Genealogists researching Louisiana ancestry are fortunate to have many original manuscripts available from the 18th century. These include documents from New Orleans’ French Superior Council (1714-1769) and the Spanish Judicial Records (1769-1803). The documents provide a rich source of data on New Orleans’s earliest days, the Louisiana territory, the slave trade, and Native American relations, the Atlantic World, and Canada and the Caribbean, among other topics.
Access to these documents is a bit of an issue, however. The 220,000 pages of handwritten French and Spanish documents are stored in the Louisiana State Museum in New Orleans. Unfortunately, not everyone can travel to New Orleans and view the original documents during the hours the State Museum is open. Through various translations, English-language abstracts, and published summaries in Louisiana Historical Society’s journal, The Louisiana Historical Quarterly, the contents of the collection are partially accessible in print but difficult to use. The documents were not available online until recently and even today only part of the collection may be viewed online.
The Louisiana State Museum’s web site states: “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.”
I first learned about the digitization project in an article by Judy Riffel in Le Raconteur, a print publication of the Le Comité des Archives de la Louisiane, Inc., a non-profit genealogical support group for the Louisiana State Archives. However, I cannot find the article online. Apparently, it is available only in print. Luckily, the Louisiana State Museum’s web site also describes (at http://www.lacolonialdocs.org/post/8/the-process) the methods by which the documents are being digitized and made available to the public:
“Digitization of the collection of Louisiana Colonial Documents began in 2010. Scanning results in the creation of a digital surrogate for each document, meaning that every page is scanned, both front and back. Researchers and our database indexers may now gain access to the documents without routinely exposing the original manuscripts to light and excessive handling. Individual documents in the archive range anywhere from one to five hundred pages.”
The online description goes on at some length to describe the mechanics of the digitization, then says:
“Scanning of the French Superior Council records was completed in the latter half of 2013, thanks to the work of previous volunteers and grant-funded scanners. Spanish Cabildo Records up to 1803 were digitized by March 2016. The Louisiana Colonial Documents Digitization Project has produced digital surrogates of nearly 20,000 records spanning the years 1714- 1803.”
The project is still a work in progress. 116 documents have already been published on LOUISiana Digital Library in the collection “Records of the French Superior Council, (1714-1769)” at http://cdm16313.contentdm.oclc.org/cdm/search/collection/p15140coll60.
While the work expended so far is monumental, completion of the project is still some years away. The biggest problem is the need for human beings with expertise in translating and indexing the documents. After all, if you are looking for information, would you want to manually read through 220,000 pages of handwritten documents written in old style French and Spanish? The indexing work has been going on for several years but is proving to be a huge task.
Again, the State Museum’s web site also says (at http://www.lacolonialdocs.org/post/8/the-process):
“Despite the best efforts of our indexing team, the work will likely never be fully completed, as there is will always be more detailed information to be located within the documents.’
“We welcome participation of academics who are interested in the documents for research purposes to share their transcriptions and translations with the project. The LSM has worked with visiting students from France’s Ecole du Louvre and Ecole Nationale des Chartes to this end, as well as Tulane’s Department of French and Italian.
“If you are interested in contributing transcriptions and/or translations, please inquire with LHC Curator Sarah-Elizabeth Gundlach, email@example.com.”
Can you help?