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Colonial and State Records of North Carolina
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The Print Edition

The Colonial Records of North Carolina

William Saunders (1835-1891), a newspaper editor, lawyer, and public official, edited the first ten volumes of the series, published as The Colonial Records of North Carolina. Saunders, as the secretary of state for North Carolina, had unique access to public records, many of which were then in the custody of the secretary's office. He worked to find, preserve, and publish the long neglected documentary history of the state. With General Assembly backing, Saunders located records in public and private collections in the United States and Europe. Although his original intent was to cover the period up to 1781, time constraints required him to conclude with the ratification of the North Carolina State Constitution in December 1776.

The state published The Colonial Records between 1886 and 1890, with the last volume being published shortly before Saunders' death. In keeping with the general tradition of historical editing, Saunders arranged the materials in chronological order. Despite his efforts to make a complete inventory of relevant records before beginning publication, he did end up with a number of records that were out of chronological order in the final arrangement, which he published in appendices in the later volumes. These ten volumes contained no indices and no tables of contents, either individually or as a set.

For the earliest years of North Carolina's settlement, very few records were still extant or accessible at the time Saunders began his work. Consequently the first volume of the set covers almost a hundred years. The number of years covered decreased in each subsequent volume, right up through volume 10, which covers only two years. The starting and ending dates for these volumes generally coincide with the beginning and end of a gubernatorial administration, particularly for the volumes covering the years of royal government from 1729 on. Because of the dearth of very early records, Sanders included a much greater variety of documents for these early years, including many types of church and court records that do not appear in later volumes. The criteria for inclusion in the publication were narrower for the later years of the colonial period. For these years, Saunders primarily published records related to colony-wide affairs.

The State Records of North Carolina

Two years after the death of Saunders, a second editor, Walter Clark (1846-1924), began where the first had left off. Like Saunders, Clark was a lawyer, public official, and amateur historian. As a justice on North Carolina's Supreme Court, Clark did not have Saunders' privileged position with respect to the state's records, but his concern to preserve and promote the state's history caused him to go to great lengths in search of relevant materials. He hoped to fulfill Saunders' original intent of continuing the series through 1781, but after he had been collecting documents for two years, the General Assembly authorized him to publish the records of the subsequent decade as well.

The sixteen volumes that Clark published between 1895 and 1907 are known as The State Records of North Carolina, but they also include a substantial number of documents dating from the colonial period, including almost an entire volume devoted to colonial laws and a volume of "miscellaneous" records. Clark continued the series' sequential numbering and attempted to continue the chronological arrangement of the earlier volumes, but unlike his predecessor, he rushed to print volumes as soon as he could fill them rather than waiting until he had a complete inventory of the available documents. His haste to publish resulted in a somewhat confusing arrangement, with newly found colonial documents added to several of the state records volumes and many of the volumes overlapping in coverage dates.

Records from the Revolutionary War and Confederation periods are more abundant than those from the colonial period. Faced with a greater volume of records suitable for publication, Clark was obliged to be more selective than Saunders had been even in the last volumes of The Colonial Records. Whereas The Colonial Records includes a substantial number of church and local records, The State Records is more narrowly focused on the records of the governor, the legislature, and the military, although it also includes some records that do not fall into these categories. In order to save paper and ink (and tax payer money), Clark often included only fragments of documents in The State Records, relying on his knowledge, opinion, and experience to guide his judgments on a document by document basis. Describing the selection method he used for a group of fragments related to military activity in North Carolina in late 1780, Clark wrote that he "made only such extracts as seem important and interesting." 1

Clark also published, as part of The State Records, all the laws he was able to find from the colonial and early state period in three volumes and the records of the first Federal census in the final volume of the set. None of the volumes in the series includes a table of contents, with the exception of volume 25, which includes a listing of all the laws from 1670 to 1790 and where they can be found in The Colonial and State Records. Also included in the volumes published under Clark's editorship are an index to volumes 23-25 and an index to the census, but readers would have to wait until seven years after the publication of volume 26 for an index to the entire Colonial and State Records.

The Addition of the Index

At the same time as the scope of the project was increased to cover the early state years after the Revolutionary War, another editor had been authorized to compile an index for all of the colonial and state volumes. Stephen B. Weeks (1865-1918), considered "North Carolina's first professional historian," 2 spent almost twenty years completing the four-volume master index for the set, the index to the law volumes appended to volume 25, and the index to the 1790 census at the beginning of volume 26. In addition, Weeks wrote a lengthy essay describing previous efforts to document North Carolina's history, providing an "analysis of the materials printed," and surveying still unpublished historical materials relating to the state available in various public and private collections.

