Department of State Records Now Available Online: Despatches from Special Agents, Notes to Foreign Missions, and Notes from Foreign Consuls, 1789-1906

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

The National Archives is pleased to announce that more records of the Department of State have been digitized and are now available online through the National Archives Catalog.  This is the third in a series of occasional posts.  The first post described the microfilm digitization project and the first foreign affairs records made available through it.  The second post is about consular despatches.

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 listed below.  Series in purple are already online; the series in green are discussed herein; the series in red have yet to be uploaded.  Future blog posts will alert researchers as more records are digitized and made available online.

  1. Diplomatic Correspondence
    • Diplomatic Instructions
    • Despatches
    • Despatches from Special Agents of the Department of State
    • Notes to Foreign Missions
    • Notes from Foreign Missions
  2. Consular Correspondence
    • Consular Instructions
    • Despatches
    • Notes to Foreign Consuls
    • Notes from Foreign Consuls
  3. Miscellaneous Correspondence
    • Domestic Letters (Letters Sent)
    • Miscellaneous Letters (Letters Received)

DESPATCHES FROM SPECIAL AGENTS, 1794—1906.  RG 59 Entry A1-37 (NAID 876974).  This series consists of despatches from special agents reporting on their assignments, presenting their accounts, and enclosing copies of pertinent documents and exhibits.  It is a special sub-set of the Diplomatic Despatches.

The President and Secretary of State have sent special agents and missions to many parts of the world on numerous different tasks and have appointed special commissions to undertake specific duties for the Department.  During the early years of U.S. history, naval officers entering the ports of countries with which the United States had no formal relations were sometimes given special diplomatic missions in addition to their regular duties.  The assignments of these special agents, missions, and commissions have included negotiating and ratifying treaties, collecting information, delivering ceremonial letters, procuring copies of archives of foreign governments, taking testimony in foreign countries, mediating in wars or international disputes, inspecting U.S. consular offices, investigating the slave trade, negotiating land leases, observing and reporting political conditions and public opinion, investigating charges against U.S. consuls, and bearing despatches. 

The records are arranged in rough chronological order by date of mission and thereunder chronologically. 

NOTES TO FOREIGN MISSIONS, 1793-1906 RG 59.  Entry A1-23 (NAID 597272).  The records consist of copies of communications sent by the Department of State to foreign legations and embassies in the United States.  These are the corollary to the NOTES FROM FOREIGN MISSIONS (NAID 594363), and like them, they relate to all aspects of U.S. diplomatic relations with foreign countries.  The notes for the 1793-1810 period consists of copies assembled to replace the original volume, which is missing, include notes to foreign consuls.  Not all notes to foreign legations are found in this series.  Some notes before 1804 are found in the DIPLOMATIC INSTRUCTIONS (NAID 593313) or the DOMESTIC LETTERS (NAID 568025)

The records are arranged as follows:

  • 1793-1810 – by country and thereunder chronologically
  • 1810-1834 – chronologically
  • 1834-1906 – alphabetically by country and thereunder chronologically

The images come from the following National Archives Microfilm Publications.  You may link to additional information on each publication at the download below the table.

Pub No.Title/Dates
M38 Notes to Foreign Ministers and Consuls in the United States from the Department of State, 1793-1834.  
M99 Notes to Foreign Legations in the United States From the Department of State, 1834-1906.  

NOTES FROM FOREIGN CONSULS, 1789-1906.  RG 59 Entry A1-97 (NAID 1076629).  This series consists of communications, with related enclosures, received by the Department of State from foreign consuls in the United States.  The documents are arranged in a single chronological run.  These are the corollary to the NOTES TO FOREIGN CONSULS (NAID 1076611), and like them, they relate to many phases of their consular duties.  Among the enclosures are commissions of consuls and some copies of ceremonial letters from heads of foreign states to the President of the United States.

This video tutorial provides guidance on downloading images from the Catalog.

In 1906, the Department of State adopted a new system for organizing and maintaining its central files – the Numerical and Minor Files.  Those records are also available online.  See this previous blog post for information about those records and links to online resources.