The Louisiana State Museum’s digitization and online publication of its Colonial Documents Collection will exponentially increase access to a rich archive for researchers of every stripe, from high school students to amateur genealogists to academic historians. This twenty-first-century high-tech undertaking also marks the most recent phase of a series of efforts stretching back more than a hundred years to make it easier for researchers to navigate this enormous collection of criminal and civil court cases, commercial transactions, successions, wills, and other legal documents dating back to 1714. Global access to these 220,000 pages, handwritten in French and Spanish, will open up these archives as never before to those who study Louisiana and its inhabitants.
What makes these manuscript records of the French Superior Council (1714–1769) and the Spanish Judiciary (1769–1803) so important? The Superior Council was both the governing body and high court of France’s Louisiana colony and was for many years presided over by Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, sieur de Bienville, founder of New Orleans and the king’s representative. While virtually all of its administrative records were removed to France before or at the time of the Louisiana Purchase, records pertaining to the colony’s inhabitants remained in Louisiana. The judicial records, both civil and criminal cases, fell into this category, as did some 10,000 notarial acts—contracts between and among individuals, corporations, and other entities. Under Spanish rule, the Superior Council was replaced by a cabildo, or city council, having similar functions and authority; Spanish notaries continued the civil law practices of their French predecessors without missing a beat. With the growth of commerce and population under the Spanish came a proportionate increase in the creation of notarial and judicial records.
These records document Louisiana’s colonial era in astounding detail, recording sales of enslaved persons as well as real estate, laying bare disputes within families and between neighbors, and revealing the social and commercial underpinnings of the colony. They tell thousands of individual stories that, taken together, document the daily life of Louisiana’s first permanent African and European inhabitants, as well as aspects of their relations with Native tribes. They are a largely unplumbed store of source material that offers countless opportunities for study in history, sociology, language and linguistics, law, cultural anthropology, and other humanities. As Emily Clark, Clement Chambers Benenson Professor in Colonial History at Tulane University, says, “When I began studying colonial Louisiana, I was lucky enough to live in New Orleans and that made it possible for me to visit the archives and write early Louisiana history. Scholars who lived elsewhere had two choices: find a way to come to New Orleans for a limited time with the records, or give up and choose to study a different place. They often chose the latter. The result has meant that there is far less written about colonial Louisiana than there is about colonial New England. I predict that the digitization of the archives will change that."
From the time that the Louisiana Historical Society (LHS) took custody of this archive in the nineteenth century, local researchers have recognized its value. Efforts to preserve the documents played a large role in the creation of the Louisiana State Museum (LSM) in 1906; the museum has housed the collection since its early years, first in the Cabildo and now at the Louisiana Historical Center in the New Orleans Jazz Museum. Over time, archivists, catalogers, and translators have sought to make the documents comprehensible to those who consulted them. Through various translations, English-language abstracts, and published summaries in LHS’s journal, The Louisiana Historical Quarterly, the contents of the collection were partially accessible but difficult to use. In the 1930s and 1940s, the federal Works Progress Administration (WPA) provided great assistance with dedicated workers who cataloged, translated, and indexed documents. While the collection became more usable over the years, the acidity of the original ink, environmental conditions, and early archival practices meant that by the current century, the collection had become extremely fragile. After years of preliminary groundwork, in 2007 LSM’s then-director of collections Greg Lambousy, other LSM staff, and the Louisiana Museum Foundation began formulating a plan to digitize the collection and improve archival storage. Fundraising and outreach brought in many partners, including the Ella West Freeman Foundation, the Joe W. and Dorothy Dorsett Brown Foundation, the Louisiana Historical Society, the French-American Chamber of Commerce, the Forum on European Expansion and Global Interaction, and Lycée Français de la Nouvelle-Orléans. In 2013 a $275,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities provided a substantial boost to the project. The project team included many essential members from outside the museum: Howard Margot, the lead consultant, who had supervised a similar digitization project at the New Orleans Notarial Archives; contract scanners, including Melissa Stein, Erin Roussel, and Jennifer Long; and scholars who served as advocates for the collection, including Emily Clark and University of Notre Dame historian Sophie White.
Thanks to the contributions and efforts of the project team, generous funders, and countless others, the digitization of LSM’s Colonial Documents Collection will soon have a profound impact on the study of New Orleans, the state of Louisiana, the South, the nation, and the Atlantic World. From anywhere, researchers will be able to access these stories through high-resolution scans and take advantage of new keyword indexes that correspond to topics of historical interest today.
