Citing records from the Louisiana Colonial Documents Digitization Project

Citing archival documents from a database requires a different approach from citing the same records you may have seen, physically, in an archive. You should only cite the item to which you’re referring. For example, if you visit the Louisiana Historical Center and look at one of the colonial documents from the archive, you should referencethatdocument. But if you look at the same document on lacolonialdocs.org, you should reference that document—that is, the digital version. Though they appear to contain the same content, they are treated differently.

Citation elements for lacolonialdocs.org

URL

lacolonialdocs.org

Document identification number

varies

Database

Louisiana Colonial Documents Digitization Project

Repository

Louisiana State Museum Historical Center

Record group (two options)

Judicial Records of the French Superior Council

Spanish Judicial Records

Record item

varies

Citation example: bibliography

record group + repository + database + URL

Example:

Judicial Records of the French Superior Council. Louisiana State Museum Historical Center. Louisiana Colonial Documents Digitization Project. www.lacolonialdocs.org.

Citation example: footnotes and endnotes

record item + record group + repository + database + document ID

Example:

  1. François Fleuriau, inspection report, November 1, 1725, Judicial Records of the French Superior Council, Louisiana State Museum Historical Center, Louisiana Colonial Documents Digitization Project 1725-11-01-01.

Record item: François Fleuriau, inspection report, November 1, 1725

Record group: Judicial Records of the French Superior Council

Repository:Louisiana State Museum Historical Center

Database:Louisiana Colonial Documents Digitization Project

Document ID: 1725-11-01-01

Colonial La. records shed new light on US history

This article describes the massive project that took place from 2010 to 2016 to digitize some 220,000 manuscript pages of eighteenth-century records from the French Superior Council and Spanish Judiciary in Louisiana. It was written by Cain Burdeau and published in the Washington Examiner on October 29, 2012.

Colonial La. records shed new light on US history

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — A marathon project is under way in New Orleans to digitize thousands of time-worn 18th-century French and Spanish legal papers that historians say give the first historical accounts of slaves and free blacks in North America.

Yellowed page by yellowed page, archivists are scanning the 220,000 manuscript pages from the French Superior Council and Spanish Judiciary between 1714 and 1803 in an effort to digitize, preserve, translate and index Louisiana’s colonial past and in the process help re-write American history.

“No single historian could ever live long enough to write all the books that are to be written from all these documents,” said Emily Clark, a Tulane University historian who has worked in the papers.

The few historians who’ve pored over the unique archive say it’s pivotal because it connects early America to the broader history of the Atlantic slave trade. It’s at the heart of a wave of research tracing American roots beyond the English colonies and into Spain, France and Africa.

“We don’t think of American society simply built from east to west, but we think of it as built from south to north,” said Ira Berlin, a University of Maryland historian. “As you begin to think of a different kind of history, you’re naturally looking for new kinds of sources to write that history.”

This massive trove mostly describes domestic life as found in civil court papers, because the colony’s administrative records were taken back to Europe when the United States took possession of Louisiana in 1803.

So they tell of shipwrecks and pirates, of thieves and murderers, of gambling debts and slave sales, of real estate deals and wills. One finds pages signed by historical figures like Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, better known as Bienville, the founder of New Orleans, and Louis XVI, the king of France. And the bizarre, as in the case of a man accused of selling dog meat to Charity Hospital.

Inside the Old United States Mint museum, where the archive is stored, the pace of work is slow and methodical. The digitization team now consists of one full time staffer and one part-timer. The Louisiana State Museum, which cares for the archive, hopes to add more staff and finish the project within three years. At the current pace, it will take more than 10 years to finish.

Melissa Stein, the full-time staffer, looks for intriguing cases, like one about exhuming the body of an unbaptized 13-year-old slave girl, baptizing her and moving her body into the cemetery.

“It’s a very short document, and really, really faded,” she said, studying the fragment. She slipped it back into its folder. “It was a rough life here, that’s for sure.”

In colonial Louisiana, unlike the English colonies, African slaves and free blacks were allowed to testify in person in court.

“The Roman legal code recognized the personhood of an enslaved person and English common law didn’t,” Clark said. “So the kinds of things we can find out about the experiences of enslaved people from our records in Louisiana do not exist in the records of the 13 colonies.”

Sophie White, a University of Notre Dame historian very familiar with the collection, said the testimony “opens up so much more about what as historians we can say about daily life.”

White and Clark said they’ve learned that slaves owned property and even owned other slaves. They have learned that some slaves wore corsets, clothing typically worn by European women, and that they often chose to run away and face severe punishment to be close to their families. The records also show enslaved people were baptized in the Roman Catholic church.

“It blurs the boundary between freedom and slavery,” Clark said. “It’s not a two-dimensional picture: What do you make of it when you find an enslaved man who himself possesses two slaves and he does so when he is a teenager?”

Louisiana’s first European settlements were made by the French in the early 1700s — New Orleans’ founding came in 1718. The territory became Spanish after the French and Indian War in the 1760s and reverted briefly to French control under Napoleon in the early 1800s before being purchased by the United States in 1803.

The documents survived heat and humidity, the turmoil of the Civil War and repeated hurricanes.

The entire collection was in serious peril when Hurricane Katrina’s flood waters and winds rampaged through the city in August 2005. The Old United States Mint museum was on high enough ground near the Mississippi River that it didn’t flood. But the building’s roof was torn up and torrential rains damaged the building. A month after Katrina, the archive had to be packed up and evacuated.

