Shirley Hornbeck's This and That Genealogy Tips on Canada, England, Scotland and Ireland


The British colonies on the western shores of the Atlantic were founded and developed in a variety of circumstances during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries: as a result their legal status and administrative arrangements followed no common pattern. Control by the authorities in London was seldom close and in some colonies, at some periods, almost nonexistent. Local government was generally conducted by officials of the colonies themselves, and the records thereof are preserved, if they survive, in the appropriate state archive, where any inquiry should first be pursued.

The responsible authorities in London were the Secretaries of State and the Board of Trade. Of the two Secretaries, it was the Secretary of State for the Southern Department who was primarily, if not exclusively, charged with the oversight of colonial administrations, except for the period between 1768 and 1782, when a third Secretary of State, the Colonial or American Secretary, was appointed. For much executive action, advice and routine administration, however, the Secretaries were dependent on the Lords of Trade and Plantations, commonly known as the Board of Trade. The Board was founded in 1696 to succeed a variety of bodies with similar titles and overlapping jurisdictions which had existed at various periods since 1660. Its functions were originally purely advisory, but came in time to include much of the administration of the colonies, and to its offices at Plantations House were addressed many of the papers now in the Public Record Office.

The prime source of information about the records held in the Public Record Office is C. M. Andrews Guide to the Materials for American History to 1783 in the Public Record Office (2 vols, Carnegie Institution, Washington, 1912). Some of the references given are now obsolete, but can be keyed to those in current use.

A complete history of the records with guidance on their use, giving the references in their modern form, is to be found in R. D. B Pugh The Records of the Colonial and Dominions Offices, (PRO Handbook No 3, HMSO 1964).

Documents in the Public Record Office and elsewhere not mentioned by Andrews are described in B R Crick and M Alman eds. A Guide to Manuscripts Relating to America in Great Britain and Ireland (Mansell Publishing 1961) a revised edition of which has been prepared by John W. Raimo and published, under the same title, by Meckler Books/Mansell Publishing (1979).

Documents relating to the Caribbean are noted in H C Bell, D W. Parker and others Guide to British West Indian Archive Materials, in London and in the Islands, for the History of the United States (Carnegie Institution, Washington 1926); and P Walne ed. A Guide to Manuscript Sources for the History of Latin America and the Caribbean in the British Isles (Oxford University Press, 973).

The texts or abstracts of many documents from 1574 to 1738 can be found in Calendar of State Papers Colonial (HMSO, 1859 onwards).

Documents of the period from 1770 to 1783 are being similarly published as K G Davies ed. The Documents of the American Revolution (21 vols to date, Irish University Press 1972 onwards).

The arrangement of the earlier records does not reflect the respective roles of the Secretary of State and the Board of Trade. The class Colonial Papers: General Series (CO 1) was brought together by W N Sainsbury, first editor of the Calendar of State Papers Colonial: it contains, in chronological order, all the papers printed in the Calendar and dated not later than 1688, the original terminal date of the publication.

From 1688, and in a few instances before, until 1807, the records relating to the American colonies are combined in America and West Indies: Original Correspondence etc (CO 5). The records are arranged by colony:
Carolina (Propriety);
North Carolina;
South Carolina;
East Florida;
West Florida;
New England (Massachussets, Rhode Island, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania);
New Hampshire;
New Jersey;
New York;
Rhode Island;
Virginia and the Proprieties (including the Bahamas, Carolina, Connecticut, Maryland, East and West New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island).

In spite of its title, the class does not include records of the colonies of Canada and the West Indies and includes only one, the Bahamas, which did not come to form part of the United States.

For each colony there are five main types of record: the Original Correspondence with the Secretary of State and with the Board of Trade; Entry Books of both; collections of Acts, and of Sessional Papers, of the colonial legislature. In addition there are for some colonies Naval Officers’ Returns of shipping, collections of land grants and other materials, and military and naval dispatches. Documents concerned with Indian affairs and other, more general matters, are arranged in separate series.

The records concerned with: Antigua and Montserrat; Bahamas; Barbados; Bermuda; former French colony of Canada; Dominica; Grenada; British Honduras; Hudson’s Bay; Jamaica; Leeward Islands (including Antigua, St Kitts, Montserrat, Nevis and the Virgin Islands); Montserrat; Nevis; Newfoundland; Nova Scotia and Cape Breton Island; Prince Edward Island; St Kitts; St Lucia; St Vincent; Tobago; Trinidad; and Virgin Islands are arranged in the same way, but each series forms a separate class. The class numbers are listed by Pugh and Andrews and can also readily be identified in the Current Guide in the Reference Room.

