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Guide reference: Overseas Records Information 32
Last updated: 10 March 2008

1. Why use this guide

This guide supplements our guide on American and West Indian colonies before 1782 and helps you to find records of the British administration in colonial North America and the West Indies.

The Calendar of State Papers Colonial, America and West Indies is a key resource for finding these records.

The calendar is available online and in printed form at academic institutions and specialist libraries as well as at The National Archives in Kew. This guide is written to help you if you are using a printed, rather than online, copy of the calendar.

The calendar contains summaries of the original colonial-era documents, arranged by date. The indexes to the calendar make it easy to find out which original documents mention a specific person, place or event.

You might find that the information in the calendar is all you need, but if you would like to see the original documents, this guide explains how to find the relevant references for them.

2. Essential information

The Calendar of State Papers Colonial, America and the West Indies is available online at Colonial State Papers and British History Online. If you have access to one of these subscription sites it is by far the simplest way to proceed.

The calendar is arranged by date and runs from 1574 to 1739. Most of the documents it covers are from record series CO 1 and CO 5.

There is a separate series of calendars that covers the period of the American Revolution - Documents of the American Revolution, 1770-1783.
 

3. What is the Calendar of State Papers Colonial, America and West Indies?

The Calendar of State Papers Colonial, America and West Indies is a very detailed index of a wide range of documents relating to the American and West Indian colonies between 1574 and 1739.

The calendar entries are transcripts and summaries of the documents they refer to. Sometimes these summaries give you all the information you need, making it unnecessary to consult the original documents.

The documents were originally filed and stored in two categories:

  • America and West Indies - correspondence between the governors and the secretary of state
  • Board of Trade - correspondence with that department

When the calendar was compiled, the documents were rearranged into one chronological sequence, divided primarily by colony and type of document.

The documents are mostly from the Colonial Office (with the code CO), but the calendar also contains references to papers from other departments such as the State Paper Office and the War Office.

4. Arrangement of the Calendar

The calendar is printed in a number of volumes. The first covers the period 1574-1660 and subsequent volumes cover between one and seven years.

Each volume has a comprehensive index which lists people, places and events relevant to the years the calendar covers.

For example, Volume 5 lists 'Maryland' in the index with references to document summaries on and shows the following subjects covered by documents in the main body of the calendar:

Maryland

  • planters and traders to, 597
  • petitions of, 406, 1321
  • papists in, 404 
  • about improvement of flax, hemp, silk in, 301, 332, 862, 863, 865
  • to be custom free (for five years), 863, 865, 1585
  • about planting tobacco in, 301, 307, 308, 311, 312, 332, 358, 368, 406, 454, 781, 855, 856, 862, 863, 865, 1222, 1237, 1250, 1306, 1325, 1348, 1452, 1509, 1610, 1618
  • frauds in H.M. customs in, 644
  • directions for ships sailing from, 1084, 1321
  • prisoners sent to, 1114
  • a mint to be set up in, 72

In the first volume of the calendar (1574-1660), the numbers in the index refer to the pages in the calendar that you should turn to, but in all other volumes the numbers refer to the 'item' number that you should turn to. Item numbers are shown to the left of each section on a page.

Each page in the calendar also shows a year in the top left corner. This is so that you can tell which year the documents are from on any given page.

5. Finding the references to documents in the calendar

5.1 Calendar volumes to 1699: old style references given

At the end of each calendar entry you will find a reference in square brackets. These old style references were created when the records were arranged in their original categories (see section 3) and  follow the format below:

  • [Board of Trade, Plantations General, 5, No 29 pp 97-104]
  • [Board of Trade, New England, 49. Pp 549-562]
  • [America and West Indies, Bermuda, 447. No 57, and 39. p 11]
  • [Colonial Entry Bk Vol LXI]
  • [Col Papers, Vol XXI, No 13]
  • [Dom Entry Bk., Chas II., Vol CXCI., No 3, Cal p.498]

Where calendar entries are broken down into smaller sections, the reference is shown at the very end.

These references need to be converted into modern National Archives references in the format of CO 5 or CO 1 followed by another number.  Go to section 6 for advice on how to do this.

5.2 Calendar volume for 1700: old style references but with its own key

The calendar for 1700 has a key (after the preface) that shows CO 5 references listed by colony. So for example, if your calendar entry had a reference of 'New England 10', the key shows the modern reference is CO 5/861.

