into Google Maps and discovered that “Abiquiu” is the correct spelling, although Google Search also revealed that the place name had been occasionally misspelled as “Abiquin” in the past.

Another aspect of this series that caught my attention was how the series reflects the evolution of office technology and recordkeeping practices over a period of almost 150 years. Parchment, frequently used for treaties at the beginning of the series, was over time replaced by paper-based treaty documentation. Similarly, files with only handwritten correspondence gave way to files that included typed copies of that correspondence later in the series, although we do not know when the typed copies were actually created and added to the treaty files.

Treaty terminology also evolved over the years. I spotted such a change in the printed copies of the ratified treaties between 1860 and 1861. Up until the 1860 Treaty #314, the title on the cover of a printed copy used the word “RATIFIED,” followed by a date, to indicate when the Instrument of Ratification was signed by the President. Starting with the 1861 Treaty #315, the word “PROCLAIMED,” followed by a date, was used instead, and “RATIFIED” or “RATIFICATION ADVISED,” followed by a date, was used to indicate when the Senate gave its advice and consent to ratification (see, for example, the title on the printed copy of Treaty #317). Some may find this shift in terminology a little confusing because several treaty files early in the series contained a separate document called a Proclamation, which is not the same as an Instrument of Ratification.

5. Surprising Discoveries

On rare occasions, I encountered unexpected or intriguing documents in the series.

While reviewing the 1790 Treaty #17, I was surprised to find a second treaty labeled Secret Articles, which was ratified and signed by President George Washington, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, and Secretary of War Henry Knox. Also included was a handwritten note prohibiting the publication or showing of the secret treaty without the express order of the Secretary of State, as shown in the note below.

Handwritten Note Regarding the Publication of the Treaty (National Archives Identifier 183393122).

I was also intrigued by the wording in the 1866 Treaty #353, which contained just one article desired by the Potawatomi Indians for the purpose of amending the 1861 Treaty #318. Here is Article 1 from the printed copy of the 1866 treaty.

(Excerpt from Image 2, National Archives Identifier 178931091).

I found it interesting to come across such wording as “without distinction of sex” and “whether…heads of families or otherwise” in a document that is 155 years old. The practical effect of the above Article would have been to extend to women in the tribe – whether they were heads of families or otherwise – the same benefits allowed to males and heads of families in Article 3 of the 1861 Treaty.

Working on this project was truly a privilege and a great learning experience. I am glad to have played a part in making the treaties in this series available online to the public.