Some records deal with matters concerning the Colonies in general. They are in the classes: Colonies General: Original Correspondence CO 323 Entry Books CO 324 Board of Trade: Original Correspondence CO 388 Board of Trade: Entry Books CO 389 Board of Trade: Miscellaneous CO 390

The class Board of Trade: Minutes (CO 391) includes the Journal of the Board of Trade.

Entries before April 1704 appear in the Calendar of State Papers Colonial, and those for the period April 1704 to May 1782 in: Journal of the Commissioners for Trade and Plantations (14 vols HMSO 1920-1928).

There are collections of reports and papers from, and orders and instructions to, the responsible officials in each colony, especially the governors. The correspondence of the Secretaries of State and the Board of Trade are in separate sequences. Each contains not only correspondence with the colonies but also with other officials and private individuals in the United Kingdom and between the Secretary of State and the Board.

From 1703 to 1759 manuscript calendars of the correspondence of the Board with each colony were compiled: these are in General Registers (CO 326) pieces 1 to 51.

From 1759 to 1782 a single, annual, calendar was prepared for all colonies: this series is CO 326 pieces 52-74.

These are letter books containing copies of dispatches, letters, reports, petitions, commissions and instructions, either in full or in abstract. Before 1700 apers received as well as papers despatched are noted. The Entry Books served as the primary record of outgoing correspondence, in particular royal commission, instructions and warrants: they were not intended as means of reference to the correspondence as a whole.

Copies, either printed or in manuscript, of the Acts and proceedings of colonial councils and legislatures were forwarded to the Board of Trade, having been approved, or rejected, by the Privy Council. Other copies were retained in the colony itself where, as a rule, they are still to be found.

The Naval Officers were officials of the Board, in practice usually Customs Officers acting in a second capacity, and they discharged certain statutory duties under the Navigation Acts. They compiled lists of the merchantmen entering and clearing their ports: these returns, at their fullest, give dates, the names of master and vessel, tonnage, when and where built, whence and whither bound, and the nature, consignor and consignee of the cargo. Only a proportion of the lists survive: comparable records can also be found in Treasury Board Papers (T 1) and Miscellaneous (BT 6).

The dispatches collected in CO 5 relate mainly to fighting against the French and various Indian tribes, which could not conveniently be divided by colony. Original Correspondence: West Indies (CO 318) also contains some military dispatches. The majority of records concerning naval operations will be found among the ADM classes in the Public Record Office, and many concerning military operations, including a proportion removed from the papers of the Secretary of State and the Board of Trade, are in the WO classes. A detailed index to these papers is given in Alphabetical Guide to the War Office and other Classes (PRO List and Index Series vol LIII, HMSO 1931; reprinted by Kraus Thomson Organization 1963).

The extensive and varied records of the Treasury contain much material relating to the colonies: all have been mentioned by Andrews in volume II. Those records of the Board of Customs which survived a fire in 1814, chiefly statistics of trade, are likewise described by Andrews in the same volume.

In early colonial America the ownership of the land was considered to be vested in the Crown by right of discovery and settlement by its subjects. The Crown granted land to companies and to proprietors to organize settlements and also to some individual subjects as a reward for services. The matter is more fully described in O T Barck Jr. and H T Lefler Colonial America (Collier 1968)

The system whereby recipients of royal grants in turn gave or sold land varied. In some colonies, notably in New England, the legislatures established by the colonists assumed jurisdiction over the allocation of company lands. They made some direct grants to individuals for ‘adventuring’ money in the companies, but the greater part went to groups or communities to establish townships and to apportion the surrounding land.

In the southern counties, the ‘headright’ system of land distribution was the most common method followed during the seventeenth century. An individual who provided transport to the colony for any immigrant was thereby entitled to at least fifty acres of land. During the same period, however, larger tracts were given by the Crown, the proprietor or the company to favorites, to those who performed outstanding service to the company or, as in Maryland, to those who transported five or more persons to the colony. The ‘headright’ system led to many frauds and abuses, and by the early years of the eighteenth century most of the land was distributed by purchase or by taking out a patent signed by the governor of the colony for new, unpatented land.

Although grants were nominally made in the name of the Crown, most were made and recorded locally rather than in London. Of those grants which were reported to the Secretary of State or the Board of Trade no index exists. However, many are noted in Andrews and in the Calendar of State Papers Colonial.

There are collections of papers concerning Indian affairs in general, and relating to large tribes and confederacies not dwelling in any one colony in CO 5. The class includes some treaties, but there is no index to them and no easy means of locating those not mentioned by Andrews or in the Calendar.

Separate leaflets are available on request on the service records of officers and men of the British Forces serving in the Army, Navy and Royal Marines; on emigre loyalists, on emigration and on merchant shipping records (Registrar General of Shipping and Seamen).


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