A celebration of the project should also recognize that almost everyone who ever came in contact with the records realized their importance. From the notaries who wrote and guarded them, to the lawyers who used them, to the families who tapped them to validate legal claims, all saw the significance of these documents. The first administrators of the LHS were aware that “access to the records was central in another way to all history of the French and Spanish in North America,” says Susan Tucker, a consulting archivist who also served on the project. “The story of access to the judicial documents,” Tucker recounts, merits honoring local historians of the past, such as early-twentieth-century lawyer Henry Dart, who came to work with them every day. His contemporary, the writer Grace King, knew them to be the key to understanding the past of New Orleans and Louisiana. Moreover, those who cared for and worked with the collection also appreciated what they could reveal about our nation. One of the translators opined that the records were “the most wonderful collection of original documents in the United States.”
The Louisiana Historical Center is located at the New Orleans Jazz Museum at the Old U.S. Mint, 400 Esplanade Ave., New Orleans. For more information, visit https://www.crt.state.la.us/louisiana-state-museum/collections/historical-center/.
History of New Orleans’s French and Spanish Colonial Government Records
1699-1722: The Beginnings of a French Colony on the Gulf of Mexico
In the first colonial capitals, at Biloxi and Dauphin Island (Mobile), government-generated documents were already accumulating in spite of several storms which devastated the settlements, poorly situated on sandy ground directly fronting the Gulf. Although literacy started making noticeable gains in Europe in the 18th century, many, if not most, of the Louisiana colonists could not even sign their own names, and had to trust a notary to draw up official acts on paper documenting their commercial and legal transactions.
1723-1767: New Orleans, Capital of France’s Louisiana Province
Although the free colonial population of the lower Louisiana Province reached no more than a few thousand at its zenith, over this span six Royal Notaries - each one, upon retirement, leaving all of his records to his sole successor in office - passed and housed more than ten thousand notarial acts in the city of New Orleans, the majority of them Acts of Sale: of lots and houses in the city, of plantations in the country, and of enslaved Africans and Native Americans.
The Royal Notaries being at the same time Royal Clerks of both the courts and of the Superior Council, supreme authority of the colonial government, they likewise recorded and registered an enormous body of judicial cases and administrative acts.
Records of inheritance proceedings, called Successions - and the lengthy, meticulously detailed estate inventories which accompany them – became the quintessential legal documents of Louisiana’s colonial period, and one of our most important windows into its people’s lives.
1768 - 1803: The Spanish Reign in Louisiana
Partly due to the growth in commerce and population during this period, and partly due to the Spanish bureaucracy’s famous penchant for generating paperwork, the Spanish Royal Notaries/Clerks penned approximately three times as many documents in thirty-five years as the French had in forty-four. At the beginning of Spanish rule, a second notarial office was created in New Orleans, which would help to handle the increased load. As with the French, the Spanish notaries had to purchase their offices from their sovereign, recouping the considerable expense over time through the fees that they charged. Although the vast majority of Louisiana’s colonists would continue to speak only French in their daily lives, the new colonial government decreed that all official documents, including notarial acts, had to be written in the Spanish language.
On March 14, 1788, Pedro Pedesclaux, Spanish citizen and native of the Basque region, bought the royal notariate, the clerkship of the Cabildo (the Spanish equivalent of the Superior Council), and other offices from the crown. He thus became the custodian of the entirety of Louisiana’s notarial and judicial records from the French period, as well as of all the Spanish archives accumulated by his predecessors in that office since 1768.
On March 21, 1788, the first of the two great French Quarter fires destroyed as much as half of the city. Pedesclaux and his rather large family managed to save the records stored in his cabinet from the flames that consumed their home and most of their possessions. On December 8, 1794, the second great fire destroyed a smaller footprint in the southwest corner of the city, and again Pedesclaux and his household had to move the records out of harm’s way at their own loss.
1804-1860: Under the American Flag, and Under the Eye of the Louisiana Historical Society
After the Louisiana Purchase and the installation of the U.S. authority, the holding of a notarial office in New Orleans ceased to be a matter of royal patronage, and the number of notaries quickly multiplied in proportion to the booming activity in America’s second-busiest port.
