City Archives
New Orleans Public Library

Introduction to the Early Records (1760-1861) in the New Orleans City Archives

The New Orleans City Archives Collection traces its origins to 1769 and the establishment by the Spanish authorities of a municipal government (Cabildo) for the city. Section IX of Alejandro O'Reilly's ordinances provided for the office of Escribano of the Cabildo, giving him the responsibility to "preserve in his archives all the papers which may concern the cabildo, or its proceedings." The records accumulated by the Spanish were turned over to the French Colonial Prefect, Pierre-Clement de Laussat, in 1803; Laussat, in turn, transferred the archives to his American successors later in that year.

That portion of the original Spanish archives dealing with the affairs of the municipal government remained together under the auspices first of the city council, then the City Attorney, and later the Mayor's Office. New records produced by the "American" administrations also found their way into the archives over the years. In 1946, responsibility for maintaining the archives was transferred to the New Orleans Public Library. Following the physical removal of the collection to the new Central Library in the early 1960s, the former City Archives Department was merged with the Library's other local interest holdings to form the Louisiana Division. Today the records are maintained within that Division as the City Archives Collection.

The archives collection includes extensive holdings of records from the Office of the Mayor, the several city councils of New Orleans, the city's various fiscal agencies, and the numerous individual agencies that have conducted official city business over the last 223 years. Much of the energy of the archives staff during the first thirty years of Library control was devoted to the arrangement of these records into archival record groups and series. While the staff prepared catalog cards listing the individual volumes within each series, little was accomplished in the way of providing narrative explanations of the different municipal agencies and the records they produced.

In 1989 the National Endowment for the Humanities, Office of Preservation granted funds to the Louisiana Division to support a project to produce preservation microfilms of the pre-1862 records in the archives collection. As part of the Library's cost-sharing contribution to this project, the archives staff committed itself to the creation of catalog records in the OCLC database, using the MARC-AMC format for bibliographic entry. The descriptions upon which those catalog records were based are collected in this Guide.

Essentially, the Guide includes narrative descriptions and inventories for all record groups and/or series with beginning dates prior to 1862. For those groups/series with beginning dates prior to 1862 and ending dates thereafter, the focus has been to provide full description for the pre-1862 materials and to treat later records in summary fashion only. The City Archives card catalog contains inventories of the later records, and the archives staff will produce descriptions for those documents in the years to come.

The Guide arranges individual series descriptions under the record groups to which they belong. With the exception of the first segment of the guide (Records of the Office of the Mayor), individual group/series descriptions are gathered together according to governmental function (e.g., Public Schools and Libraries, Public Health, Correctional Institutions).

A word of explanation is needed here for researchers unfamiliar with one of the more unusual features of New Orleans municipal history. During the period from 1836 to 1852, the city was legally divided into three separate municipalities (the original French/Spanish city was the First Municipality, the newer "American" section was the Second, and the area to the east of the "old city" was the Third). While there remained a single Mayor for the entire city, most other functions were exercised by separate agencies within the individual municipalities. Thus there was a Council for each municipality (as well as a General Council with authority in matters not delegated to the specific bodies). Similar arrangements existed for fiscal agencies and for other offices, such as surveyors, attorneys, and police department. In 1852, the three municipalities, along with the separate city of Lafayette, were consolidated into a new government for the city of New Orleans. Within this Guide, several of the functional sections are subdivided according to the chronological outline suggested above, i.e., Colonial period, Old City period, Municipality period, and Consolidated City period.

Researchers should also note that three segments of the City Archives Collection are not fully described in this guide. These segments comprise the records of the aforementioned city of Lafayette, along with those of two other separate cities, Jefferson City and Carrollton. These records were not included in the NEH preservation microfilming project and thus have not yet been fully described. Earlier descriptions for Lafayette and Jefferson City by Collin B. Hamer, Jr. (Head of the Louisiana Division) are available in the Division, and the City Archives card catalog includes the records of these municipal entities as well.

Also not included either in the NEH project or in this guide are the extensive records in the Orleans Parish Civil Courts Collection and the Orleans Parish Criminal Courts Collection. Many of the pre-1862 records in the former collection have been filmed; inventories and indexes, but not narrative descriptions, are available for those records. Only a small portion of the more recently acquired criminal records has been filmed, but indexing is available for much of the collection. Interested researchers should consult with the archives staff for further information.

The descriptions in this guide were prepared by archivist Wayne Everard along with archives staff members Irene Wainwright and Rodney Smith. Earlier forms of some of the individual descriptions were prepared by University of New Orleans student interns Ernest Brin, David Deakle, Mark Flynn, Beatrice Owsley, and Sally Reeves, and by New Orleans Mayor's Office intern Kirk Cheramie.

Go back to Early Records menu

Go back to Archival Inventories

Back to Nutrias Home