Research at the National Archives

State Department Central Files (RG 59), 1789-1906

Records

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 are descriptions 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.

NOTE: Almost all central file records from this period are available on various National Archives microfilm publications.  As noted below, many of those publications are now available online through the National Archives Catalog.  Some are accessible through partner sites. 

Diplomatic Correspondence

The Diplomatic Correspondence is arranged by country in four primary series of records:

  • 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).
     
  • Despatches [reports] received from U.S. Ministers and Ambassadors, 1789-1906:


    These records consist of the despatches (reports), with related enclosures, sent to the Department of State by American diplomats overseas.  They are arranged by name of country and thereunder chronologically, except in cases where a U.S. diplomatic officer was accredited to more than one government, in which case the despatches from several countries are bound together.

    The despatches relate to all phases of U.S. diplomatic relations with foreign countries and to the administration of U.S. legations and embassies.  Subjects include negotiation of treaties; political and economic issues between the U.S. and the host country; boundary matters; fishing rights; trade and trade relations; international conferences; and the internal political situation of the host country.  The despatches also cover administrative matters such as appointments; arrival and departures; and official expenses.  Among the related enclosures are newspaper clippings, copies of notes to and from the countries' foreign offices, copies of death notices and marriage certificates, publications, and ceremonial letters.  More information with links to the online resources is here.  A list by country, with links to the images, is here.

  • 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 and thereunder chronologically. Some notes before 1804 are filed in the Diplomatic Instructions or the Domestic Letters.
     
  • Notes to the Department from Foreign Legations and Embassies in Washington, 1789-1906:


    Original communications and related enclosures received by the Department of State from foreign legations and embassies in the United States.  They relate to all phases of U.S. diplomatic relations with those countries.  Enclosures include printed material and ceremonial letters from heads of foreign states.  More information with links to the online resources is here.  A list of the missions by country, with links to the images, is here

    Separate from but similar to these records are the Miscellaneous Notes from Other States, 1817-1906.   These records consists of notes from states, territories, or regimes that did not have recognized diplomatic representation in the United States.  More information and a link to the online resource is here.  A list of the states and links to the images is here

Special Agents

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.

Consular Correspondence

The Consular Correspondence is arranged in four series of records:

  • Instructions to U.S. Consuls, 1800-1906:

    These records are arranged for the most part chronologically, except for the years 1835-74, which are arranged by geographic area and thereunder chronologically. 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.
     
  • Despatches [reports] received from Consuls, 1789-1906:

    These records are arranged by the name of city in which a consular office was located and thereunder chronologically. There is a separate microfilm publication for each city in which the United States had consular representation.

    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:

    Copies of communications sent by the Department of State to foreign consular officers in the United States.  Those communications relate to many phases of their consular duties.  They are arranged in one large chronological file.  Notes sent before 1853 are found in the Domestic Letters and the Notes to Foreign Legations and Embassies.  The records are available on microfilm (M-663, 4 rolls).  More information and a link to the online resource is here.  
     
  • 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).
     

Miscellaneous Correspondence

This category comprises records not included under the headings of the diplomatic and consular records. Included is correspondence with the President, 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 principally of copies of letters sent by the Department of State to persons other than U.S. and foreign diplomatic and consular officers.  That includes the President, heads of other U.S. Government agencies, members of Congress, governors of states and territories, other state and territorial officers, and the public.  The records are arranged chronologically.  There are some letters, principally for the years 1789‑1828, to U.S. and foreign diplomatic and consular officers.  These records cover a wide range of foreign and domestic subjects.  Many of the letters relate solely to such domestic duties of the Department as the administration of the Territories, the printing and distribution of the laws, the registration of copyrights, the taking of the census, and the publication of the Biennial Register.  Other letters concern foreign affairs. The letters for 1799‑1802 are missing.  The records are available on microfilm (M-40, 171 rolls). You may link to this series here.
     
  • Miscellaneous Letters, 1789-1906:

    The records consist of letters, with related enclosures, received by the Department of State from sources other than U.S. and foreign diplomatic and consular officers.  That includes the President, heads of other U.S. Government agencies, members of Congress, governors of states and territories, other state and territorial officers, and the public.  These records cover a wide range of subjects relating to both domestic and international affairs.  The records are arranged chronologically.  Many of the letters relate solely to the domestic duties of the Department, such as the administration of the Territories, the printing and distribution of the laws, the registration of copyrights, the taking of the census, and the publication of the Biennial Register.  Many letters concerning patent applications and immigration originally part of this series were transferred, along with those functions, to other Government agencies.  The answers to these letters are found in the Domestic Letters.  The records are available on microfilm (M-179, 1,310 rolls).  You may link to this series here.

Finding Aids

  • 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.

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