Although nearly all the city’s most important archives made it through the storm without major damage, some smaller archives and many personal collections stored in attics, basements and closets were lost.

“Katrina threatened all archives in the city,” Clark said. “That was certainly a wake-up call.”

After the storm, the state museum received about $196,000 from several foundations to begin digitally preserving the old archives. The state historians are seeking about $1.5 million more to hire additional staff and equipment to complete the digitization project more quickly.

Katrina wasn’t the first time the colonial records were in jeopardy.

During the Civil War, the records were scattered and looted by Confederate and Union soldiers. After the war, historians recovered what they could and packed it away in wooden boxes at Tulane University.

It wasn’t until the early 1900s for serious preservation and translation work to begin. The Works Progress Administration then patched up pages with tape (chemical from the tape is now eating at pages) and wrote English synopses.

But past archivists and translators also buried important documents. Entire chunks — most importantly documents dealing with slave trials and women — were conspicuously left out of consideration. In one memorable case, archivists censored a case about a soldier accused of bestiality.

The hope is that digitization will change everything: literally allowing researchers to look at the fibers in a page and open up the collection for all to see and interpret.

“It’s opening up a whole new way for us to manipulate the image and actually see details in the original that you can’t see sometimes in microfilm or even when you’re looking at it in front of you,” White said. “I can blow up that passage. See it better.”

What Kind of Information do the Colonial Judicial Records Contain?

archives mint
Courtesy of Louisiana State Museum, Photo by Mark J. Sindler

These records tell thousands of individual stories which, taken together, document the daily life of Louisiana’s first permanent European and African inhabitants, as well as aspects of their relations with allied and enemy Native tribes. These documents are an impressive source material dealing as it does with all manner of civil and criminal cases and featuring litigants and witnesses from all walks of society, offers countless opportunities for study in history, sociology, language and linguistics, law, technology, cultural anthropology, area studies (immigrant, women’s, Native American, African American), and other humanities.

The online searchable database allows for more accurate exploration of these records by researchers. These documents were cited extensively by humanities scholars in publications related to such topics as European relations with Native Americans (diplomacy, economics, slavery), African-American identity (slavery, marriage, education, religion, New Orleans’ ‘Free People of Color’ community), women’s rights (marriage and inheritance laws, education, the influence of the Ursuline Nuns), the Louisiana legal system (the ‘Code Noir,’ the ‘Custom of Paris,’ civil law, community property), colonial economics (Caribbean, Mexican, and Atlantic trading patterns), consumption and the exploitation of natural resources (food-ways, Cypress logging), and the development of New World architecture and land-use patterns (plantations, the French Quarter). From our food and tools to our clothes and books, from courtroom activities to barroom activities, from how we treated land and water to how we treated other human beings, the manuscripts remind us in stark detail of where we came from and, to a degree, who we still are.

The records are exceedingly rich in the stuff of everyday life, containing civil and criminal court cases, wills, successions, property lists, commercial contracts and other official documents involving all classes and races in colonial Louisiana. Both notarial acts and judicial minutes provide historians and other researchers with detailed biographical, cultural and social information rare in any other sort of 18th-century primary source: if a private letter or memoir claims that an otherwise respectable merchant was fined for selling spoiled flour and endangering the public’s health, for example, we can accept the allegation as true, or wonder if the author had some axe to grind with the alleged swindler. If, however, we possess the signed and dated notarial act recording the contractual agreement for the flour, the baker’s receipt for delivery, the ship captain’s official protest over the flour’s condition, and the court records documenting the trial and conviction of the merchant, then we find ourselves in an entirely different realm of data validity and reliability.

Not all the records deal with lending and owing money, with matters as banal as buying and selling flour: there are stories of life and death, of robbery and revolt, the tragic and sometimes the tragicomic. In these records, we find evidence of overland and overseas colonial trading patterns (including piracy and the black market), the system of slavery and manumission, the emergence of New Orleans’ unique ‘Free People of Color’ community, and French and Spanish colonial building techniques which still influence restoration and construction in New Orleans’ French Quarter today.

Sources: 

What are the Colonial Judicial Records?

pirates doc
DocumentID 1739_12_14_01_002_V, chase by pirates

The French Superior Council and Spanish Judicial records were created in New Orleans at a time when no other comparable cities existed in the vast Louisiana territory.

The Louisiana Museum Foundation on behalf of the Louisiana State Museum was awarded a grant to digitize New Orleans’ French Superior Council (1714-1769) and Spanish Judicial Records (1769- 1803) and to publish them online for easy access by researchers and Museum staff, andfor long-term preservation of the documents. You can visit the entire digital collection here: http://www.lacolonialdocs.org  and the original records are accessible in the Louisiana Historical reading room. http://www.nolajazzmuseum.org/historical-center/

The Superior Council records make up one of the oldest French-language archives of any sort in the nation, and the more than 300 linear feet of original French and Spanish folios (some 70,000 records of varying lengths, totaling about 220,000 pages) comprise the bulk of an American colonial archive whose span and continuity would be impressive in any language. These records comprise the Museum’s largest and most significant archive; access to their contents is requested weekly by Museum staff and outside researchers. Digital imaging is the most effective way to ensure its survival.

During the digitization of the archives documents requiring treatment were identified and notated. Preserving the archive through digitization and e-publication preserve the documents as high–resolution scans, resulting in the creation of a database enabling quick and easy archive searches and allows internet access to the archive from anywhere in the world.

Sources: