Archives

Manuscript records created by the French are the richest and most reliable source for reconstructing the events and human experiences in Louisiana and Senegal during the Atlantic era. From them we learn of a free African woman who traveled from Saint-Louis du Senegal with two of her own slaves to join her French husband in New Orleans. The sacramental records of baptisms, marriages, and burials offer a treasure trove of intimate details about colonial New Orleanians, from the wealthiest plantation master to the enslaved mother presenting her baby to a European priest at the baptismal font. Colonial censuses tell us where people lived, what they did for a living, and how many people, enslaved and free, lived in any given household. Trial transcripts reveal that the top merchant of bear grease — a valuable commodity in colonial Louisiana — was a woman who drove as hard a bargain as any man. Another court record pulls back the curtain on the story of an enslaved man in Louisiana who murdered his wife because she couldn’t tell him where his pipe was.

The manuscript records of Senegal can only be found in archives there and in France. The rich archives of New Orleans are more accessible to residents of the U.S., though before the 1830s most of the records are in French and Spanish. Fortunately for the linguistically disinclined, more than a few of colonial Louisiana’s records have been digitized, indexed, or translated. They are listed in the readings for this unit, along with a wonderful book recently translated from French that explains the irresistible allure of the archives of this period.

If you are able, do visit the manuscript archives of New Orleans. Even if you can’t read the documents you will find there, the experience of holding a piece of writing produced by someone who lived in the 1700s will change the way you think about how we learn about the past. Information about New Orleans archives can be found in the Further Exploration section of this unit.