Department of State Territorial Papers Now Available Online

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

Additional Department of State records are now available online.  The newly-posted records stem from one of the Department’s original functions later transferred to another agency – oversight of affairs in the territories of the United States.  You will find a description of other Department of State records now online in this series of occasional posts

From 1789 to 1873, the Department of State held responsibility for supervising affairs in the Territories of the United States.  This included handling matters such as correspondence between the President and territorial officials, the printing of territorial laws, and providing seals for the use of officials.  In 1873, an act of Congress (17 Stat. 484) transferred to the Secretary of the Interior “all the duties in relation to the Territories of the United States that are now by law or by custom exercised and performed by the Secretary of State.”  Subsequent territorial records are, therefore, found in RG 48: Records of the Office of the Secretary of the Interior and RG 126: Records of the Office of Territories.

The digitized records come from RG 59 Entry A1-912: Territorial Papers, 1764-1873 (NAID 1226295).  Not all of the records in that series are available online, however.  Only the records previously microfilmed as a National Archives Microfilm Publication have been digitized and placed online.  The following table lists those territorial records that are now available along with links to those resources.  You will find additional information in the Microfilm Catalog for each publication under “Publication Details.”  You can search by publication number.  Download the complete list of the territorial records below.

TerritoryDatesPub No.Link
New Mexico1851-1872T17
Northwest of the Ohio River1781-1801M470
Southwest of the Ohio River1790-1795M471

The records for each territory vary in content and size (from a handful of documents to 13 volumes).  In general, the documentation includes correspondence, reports, copies of journals of proceedings of legislative assemblies, and other records relating to the administration of the U.S. territories.  The records span the continent and help document American expansion.  Some of the documentation pre-dates the period of U.S. possession.  In addition to subjects that touch on multiple territories, such as the organization of territorial governments, land claims, mining, railroads, immigration into the territories, and conflicts between Native Americans and invading settlers, the records also document such notable incidents as the Mormon War and its aftermath in Utah, the Sand Creek Massacre in Colorado, and the conflict between antislavery and proslavery factions in pre-Civil War Kansas.

The records maintained in the segregated “Territorial Papers” series are not the only documents in Department of State files relating to those areas.  Many documents relating to the territories are filed in the Domestic Letters (Letters Sent) (NAID 568025) and the Miscellaneous Letters (Letters Received) (NAID 583574), both of which are part of the central files of the Department, and the Applications and Recommendations for Public Office (NAID 594878).  The Domestic Letters and the Miscellaneous Letters are also available online.  For more information and links to those online resources, see this earlier blog post.

The Calendar of Papers in Washington Archives Relating to the Territories (to 1873), prepared by David W. Parker and published in 1911, serves as the primary guide and register to these records.  Parker prepared this publication while the materials were in the custody of the Department of State, so his citations differ from those of the records in the National Archives.

  • The documents Parker lists as being in the Department’s Bureau of Rolls and Library are found among the various collections of territorial papers listed above.
  • The documents Parker lists as being in the Bureau of Indexes and Archives are found in the Domestic Letters and the Miscellaneous Letters noted above.

An additional source is the published series The Territorial Papers of the United States issued by the Government Printing Office.  This project to collect and print the key documents about the territories began in the Department of State in 1926 and was transferred to the National Archives in 1950.  The documents published in the series come from the files of multiple agencies, not just the Department of State.  The series, never completed, includes 28 volumes.

The National Archives has more recently published a multi-volume guide entitled The Trans-Mississippi West 1804-1912: A Guide to Federal Records for the Territorial Period.  This publication describes records relating to the contiguous states created from the territories west of the Mississippi River.   

You will find guidance on downloading images from the Catalog in the video tutorial here.