The Tower of Babel: Alive and Well in Early State Records!


When researching Early State Records, it might be easy to forget that this country was once home to numerous colonies from multiple countries.  Germany, Spain, France, the Netherlands are some of the countries that vied for ownership of the New World.  Each has left a legacy, good or bad, in this country, and their documents reflect their presence.  For that reason, the Early State Record collection included non-English manuscripts, proclamations, orders and other relevant materials to allow researchers to interpret these countries’ effect on the New World. 


An early document that provides numerous samples of Dutch manuscripts is found in LLMC #20600, which contained the New Netherland Council minutes from 1623 to 1665.  While a researcher may not be able to translate all of these manuscripts, printed calendars in the beginning listed the date and general topic discussed.  Included were resolutions, ordinances, court proceedings, appointments, and petitions, all taken from the Calendar of Historical Manuscripts, volume 1.  While some materials were missing[1], this document gave a glimpse of the working of this early Council. 


New Netherland manuscripts were also found in LLMC #20646, dating from August 1673 to November 1674.  Similar to #20600, there were printed calendars which delineated the date, description or title, and page.  Notably, there were a few pages in English, although most of the volumes were in Dutch.  Interestingly, these documents were during a time of flux in New Netherland as the Dutch retook the area in 1673, but ultimately relinquished it under the Treaty of Westminster of 1674 that ended the Third Anglo-Dutch War.[2]


While there are currently only a few Dutch manuscripts in Early State Records, an extensive Spanish language collection is present, including those in Texas, New Mexico, Florida, and California.   Some documents were provided in both English and Spanish, such as LLMC #01587t and #01588t, which were a July 5, 1835 proclamation by the Commanding General and Inspector of the Eastern Internal States, Martin Perfecto de Cos, warning the inhabitants of the three departments of Texas who were disturbing the public order and peace.  Similarly, a House Committee report on the New Mexico Penitentiary was in both English and Spanish (LLMC #01797t-01798t).  Still others provided some translations in otherwise Spanish documents.  For example, in LLMC #01504t, there are translations and records of the five volumes of the appendix of the Empresarios' contracts in Spanish and English, beginning in 1829.  Similarly, in LLMC #01877t, Governor James Calhoun sent a letter on February 6, 1852 to R.M. Stephens, Sheriff of Santa Fe County in English and Spanish.  This presumably allowed access of these documents to both Spanish and English speakers, particularly after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo of 1848 created the United States Territory of New Mexico.[3]


Of course, not all documents were translated into English.  There were numerous other Spanish proclamations, documents, record books and other material which were primarily found in the Southwestern territories.  For example, in LLMC #01860t, Brigadier General Stephen W. Kearney corresponded in Spanish in his September 22, 1846 notice of government appointments following the start of the Mexican-American War and his successful military operation into New Mexico.  Similarly, Spanish was the predominant language during the period in which Texas was under the control of Spain and Mexico, as illustrated in LLMC #01593t which contained numerous decrees from the governors.  Typically, official correspondence during that time was in Spanish.  For example, LLMC #01621t contained the April 25, 1830 regulations issued from Governor Jose Maria Viesca's office to businessmen.  Similarly, in LLMC #01576t, General Martin Perfecto de Cos, Commander General and inspector of the internal states of the east, issued a May 12, 1835 announcement of internal troubles to its inhabitants.  These and other documents demonstrate the dominance of the Spanish language in various parts of the United States. 


French influence can also be found in Early State records.  For example, LLMC #24693 was a 1765 French document which detailed a dispute between the Vicar-General of Diocese of Quebec and Louisiana.  Apparently a banished priest wrote an unauthorized catechism and the Council of Louisiana determined it should be suppressed.  In LLMC #35389, the French published a 1783 French translation of the Constitution of the United States and other similar documents.   Interestingly, there was a French document in LLMC #21057 which contained a December 21, 1769 proclamation from the governor of Louisiana which established that the province was to be ruled by Spain.  While written in French, the next government would undoubtedly use Spanish in some communications.   


And while Germany did not play as extensive a part in the colonization of the United States, there were several German documents in this collection.   In LLMC #01775t, a speech by Governor Alexander Ramsey to the legislature, entitled “Botschaft des Gouverneurs von Minnesota” was issued on January 26, 1853 and may reflect the immigration of Germans to Minnesota.  In LLMC #41969, an April 29, 1778 broadside was issued by the Continental Congress, addressed to the German mercenaries, encouraging both officers and common soldiers to leave the British and join the American side.


Finally, and perhaps most importantly, one cannot forget the indigenous people who lived and developed their own languages, culture, and government.  For example, LLMC #71066 contained the Constitution and laws of the Cherokee Nation published in 1892 in Cherokee.   While one can presume that this was translated from English (in LLCM #71065), one could only verify this fact if the researcher spoke both Cherokee and English.    Another example can be found in LLMC #71079 which contained the Constitution and laws of the Chickasaw Nation, together with the treaties of 1832-1866, published in 1899.  Also included was an appendix of treaties which included an 1898 act of Congress which governed the tribal courts of the Indian Territory and the Curtis Act which resulted in the break-up of tribal governments.  An English version of the laws and constitution can be found at LLMC #71080, together with the treaties of 1832-1866 and also published in 1899.   Nevertheless, similar to other documents published in different languages, these volumes allowed members of the various tribes and the American officials to understand and apply these laws.


Ultimately there might be language challenges to some of the Early State Records.  However, the researchers who translate this part of the collection will undoubtedly be richly rewarded for their efforts. 

Early State Records is one of LLMC’s most substantial initiatives, thanks to the patronage of several libraries which are listed *here* as well as a grant award from the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR).  LLMC is digitizing 2000+ reels from the Library of Congress’ microfilm collection, containing the records, treatises, newspaper accounts and other legal or related documents from pre-colonial through early statehood of the 48 states as well as Native American tribes.  Applying advanced digitization post-processing and value-added metadata  to these primary and secondary sources which were held in numerous state, federal and foreign libraries, historical societies, archives and legislatures, LLMC’s LLMC Digital online service will make many hidden documents, such as the manuscripts, available to researchers and society as a whole. 

Written by Joyce Savio Herleth, Saint Louis University School of Law 

[1]  There was a Capitol fire in 1911 in Albany in which some minutes were totally burned, while others were partially damaged.  All of these factors made legibility an issue at times.


[3] See also LLMC #40743 and 40744, which provided English and Spanish editions of New Mexico’s Journals of the Council/Senate beginning in 1851.