More Department of State Records Now Available Online: Diplomatic Instructions, 1785-1906 & Consular Instructions, 1801-1834

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 more records of the Department of State have been digitized and are now available online through the National Archives Catalog.  This is the fourth in a series of occasional posts.  It is the final post describing the records that constitute the “central files” of the Department for the period from 1789 to 1906.  The first post described the microfilm digitization project and the first foreign affairs records made available through it.

The Department of State central files for the period 1789-1906 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.  Future blog posts will alert researchers as other Department of State 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)

DIPLOMATIC INSTRUCTIONS, 1785-1906.  RG 59 Entry A1-5 (NAID 593313).  The records consist of copies of the instructions sent by the Department of State to its diplomatic representatives in foreign countries.  These documents are the corollary to the DESPATCHES (NAID 603720) described in the first post in this series.

The instructions relate to all phases of U.S. relations with foreign governments as well as the general administration of diplomatic posts.  Topics include 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 instructions also cover administrative matters such as appointments; arrival and departures; and official expenses.

The arrangement of the records changed over time.  The documents for the period from 1785 to 1833 are arranged in a straight chronological run without regard to country.  The remaining records, covering the period 1829 to 1906, are arranged alphabetically by country and thereunder chronologically.  For the years 1785‑1801 this series also contains some instructions to consular officers.

While the records all come from a single archival series, they were published on three separate National Archives Microfilm Publications.  The descriptive pamphlet for each publication contains important information about the records.  Those pamphlets are in the Microfilm Catalog but for ease of access, you can link to them on the publication numbers below.  To link to the online resources, click on the publication title.

These records have been newly digitized and are available in the catalog (NAID 6109970)

Embedded within this series are the INSTRUCTIONS TO SPECIAL AGENTS, 1823-1906.  RG 59 Entry A1-34 (NAID 871874).  The records are arranged chronologically and indexed alphabetically by name of agent or commission.  They consist of copies of the Department of State’s instructions to its agents on special missions, together with some copies of related annexes or enclosures, regarding the duties, salary, and allowances of the commissioners; treaty provisions; and other matters.  While microfilmed as part of the larger series of Instructions, they are described in the Catalog separately.

See the discussion on DESPATCHES FROM SPECIAL AGENTS in the previous post for more information about those officials.

CONSULAR INSTRUCTIONS, 1800-1906.  RG 59 Entry A1-59 (NAID 604019).  The records consist of copies of instructions sent by the Department of State to U.S. consular officers concerning their official duties.  The documents are arranged chronologically without regard to addressee post except for the period from 1835 to 1870 when they are arranged geographically and thereunder chronologically without regard to addressee post.  ONLY THE CONSULAR INSTRUCTIONS FROM 1801 TO 1834 WERE MICROFILMED AND ARE NOW AVAILABLE ONLINE. 

The instructions cover a wide variety of subjects and vary by post.  Topics include the administration of consulates (appointments, leaves of absence, equipment and supplies, and funds and expenditures); the issuance of passports; the settlement of estates of citizens dying abroad; the protection of U.S. citizens abroad; assistance to U.S. seamen in foreign ports; commercial matters; and other topics.  Instructions for the years 1789-1800 are found either with the DIPLOMATIC INSTRUCTIONS or among the DOMESTIC LETTERS, which are described in earlier posts in this series.  More information about these records is in the Microfilm Catalog under M78. 


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 available online.  For information about those records and links to online resources, see this post.

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