NEW ORLEANS -- A marathon project is under way in New Orleans to digitize thousands of time-worn 18th-century French and Spanish legal papers that historians say give the first historical accounts of slaves and free blacks in North America.
Yellowed page by yellowed page, archivists are scanning the 220,000 manuscript pages from the French Superior Council and Spanish Judiciary between 1714 and 1803 in an effort to digitize, preserve, translate and index Louisiana’s colonial past and in the process help re-write American history.
"No single historian could ever live long enough to write all the books that are to be written from all these documents," said Emily Clark, a Tulane University historian who has worked in the papers.
The few historians who’ve pored over the unique archive say it’s pivotal because it connects early America to the broader history of the Atlantic slave trade. It’s at the heart of a wave of research tracing American roots beyond the English colonies and into Spain, France and Africa.
"We don’t think of American society simply built from east to west, but we think of it as built from south to north," said Ira Berlin, a University of Maryland historian. "As you begin to think of a different kind of history, you’re naturally looking for new kinds of sources to write that history."
This massive trove mostly describes domestic life as found in civil court papers, because the colony’s administrative records were taken back to Europe when the United States took possession of Louisiana in 1803.
So they tell of shipwrecks and pirates, of thieves and murderers, of gambling debts and slave sales, of real estate deals and wills. One finds pages signed by historical figures like Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, better known as Bienville, the founder of New Orleans, and Louis XVI, the king of France. And the bizarre, as in the case of a man accused of selling dog meat to Charity Hospital.
Inside the Old United States Mint museum, where the archive is stored, the pace of work is slow and methodical. The digitization team now consists of one full time staffer and one part-timer. The Louisiana State Museum, which cares for the archive, hopes to add more staff and finish the project within three years. At the current pace, it will take more than 10 years to finish.
Melissa Stein, the full-time staffer, looks for intriguing cases, like one about exhuming the body of an unbaptized 13-year-old slave girl, baptizing her and moving her body into the cemetery.
"It’s a very short document, and really, really faded," she said, studying the fragment. She slipped it back into its folder. "It was a rough life here, that’s for sure."
In colonial Louisiana, unlike the English colonies, African slaves and free blacks were allowed to testify in person in court.
"The Roman legal code recognized the personhood of an enslaved person and English common law didn’t," Clark said. "So the kinds of things we can find out about the experiences of enslaved people from our records in Louisiana do not exist in the records of the 13 colonies."
Sophie White, a University of Notre Dame historian very familiar with the collection, said the testimony "opens up so much more about what as historians we can say about daily life."
White and Clark said they’ve learned that slaves owned property and even owned other slaves. They have learned that some slaves wore corsets, clothing typically worn by European women, and that they often chose to run away and face severe punishment to be close to their families. The records also show enslaved people were baptized in the Roman Catholic church.
"It blurs the boundary between freedom and slavery," Clark said. "It’s not a two-dimensional picture: What do you make of it when you find an enslaved man who himself possesses two slaves and he does so when he is a teenager?"
Louisiana’s first European settlements were made by the French in the early 1700s -- New Orleans’ founding came in 1718. The territory became Spanish after the French and Indian War in the 1760s and reverted briefly to French control under Napoleon in the early 1800s before being purchased by the United States in 1803.
The documents survived heat and humidity, the turmoil of the Civil War and repeated hurricanes.
The entire collection was in serious peril when Hurricane Katrina’s flood waters and winds rampaged through the city in August 2005. The Old United States Mint museum was on high enough ground near the Mississippi River that it didn’t flood. But the building’s roof was torn up and torrential rains damaged the building. A month after Katrina, the archive had to be packed up and evacuated.
Although nearly all the city’s most important archives made it through the storm without major damage, some smaller archives and many personal collections stored in attics, basements and closets were lost.
"Katrina threatened all archives in the city," Clark said. "That was certainly a wake-up call."
After the storm, the state museum received about $196,000 from several foundations to begin digitally preserving the old archives. The state historians are seeking about $1.5 million more to hire additional staff and equipment to complete the digitization project more quickly.
Katrina wasn’t the first time the colonial records were in jeopardy.
During the Civil War, the records were scattered and looted by Confederate and Union soldiers. After the war, historians recovered what they could and packed it away in wooden boxes at Tulane University.
It wasn’t until the early 1900s for serious preservation and translation work to begin. The Works Progress Administration then patched up pages with tape (chemical from the tape is now eating at pages) and wrote English synopses.
But past archivists and translators also buried important documents. Entire chunks -- most importantly documents dealing with slave trials and women -- were conspicuously left out of consideration. In one memorable case, archivists censored a case about a soldier accused of bestiality.
The hope is that digitization will change everything: literally allowing researchers to look at the fibers in a page and open up the collection for all to see and interpret.
"It’s opening up a whole new way for us to manipulate the image and actually see details in the original that you can’t see sometimes in microfilm or even when you’re looking at it in front of you," White said. "I can blow up that passage. See it better."