More Department of State Records Now Available Online: Consular Despatches, 1783-1906

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

The National Archives is pleased to announce that additional records of the Department of State have been digitized and are now available online through the National Archives Catalog.  An earlier post described the microfilm digitization project and the first foreign affairs records made available through it.

The records being digitized as part of this effort consist largely of the various series of records that constitute the Department’s central files for the period from 1789 to 1906.  The Department’s central files for those years are divided into three main categories, each of which is arranged in multiple series as follows.  Series in purple are already online; the series in green is discussed herein; series in red have yet to be uploaded.  Future blog posts will alert researchers as additional series of records are digitized and made available online.

  • Diplomatic Correspondence
    • Diplomatic Instructions
    • Despatches
    • Notes to Foreign Missions
    • Notes from Foreign Missions
  • Consular Correspondence
    • Consular Instructions
    • Despatches
    • Notes to Foreign Consuls
    • Notes from Foreign Consuls
  • Miscellaneous Correspondence
    • Domestic Letters (Letters Sent)
    • Miscellaneous Letters (Letters Received)

The following is a description of the records with links to finding aids and the online resources:

DESPATCHES, 1783‑1906.  RG 59 Entry A1-85 (NAID 302031).  The records consist of the despatches (reports) and related enclosures received by the Department of State from American consular officers overseas.  They are often referred to as the “Consular Despatches” (titled Despatches from U.S. Consular Officers in the National Archives Catalog).  The despatches from each consular post are found on a separate microfilm publication, usually under the heading of the name of the city in which the post was located.  The documents on each publication are arranged chronologically. 

The despatches cover a wide range of subjects.  Included are replies to instructions from the Department.  The topics vary by post but generally include: consular fees received and other administrative matters; arrivals and departures of American vessels (seaport posts); assistance to American seamen (seaport posts); protection of U.S. citizens; issuance of passports; trade statistics; emigration; floods, famines, epidemics, and other disasters; economic development; commerce and industry; agriculture; mining and manufacturing; transportation; and other information collected in the course of normal consular business.  In addition to consular and commercial matters, the despatches can include reports on political conditions; the latter more so from posts in colonial possessions.

Most of the statistical enclosures to the later 19th century despatches on commercial matters are not found in the files along with their covering despatch.  Those enclosures were sent to other offices in the Department of State for use in compiling data on commercial relations and are not preserved with the master files of despatches.  The last such office was the Bureau of Foreign Commerce.  There are no separate files of the enclosures from that bureau or its predecessors preserved in the National Archives.

The publications of the Bureau of Foreign Commerce and its predecessors include information from those reports and might include copies of the enclosures to, or the statistical information submitted with, consular despatches that are no longer found with the file copies of the despatches found on the microfilm publications.  These publications should be available in a university or large public library or online.

  • Commercial Relations. Issued annually from 1855 to 1902
  • Advance Sheet, Consular Reports. Issued daily except Sundays and holidays from January 3, 1898 to June 30, 1903 (numbered 1-1685). There also are annual indexes for 1898-1902.
  • Consular Reports. Issued monthly (with some gaps) from October 1880 to June 1903 (numbered 1-275). There also are annual indexes for 1880-August 1900.
  • Special Consular Reports. Reports on special topics made pursuant to instructions from the Department of State.
  • Exports Declared for the United States, 1883 – March 1903. Summaries of information concerning exports from foreign countries to the United States. Similar information for earlier years is found in the Consular Reports noted above.

In 1903, the function of preparing these publications was transferred to the Department of Commerce.  Information about the continuation of these and related publications by the Department of Commerce will be found in the Checklist of United States Public Documents, 1789-1909.

To assist with locating records of interest, there are two lists with links to the online resources.  The first is arranged alphabetically by name of the city, with a few exceptions, in which the consulate was located; the second is arranged alphabetically by name of country or colonial possession and thereunder alphabetically by name of city.


More Information

To assist researchers with using the records from the microfilm publications, information of varying detail about each set of despatches 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 on a given microfilm publication.  You will find this information in the Microfilm Catalog under the given publication number.  Once you reach the entry for a publication, click on “View Important Publication Details” in the upper-right-hand corner of the screen and view or download the document found at the link. In 1906, the Department of State adopted a new system for organizing and maintaining its central files – the Numerical and Minor Files.  For information about those records and links to online resources, go here.

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