Department of State Central Files, 1789-1910 Available Online: An Omnibus

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

Over the past few years, the National Archives has digitized and made available online through the National Archives Catalog many important records of the Department of State.  The records consist largely of the various series of records that constitute the Department’s central files for the period from 1789 to 1910. 

As those records went online, each was announced with a blog post that included more information about the records and a link to the online resources.  To make locating those posts easier, you will find here a brief outline of the records with links to all the previous blog posts.  Some of the information here repeats what you will find in those.


For many years, the National Archives had an extensive program under which important and heavily used records were reproduced on National Archives Microfilm Publications.  Microfilming accomplished two things.  First, the resulting publications were (and are, as digitized copies) offered for sale, thus making the records more widely available to researchers.  Second, since the original records were withdrawn from circulation, the microfilming aided in the preservation of the records.  National Archives Microfilm Publications cover a wide range of subjects including foreign relations; justice and law enforcement; land issues; military and intelligence matters; relations with Native Americans, Black Americans, and other people of color; communications; and immigration.

NARA’s Office of Research Services has been carrying out a major effort to systematically digitize microfilm publications in the Microfilm Library.  The goal is to create a Digital Microfilm Reading Room – accessible to anyone, anywhere, any time via the National Archives Catalog.  Commercial organizations such as Ancestry, Fold3, and FamilySearch have digitized some National Archives Microfilm Publications, either by scanning purchased copies of microfilm publications or through partnership agreements.  Those organizations, however, have concentrated on publications with genealogy topics.  The Research Services project covers all the microfilm publications.  Because the records of the Department of State are among the most important and heavily used records in the holdings and the high demand for those records, the Digitization Division is making a concerted effort to digitize the microfilm publications of Department of State records.


Image quality varies across all of the microfilm publications, depending on the quality of both the records themselves and the original filming.  The vendor with which the Archives worked made some image corrections to render the best image available, but this did not always lead to improvements in the images.  The vendor provided comprehensive audits of every digitized microfilm roll and identified major issues with images.  Research Services will use that information to target future efforts to digitize the original records.


While some microfilm publications had been digitized earlier, the major project began in October 2020, when the microfilm publications of Despatches from Diplomatic Officers, 1789-1906, Notes from Foreign Missions, 1789-1906, and other series were uploaded to the Catalog. 


As the images are uploaded, the Microfilm Catalog is modified to indicate that a publication is available digitally in the National Archives Catalog and include a direct link.  Each microfilm publication will be described as a file unit and attached to the appropriate series description in the Catalog. Each roll within the microfilm publication will be described as an item with images and will be attached to its parent file unit description.  Individual JPEGs will display for each microfilm frame/page and each roll of microfilm/item description will have a consolidated PDF of all of the frame/pages.


To assist researchers with using the records from the microfilm publications, supplemental information of varying detail about each publication 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.  You will find the supplemental information by searching the Microfilm Catalog under the publication number.  Once you reach the entry for the publication of interest, click on “View Important Publication Details” in the upper-right-hand corner of the screen.


Full and accurate citations are necessary to properly identify the documents and other materials used in preparing books, articles, legal briefs, and other document-based works.  Citing online resources presents unique challenges.  The following guidance applies to the online Department of State records.

In general, the first citation to documents from a series of records should include the full series title and other archival details about the records (record group number, entry number, etc.).  Subsequent notes to the same series can be in the form of short-hand references, but should still include the key information.  A good citation to the records must include several elements:

  • Originating office (“From”).  The place where the document originated.  This might be the Department of State, an office within the Department, a Foreign Service Post, another agency, or an individual.
  • Addressee (“To”).  The destination of the communication.  Similarly, this might be the Department of State, a Foreign Service Post, another agency, or an individual.
  • Type of document and document number.  In most cases instructions, despatches, notes to, and notes from are numbered.  Because there can be more than one of each type of document on the same day, especially for despatches, including the number identifies the specific document.
  • Date of document.
  • File number.  Important for the Numerical File discussed below.
  • Series title.  Examples include “Despatches from U.S. Ministers to Great Britain,” “Notes to Foreign Consuls,” and “Miscellaneous Letters.”
  • Record group number and title.
  • Repository. U.S. National Archives.
  • URL.  Documents should never be cited using only the URL.  While not useful for identifying the records, the citation can include a note in brackets containing the date on which the records were retrieved online.

Example (long form): U.S. Legation Great Britain to Department of State, Despatch 1166, March 8, 1866, Despatches from Great Britain, RG 59: General Records of the Department of State, U.S. National Archives. (accessed June 6, 2023).

Example (short form):  Great Britain to Department of State, Despatch 1166, March 8, 1866, Despatches from Great Britain, RG 59, USNA. (accessed June 6, 2023).


The links below will take you to the original blog posts about each series.  There you will find more information about the records and links to the online resources.

A. 1789-1906

The Department of State central files from the years between 1789 and 1906, are divided into three main categories, each of which is arranged in multiple series.

I. Diplomatic Correspondence

II. Consular Correspondence

III. Miscellaneous Correspondence 

B. 1906-1910

From August 1906 to early 1910, the different types of documents previously filed in the separate series described above plus internal Departmental documentation were brought together in numbered subject case files – the Numerical File – and alphabetically arranged subject files – the Minor File. The Numerical File includes the main body of foreign policy records; documents on routine matters are in the Minor File. There is no arrangement to the files; as each new case in the Numerical File was opened, it received the next number in sequence.  The primary finding aid is the Card Index arranged alphabetically by name, country, or city.