Because prior to the 1909 publication of the first volume of the master index there had been no index or table of contents for the majority of the materials in The Colonial and State Records of North Carolina, Weeks' contribution to the project was extremely important. Furthermore, his extensive knowledge of North Carolina history enabled him to contribute to the explication of the documents through the index entries and sub-entries. He brought together references to names and events whose relationships to each other might otherwise have remained obscure for the reader, a daunting task, and one which even Weeks could not complete. Indeed, he noted in his preface to the first volume of the Index, "So far as his judgment would permit the Compiler has grouped the references to one man under his name, but it should not be taken for granted that all the references to John Smith, for instance, found under the head of that particular worthy can refer only to that particular individual." 3

The Post-Publication Fate of the Records

While the majority of the documents published in the Colonial and State Records were (and still are) located in repositories that include the British Public Records Office, the North Carolina State Archives, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's Southern Historical Collection, and a variety of other formal and informal archival repositories in North Carolina and elsewhere, Saunders and Clark used their wide networks of contacts to find and have copied records from a variety of other public and private collections. In the years since their publication, some of these documents have changed hands or disappeared from both public and private collections, and if not actually lost are, at least, difficult to find. The editors of The Colonial and State Records did not always provide enough information about the location of their source material, and the source notes they did provide are now out of date and have been superseded by new systems of arrangement in the repositories. Consequently, because it provides access to otherwise unavailable materials, this set has become an invaluable resource for anyone studying North Carolina's history.

With more and more people learning about the state's past, including many elementary and high school students, it is important to keep the documents published in The Colonial and State Records accessible. Most people will never visit the North Carolina State Archives or the National Archives of the United Kingdom; nevertheless, the few libraries across the state that own the set have allowed them to access primary materials dating back hundreds of years. Now the "Colonial and State Records of North Carolina" digital collection will make it possible for even more readers to learn about the state's early history through the words of the people who lived it.

The Historical Editing Tradition

In publishing The Colonial and State Records, North Carolina was doing what many of the other thirteen original colonies had done, with varying degrees of thoroughness, and continuing a tradition whose beginnings were contemporaneous with those of the nation itself. Educated people of the time considered the publication of these early records to be a way to preserve them and make them more accessible and, often, a way to glorify their ancestors. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, many prominent individuals in North Carolina became involved in the promotion of the state's history and culture to people in all levels of society. Collecting and publishing historical records thus contributed to a long-standing effort to preserve history for the elites and a more recent movement to enlighten a broader segment of the population.

Despite the value of its contribution to historical scholarship, The Colonial and State Records of North Carolina may leave many modern readers frustrated and puzzled by its failure to meet current standards for documentary editions. These standards call for careful planning at each step in the process, with clear selection criteria, detailed source information, and consistent methods of presentation. Although they worked in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Saunders' and Clark's work more closely resembles the work of the many avocational historians turned documentary editors in the eighteenth century than it does the work of the professional editors of the twentieth century. Indeed, the work of most of their contemporaries could be similarly characterized. At that time, it would have been extraordinary for them to have explained their selection criteria and extracting practices; today, however, it would be extraordinary for documentary editors not to explain these decisions.

The Colonial Records of North Carolina, Second Series

Despite its publication being hailed as a milestone in North Carolina's history, The Colonial and State Records was not without its flaws, many of which soon became apparent to its readers. In the mid-20th century, the State Historical Publications Division began work on a new series of documentary volumes covering only the colonial period of North Carolina's history. The project was inaugurated to celebrate the three hundredth anniversary of the first proprietary charter, granted by King Charles II in 1663 with a volume of founding documents, including the charter and the first state constitution. The state later expanded the project, and work is ongoing. Thus far, with eleven volumes published, the second series includes portions of the records of North Carolina's highest court, the Governor's Council, and the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts.

The Colonial Records of North Carolina, Second Series is not intended to replace The Colonial and State Records; it is intended to build upon the work done by Saunders, Clark, and Weeks. In the "Foreword" to the first volume of the Second Series, Christopher Crittenden, Director of the Department of Archives and History, identifies several reasons for beginning a new series, including the need for editorial standards. Furthermore, the discovery of additional colonial documents and improvements in reproduction and publication technology necessitated the new series. 4


1. Walter Clark, "Essay by Walter Clark concerning correspondence concerning the North Carolina military after the Battle of Camden," "Colonial and State Records of North Carolina" digital collection (csr14-es02).

2. H. G. Jones, "Stephen Beauregard Weeks: North Carolina's First 'Professional' Historian," North Carolina Historical Review, 42:1 (1965).

3. Stephen B. Weeks, "Preface to the Index to the Colonial and State Records of North Carolina," "Colonial and State Records of North Carolina" digital edition (csr27-es01).

4. Mattie Erma Parker, The Colonial Records of North Carolina [Second Series], Raleigh, N.C.: Carolina Charter Tercentenary Commission, 1963-, Vol. I, p. vii.