Department of State Research Topics
Department of State Records
Central Files 1789-1906 (RG 59)
During the period from 1789 to 1906, the records are divided into three main categories: Diplomatic Correspondence, Consular Correspondence, and Miscellaneous Correspondence. Each category is further divided into a number of series, or types, of records in which the documents are generally arranged by source or destination and thereunder chronologically by date sent.
The following is a description of the more important series of records. Information on additional records in the Central Files for the 1789-1906 period is found in Part I of Inventory 15: Inventory of the General Records of the Department of State.
The Diplomatic Correspondence is arranged by country in four primary series of records:
- Department's instructions to U.S. Ministers and Ambassadors, 1785-1906:
These records are available on two microfilm publications. The first is for diplomatic and consular instructions, 1791-1801, arranged chronologically (M-28, 5 rolls), and the second is for diplomatic instructions, 1801-1906, arranged by country (M-77, 175 rolls).
- Diplomatic despatches, or reports, received in the Department of State, 1789-1906:
These records are available on 42 separate microfilm publications, arranged by name of the country from which the reports came.
- Notes from the Department to Foreign Legations and Embassies in Washington, 1793-1906:
These records are available on one microfilm publication (M-99, 99 rolls), arranged by country. Some notes before 1804 are filed with the Diplomatic Instructions or the Domestic Letters.
- Notes to the Department from Foreign Legations and Ministers and Embassies in Washington, 1789-1906:
These records are available on 52 separate microfilm publications arranged by name of country with which the U.S. had diplomatic representation.
The President and the Secretary of State have from time to time sent special representatives overseas on numerous tasks. Those representatives were known as “Special Agents.” During the early years of the Republic, American naval officers entering ports of countries with which the U.S. did not have formal diplomatic relations were sometimes given special diplomatic responsibilities in addition to their regular duties. The special agents negotiated treaties, collected information, delivered ceremonial letters, procured copies from the archives of foreign governments, took testimony in foreign countries, mediated wars or other international disputes, inspected U.S. consular offices, investigated the slave trade, negotiated land leases, observed and reported on political conditions and public opinion, and investigated charges against U.S. consuls. There are two main series of records.
- Instructions, 1823-1906:
Arranged chronologically and indexed alphabetically by name of agent or commission. These records are available on National Archives Microfilm Publication M-77, rolls 152-155.
- Despatches, 1794 1906:
Arranged in rough chronological order by mission and thereunder chronologically. These records are available on National Archives Microfilm Publication M-37 for which there is a detailed description.
The Consular Correspondence is arranged in four series of records:
- Department's Instructions to U.S. Consuls, 1800-1906:
These records are arranged in one large chronological file. The records for the period 1801-1834 are available on microfilm (M-78, 7 rolls). The records dating after 1834 have not been microfilmed. Instructions for the period 1789-1800 are found in the Diplomatic Instructions and in the Domestic Letters.
- Consular despatches, or reports, received in the Department of State, 1789-1906:
These records are arranged by the name of city in which the consulate was located and thereunder chronologically. There is a separate microfilm publication for each city in which the United States had consular representation.
Experience has shown that the enclosures to numerous later 19th century despatches are not found in the files. It is possible that those enclosures or the information from them might be found among publications of the Department of State from that period. Please see the section on Commercial Relations on the Publications and Websites page.
- Notes from the Department to Foreign Consuls in the United States, 1853-1906:
These records, dating from 1853 to 1906, are arranged in one large chronological file. They are available on microfilm (M-663, 4 rolls). Notes sent before 1853 are found in the Domestic Letters and the Notes to Foreign Legations and Embassies.
- Notes to the Department from Foreign Consuls in the United States, 1789-1906:
These records, dating from 1789 to 1906, are arranged in one large chronological file. They are available on microfilm (M-664, 11 rolls).
This category includes records that do not come under the headings of the diplomatic and consular records. Included is correspondence with other U.S. government agencies, Congress, and the public. The records are found in two series, each arranged chronologically.
- Domestic Letters, 1784-1906:
This series consists of copies of letters and other communications sent by the Department of State to persons other than U.S. and foreign diplomatic and consular officers although as noted above some pre-1853 communications to those officers are included. The records are available on microfilm (M-40, 171 rolls).
- Miscellaneous Letters, 1789-1906:
These are the letters and other communications received by the Department of State. They are available on microfilm (M-179, 1,310 rolls).
- Registers for diplomatic instructions and notes from the Department, 1870-1906, are on rolls 11-18 of M-17
- Registers for diplomatic despatches and notes to the Department, 1870-1906 are on rolls 1-10 of M-17
- Registers for consular despatches received, 1870-1906, are on rolls 19-44 of M-17
- The registers for the Domestic Letters, 1802-1811, and 1840-1906, are on rolls 57-71 of M-17
- The registers for the Miscellaneous Letters, 1860-1906, are on rolls 45-56 of M-17
Beginning with records for 1861, Foreign Relations of the United States can assist with locating documentation of interest.