Back to the Future: Conserving Ratified Indian Treaties, 1722-1869

This is the second 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 Dong Eun Kim, Exhibits Conservator at the National Archives.

Working in the field of conservation and preservation often feels like an opportunity to participate in history. It’s a time machine. We can be tasked with carefully handling and interacting with historical objects so fragile or valuable that they’ve been withheld from public view. We inspect them to determine their condition, we clean them or flatten them, wash, repair, stabilize – we become intimate with these objects, and in doing so we find ways to carry them forward with us, back to the present and on into the future. This has certainly been true in the case of NARA’s Treaty Digitization Project.

In the late 1930’s, 374 Ratified Indian Treaties and associated documents were transferred to the National Archives from the Department of State. Ranging in origin from 1722 to 1869, these treaties chronicle the policy of the United States regarding Indigenous Tribes, beginning more than half a century before the Declaration of Independence was written. They are considered sacred documents to Native Americans, and even beyond their historical importance they have inherent value: over 50 of them are written on large sheets of parchment, and several contain pictographs, drawings and maps, wampum, seals, and ribbons.

Due to their historical and intrinsic value, the treaties are classified as Specially Protected Holdings, and are stored in a vault. Specially Protected Holdings have restricted physical access and they are unavailable to be pulled for use in the Central Research Room.

In 2017, an anonymous donor’s generous funding allowed a 3-year project to begin, aimed at conserving, photographing, digitizing and cataloguing all treaties and associated documents to be made accessible to researchers, to be stabilized for exhibits and exhibit loans, and for digital copies to be made available in the National Archives Catalog. The project also included a public engagement and outreach component, including a semi-permanent exhibit, “Be it Remembered: Treaties with Native Nations,” at the National Archives in New York City. Additionally, a partnership between the US National Archives Office of Innovation, the National Archives Foundation, and the Indigenous Digital Archive project of the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture, Santa Fe, New Mexico, formed the IDA Treaties Explorer (digitreaties.org), providing context about and connection to the newly available treaties.

Central to all this was the necessity to preserve and conserve over 370 treaties and hundreds of associated documents, in order to make them legible and stable enough to be photographed, digitized, and available for research or exhibition. This was an enormous undertaking, requiring a team of conservation staff, extensive planning, rigorous tracking methods and documentation, and ultimately thousands of hours of treatment time.

Our first step was the assessment of every document. Conservation assessment included noting condition problems, proposing treatment options, and estimating treatment times. It was noted that there was a wide range of treatment necessary for the hundreds of documents and records, and options were defined by treatments of an increasing interventive nature: Essential/Minor and Aesthetic/Major. In all cases, the first priority was on necessary steps towards digitization – documents must be stable enough to be handled for photography, and their contents must be as legible as possible. This “first aid” approach defined the Essential/Minor category, maximizing returns within time and budget constraints.

Aesthetic/Major treatment was reserved for records needing more intensive treatment, in which moisture or chemicals must be introduced, major repairs done, or anything more concerned with increasing the longevity of the record through the reduction of potentially harmful discoloration and acidity; these types of treatments often take many hours, but the aesthetic appearance of the record was also improved as a consequence of such treatment.

The levels of treatment were determined by condition and information accessibility of the records for digitization, on a case-by-case basis. We focused on more treatment for the records in the worst condition.

Each month conservators expected to treat 11 treaties and associated documents. By meeting these expectations, the project was completed within the given timeframe.

Our treaty collections contain a wide variety of sizes and formats. Most were handwritten in iron gall ink, some on large scale parchment, many on paper supports of various sizes. The accompanying documents also present many variations in scale and support. Some treaties are accompanied by printed copies, and manuscript copies of Presidential Ratifications or other documents. There are Instruments of Ratification, Senate’s Advice and Consent, and correspondence between Presidents and cabinet members and other dignitaries, among the many accompanying documents. 

The condition of each of these records was assessed and treatment time was estimated in terms of the type of damage and its severity. Some required only minor treatment, others required more extensive treatments such as tape removal, old mend removal, washing, consolidation of seals, or ribbon repair.

