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Pre-Federal Records in the National Archives

Introduction

As the repository of the permanently valuable records of the U.S. Federal Government, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) primarily has U.S. Federal Government records from its beginning in 1789. However, NARA does have some records from the pre-Federal era which are described in this article.

Other records of the colonial era will be found in the state archives of the original 13 colonies.

Published Finding Aid

Pre-Federal records in NARA have been described in detail in Howard H. Wehmann and Benjamin L. DeWhitt, A Guide to Pre-Federal Records in the National Archives (Washington, DC: National Archives and Records Administration, 1989), which is available for purchase.

Historical Research

Most of the records are in Record Group 360, Records of the Continental and Confederation Congresses and the Constitutional Convention. They are arranged as bound by the State Department in the 19th century, primarily by type of record--such as journals, committee reports, correspondence, memorials, and petitions--and thereunder chronologically, alphabetically, or by subject. The records in the first group are arranged into 196 numbered units called "Items." The second group consists of miscellaneous records that are not among the numbered items. The third group consists of records relating to the Constitutional Convention of 1787.

Microfilm Publications

The records are available for research in three NARA microfilm publications:

  • M247, Papers of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789 (204 rolls)

  • M332, Miscellaneous Papers of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789 (10 rolls)

  • M886, Records of the Constitutional Convention of 1787 (1 roll)

Books

Some of the records are also available in a printed form. There is a printed edition of the manuscript journals (Items 1-8), published as Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789, 38 vols. (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1904-37). Each of those 38 volumes has a separate index, but it has been consolidated into one volume published as Index: Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789 (Washington, DC: National Archives and Records Service, 1976).

The key finding aid for the other records (Items 9-196, and the Miscellaneous Papers) is Index: The Papers of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789, 5 vols. (Washington, DC: National Archives and Records Service, 1978). The first four volumes are a name and subject index, and the fifth volume is a chronological list of documents.

For the Constitutional Convention, see Max Farrand, The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787, 4 vols. (New Haven, CT: Yale Univ. Press, 1911-37; rev. ed., 1966), and James Hutson with Leonard Rapport, Supplement to Max Farrand's The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787 (New Haven, CT: Yale Univ. Press, 1987). See also Documentary History of the Constitution of the United States of America, 1787-1870, 5 vols. (Washington, DC: U.S. Dept. of State, 1894-1905).

The key documents of foreign policy are presented in Mary A. Giunta and J. Dane Hartgrove, eds., The Emerging Nation: A Documentary History of the Foreign Relations of the United States under the Articles of Confederation, 1780-1789 (Washington, DC: National Historical Publications and Records Commission, 1996). Another publication of interest is Paul H. Smith, et al., eds., Letters of Delegates to Congress, 1774-1789 (Washington, DC: Library of Congress, 1976- ) of which 20 of a proposed 25 volumes have been published.

Genealogical Research--Revolutionary War Service

In addition to the many persons named in the papers of the Continental Congress (described above in Historical Research), NARA has many records relating to military service during the Revolutionary War. For more information, see:

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