From 1804 to 1807, Pedro Pedesclaux, now a notary public, engaged in a bitter legal struggle with the new territorial governor, William C.C. Claiborne, over possession of the colonial archives and the offices he had purchased from the Spanish crown. Although the U.S. government would refuse to recognize his “ownership” of what it considered to be public offices, Pedesclaux did manage to retain possession of the French and Spanish colonial documents, many of which, especially from the Spanish period, were still used in the routine business dealings of the community. Whereas the French documents existed as simple tied bundles called liasses, the traditional method of arrangement, it seems that very early on the Spanish notarial acts, including Pedesclaux’s own, were bound into large, sturdy volumes with numbered pages and alphabetical name indexes.
When Pedro died in 1816, his son and notarial successor, Philippe, inherited all his records, as was the custom of the profession. In 1826, the Louisiana state legislature, informed by reports from “concerned citizens” that the colonial records there were in a state of disarray and decay, passed a statute requiring that all the colonial archives found in the office of the notary Philippe Pedesclaux “bearing date from the year 1702 to the year 1771” and “concerning titles to property in this state” be numbered, indexed, and conserved in cedar boxes, so that the general public could make use of them. The language of the legislative act described not the entire colonial archive but, basically, French-period notarial acts and successions - apparently, the Spanish notarial records were well kept. Pedesclaux died only four months into the indexing process, and the custodianship of the colonial archives passed on to a string of successors in his notarial office.
Some of the “concerned citizens” who complained about the records’ condition were (at least) amateur historians, and in 1835 they got together to found the Louisiana Historical Society (LHS). It was chartered by the State the next year, and re-incorporated in 1846. Its members were encouraged to refer to the colonial records in their study of Louisiana’s “ancient” past.
On March 12, 1860, motivated largely by the LHS’s president, noted historian and former Louisiana Secretary of State Charles Gayarré, the legislature chartered the LHS as the official historical society of the State, and decreed that “all the ancient archives of the Colony and notaries, concerning the earliest history of Louisiana, which are found in the hands of Hugues Pedesclaux and Octave de Armas, notaries public in the city of New Orleans, shall be given to the State Librarian, who shall keep them in the room of the Capitol assigned to” the said historical society.
1861-1893: Exodus and Odyssey
At some point after passage of the legislative statute in March 1860, but before New Orleans was seized by Union Admiral David Farragut in April 1862, New Orleans’s French and Spanish colonial archives, now under the custodianship of the LHS, were delivered to the State Librarian at the State Capitol in Baton Rouge. Here they would remain until they were moved again, in August, 1862, at which point their whereabouts would become an apparent mystery to the LHS for the next thirty-one years: on August 8, 1862, in the Battle of Baton Rouge, Confederate forces tried and failed to re-take the city from its Union garrison; on August 27, Union Major General Benjamin Butler wrote to his superiors in Washington that, having been forced to remove the garrison to New Orleans, and with Baton Rouge now defended only by his gunboats in the Mississippi River, he had decided, for their safe-keeping, to remove all the books and other contents of the State Library from the State Capitol to the City Library of New Orleans, at that time in City Hall (now called Gallier Hall).
Butler reported that the State Library’s valuable contents had been safely stored in the New Orleans City Library, but in fact the thousands of books and other items remained stacked on the sidewalk and steps in front of City Hall for days, exposed to the elements and to theft, before they were finally brought inside. It is not known if any of the colonial documents were pilfered during the confusion of the move, but the opportunity was certainly there - in 1864, the Louisiana Secretary of State reported that 25,000 of the State Library’s books that had been present in an inventory of 1861 were now missing. For nearly four years, the French and Spanish colonial archives would be housed at City Hall along with some 25,000 – 30,000 remaining books that had been rescued from Baton Rouge, and eventually all of them would be put into a semblance of order.
In May of 1866, the holdings of the State Library were transferred from City Hall to a room in the Mechanics’ Institute, on Dryades Street (now University Place), where they would remain only until December 1868 before being moved again, this time to the State Library’s new home, the new State House on Royal and Conti Streets in the French Quarter. Only three months later, in March 1869, Joint Resolution No. 61 of the State Legislature authorized and instructed the State Librarian “to transfer to the Academy of Sciences of New Orleans, all of the old [Notarial] and Colonial records touching the early history of Louisiana, now in his charge, under a joint resolution of the Legislature of Louisiana, approved March twelfth, one thousand eight hundred and sixty (1860), the same to be preserved in the scientific and historical archives of said Academy for future reference.” At this time, the Academy of Sciences was housed at the University of Louisiana, which in 1884 would be endowed and renamed the Tulane University of Louisiana; Tulane’s main campus was on Common Street around the corner from the Mechanics’ Institute, which was purchased by Paul Tulane and became part of the campus complex by 1878.