We pulled records individually and in small groups, and signed them into our lab for further examination and treatment. If records required only minor treatment, we treated that record and returned it to its unit with a detailed treatment report. But if the record required major treatment, we wrote a treatment proposal for the unit archivist and supervisor’s approval. Once we received their approval, we treated the record and returned it to the unit with a detailed treatment report.

Constantly aware of the significant historical importance of these records, we were diligent in documenting every treatment performed on each treaty. Unit numbers and treatment hours were also recorded into NARA’s Holdings Management System (HMS).

Conservators worked within a strict code of ethics, ensuring that archival-quality materials were used and as much of the original materials were preserved as possible. Conservation treatment by a trained conservator significantly extended the lifespan of some of the more valuable and deteriorated records.

Here are some examples from the collections we treated:

The image on the left is a handwritten treaty on joint paper. A map is drawn in black and iron gall inks with touches of blue and red watercolor applied with pen and brushes on the top section of the sheet. There were numerous horizontal creases across the surface, tears and losses to the support occurred mainly at the folds and along the edges. There were discolored old mends along the edges, the most disfiguring one is at the top center. Image on the right is after treatment-disfiguring old mends were removed and tears and losses were mended and filled.

The Senate’s Advice and Consent of July 29, 1829, to the Treaty Ratification between the United States and the United Chippewa, Ottawa, and Potawatomi tribes (of the waters of the Illinois, Milwaukee, and Manitoouck Rivers) signed at Prairie du Chien, Michigan Territory (figure 2): There were tears throughout, particularly along the top and right edges of the support. A number of these tears were previously repaired with pressure-sensitive tapes that have been removed, causing stains and discoloration on the support. Major treatments were carried out to reduce adhesive stains, discoloration of the support, and to repair all tears.

In another example, this treaty is handwritten on parchment (figure 3, 4, 5). A detached wampum string is tied to the blue ribbon. Three red wax seals are attached to the ribbon by pressure-sensitive tapes, and have numerous cracks and losses. The seals, ribbons and wampum strings were all tangled and numerous tapes had been attached throughout.

Figure 3. The Treaty between the United States and the United Chippewa, Ottawa, and Potawatomi Indians (of the waters of the Illinois, Milwaukee, and Manitoouck Rivers) signed at Prairie du Chien, Michigan Territory – Before Treatment (Recto).

In order to replace the wampum strings to their original location, major treatments needed to be carried out. Pressure-sensitive tapes from the wampum strings, ribbons, and wax seals were removed. Tears on the ribbon were repaired, and flaking on the seals was consolidated. Finally, the wampum stings and seals were re-attached to the Treaty with a ribbon threaded through slits cut into the Treaty support.

Hidden within these examples is evidence of the conservator’s time machine. Treating the numerous tears along the folds of the document, I couldn’t help but imagine the moment in which it was first folded. Could it have been immediately after it was signed, some Secretary of War standing beside a horse in a field after contentious negotiations, folding the signed Treaty to be tucked into the pocket of his jacket? And the wampum? The seals and ribbon? Applied, too, in the moment following negotiation, by a tribal leader hopeful in finding peace for his people, or proud to have stood his ground? Repairing those folds, restoring the wampum and seals brings that moment forward, allows it to be lived again by the viewer in an exhibition, the scholar engaged in research, the child learning about her ancestry.

Of course, those folds could have been made by anyone at any time, years removed. But if they cause us to consider the moment the document was created, put us in the place of the people involved, does it matter? If those folds create the need to repair and restore that document, to make it newly accessible again and cause us to pay attention, we can imagine all we want.

Taking part in this project from a conservator’s perspective has been a tremendous honor. Even more so, as a recently naturalized citizen (I was born in Seoul, Korea, and became a US citizen in 2016). The responsibility of treating and preserving these precious objects while learning about the history of the United States and its troubled relationships with the indigenous people of the continent has been a pleasure and a privilege. I’m grateful to have been a part of this important work.


The treaties appear in the National Archives Catalog in the series: “Indian Treaties, 1722–1869” (National Archives Identifier 299798) where you can see them fully digitized.

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