One of the Academy’s prominent members was Judge E.T. Merrick, a former Chief Justice of the Louisiana Supreme Court (1855-1865), who would remain on the organization’s board until the late 1880s. When the Louisiana Historical Society, dormant since 1862, was re-incorporated by the State in 1877, Judge Merrick became one of its board members as well, and was one of those selected to write its new constitution. Tulane Professor Alcée Fortier, an Academy board member by 1887, also joined the revived LHS and would later become its president.
Beginning as early as 1867, the University, evidently running short on space, would repeatedly attempt to oust the Academy of Sciences from its room on campus, even though a number of the members were its own professors. In 1882, a desperate and “impecunious” Academy even asked the City Council to provide a room for it, and house its archives, in the City Library in Gallier Hall. Nevertheless, the Academy continued to hold its meetings at Tulane Hall until at least 1888. By 1893 the Academy had faded away, and the Louisiana Historical Society was holding its meetings at Tulane Hall, that is, the old Mechanics’ Institute on Dryades Street, where the colonial records had by all evidence been housed since 1869. In 1893, Alcée Fortier gave a report to the LHS which included an inventory of its archival holdings at the State Library and at Tulane: at the State Library there were mostly books and manuscripts from Europe which had been collected by Gayarré; at Tulane, there were “a number of wooden boxes” containing notarial and judicial records from Louisiana’s French and Spanish colonial periods.
1894-1911: Establishing a Permanent Repository
Over the next ten years the Society would undertake the task of getting the tens of thousands of much-traveled and jumbled records into a basic chronological order. At the Louisiana Purchase Centennial Exposition of 1904, a selection of colonial manuscripts and other historical artifacts was exhibited by the LHS and was a huge hit – the documents were so popular that after the Exposition ended they were put on permanent public display in New Orleans at Washington Artillery Hall. Taking advantage of this popularity, the LHS redoubled its ongoing efforts to have the Legislature create a State Museum to house its colonial archives and other holdings, and in 1906 the lobbying paid off: Legislative Act No. 169 of July 11 created the Louisiana State Museum, to be located in New Orleans and to house all the papers and other artifacts of the LHS, two of whose members must always sit on the Museum board of directors. In 1908 the Cabildo and the Presbytère were designated as homes for the State Historical Society and State Museum, and after much-needed renovations, both buildings were re-opened in 1911.
1912-2016: A Century of Restricted Access to Very Fragile Documents
From 1912 to 1943, the Historical Society published a calendar of the colonial archives in its revue, the Louisiana Historical Quarterly, but not every single record was included, nor was every record that was included translated in its entirety.
In the 1930s and 1940s, the W.P.A. created a more complete set of English-language abstracts for the records, the ”Black Books,” but once again the work was not exhaustive, and as with the LHQ, there were significant errors of transcription and translation.
According to Museum records, the colonial archives were microfilmed three times between the 1940s and 1980s, but only the most recent effort, by the LDS, is accessible today. In addition to the usual difficulties associated with reading microfilmed manuscripts, there is another problem: the microfilm reflects the current physical arrangement, which for the most part is strictly chronological – this is not the original order of the archives, in which each individual succession’s papers were kept together as a single file, regardless of the various dates or years in which they were created. Now, using the database’s search functions, any succession’s documents can be pulled together once more.
Related Colonial Collections
The Louisiana State Museum is interested in linking the French Superior Council and Spanish Cabildo records in its possession at the Louisiana Historical Center with related manuscripts, from other institutions, in order to better facilitate research of the era. Please find a list below of institutions with related Colonial Records.
Repositories of French and Spanish Colonial Records in the Americas:
- Archives of the University of Notre Dame
- Records of the Diocese of Louisiana and the Floridas, 1576-1803
- Archdiocesan Archives & Records, Archdiocese of St. Louis
- Records of the St. Louis Archdiocese (1816 – )
- Missouri State Archives
- Land Records of French and Spanish (Papers of Original Claimants, Private Land Surveys, Record of Land Title Books 1777-1857)
- St. Louis City Recorder of Deeds and Vital Records Registrar
- St. Louis French-Spanish Civil Records, transcriptions on microfilm
- Archives Nationals d’Outre-Mer