With this reference you can now view the document, either by visiting The National Archives at Kew or paying for copies to be sent to you - you do not need to go to the second step below.

5.3 Calendar volumes from 1701: modern references given

In calendars for 1701 onwards there is no old style reference to convert so you don't need to use a key. The modern document reference is already given - so they begin with CO 1 or CO 5 and then a second number - such as CO 1/22 or CO 5/184.

With this reference you can now view the document, either by visiting The National Archives at Kew or paying for copies to be sent to you - you do not need to go to the second step below.

6. Converting old references to current ones

6.1 Keys for converting references

There are two ways to convert the old reference to a current reference:

  • using a three volume manuscript key
  • using the List and Index Society key volume 342

These are keys to all colonial records, not just those for America and the West Indies. Both keys are available in the reading rooms at The National Archives in Kew.

The three-volume manuscript key is also published in appendix B of Charles M Andrews, Guide to the Materials for American History, to 1783, in The National Archives of Great Britain, Volume 1 The State Papers (1912).

6.2 Potential pitfalls to avoid

Original references might start with 'Colonial Papers', 'Colonial Entry Book' or 'Board of Trade' for example, but when you look references up in the keys, the initial descriptions are sometimes more broad.

This is particularly the case with documents where the reference starts with 'Board of Trade'. You need to read the old reference carefully to determine whether they fall under the heading:

  • Board of Trade: Colonial Entry Books series
  • Board of Trade Acts group of series
  • Board of Trade group of series
  • Board of Trade: Commercial series 1 and 2

Similarly, be careful to distinguish between references that mention:

  • Colonial Papers
  • Colonial Entry Books
  • Colonial Correspondence

7. Using the three volume manuscript key

Let's say you want to convert a reference that says 'Board of Trade, Plantations General, 5'.

First, take out the three manuscript volumes and consult the contents list at the front of each one to find which one covers 'Board of Trade, Plantations General'.

If you start with volume one of the key you will see that the first part of the index page reads as follows

This volume contains keys to the following superseded references:-
Colonial Correspondence
(Colonial Papers)
p 41
Colonial Entry Books p 45
America and West Indies p 53
Board of Trade Acts p 115
Board of Trade (Antigua-Virginia) p 213
Board of Trade (Plantations General) p 309

Your reference from the calendar was 'Board of Trade, Plantations General 5'  so you need to turn to the page listed against 'Board of Trade (Plantations General)' - which is page 309.

Turn to page 309, but note that you should be looking at the page numbers at the top right (not the bottom centre).

When you turn to page 309 you will see the following information:

Key to Board of Trade 309
Old Ref New Ref
BT Pennsylvania CO 5
3 1238
4 1256
BT Plantations General CO 323
2 1
4 2
5 3
6 4

The reference shown against 'BT Plantations General' is CO 323.

Looking down the subdivisions of BT Plantations General to number 5, you can read across to see the last part of the reference - which is 3. The whole reference is CO 323/3.

8. Using the List and Index Society key, volume 342

Turn to page ix near the front of the key and look for the heading 'Summary descriptions of old series'. You will see sub headings such as the following:

  • Colonial Papers series 
  • Board of Trade: Colonial Entry Books series
  • America and West Indies series
  • Board of Trade Acts group of series
  • Board of Trade group of series
  • Board of Trade: Commercial series 1 and 2
  • Colonial Transmissions series

Choose the description that your reference should fall under and turn to the pages shown in the key. Then work your way down the list to find the volume number for your reference.

Sometimes the reference might not have an obvious volume number - such as in 'Board of Trade, New England, 49'. In this case, '49' is the number you are looking for.

Where Roman numerals were used in the reference - such as 'Vol XXI' - you will find modern Arabic numerals are used in the key instead.

When you find the volume number in the key, read across to find the modern CO reference.

Note that the page numbers given in the calendar reference - such as in 'Board of Trade, New England, 49. Pp 549-562' - refer to pages in the original Colonial Office document.

Some examples of using the key are given below:

Example one: Reference 'Board of Trade, New York 7'

Turn to page ix of the key and look through the 'Summary descriptions of old series' to find the right one for 'Board of Trade, New York 7'.

There are a number of descriptions that begin with 'Board or Trade' - such as the following:

  • Board of Trade: Colonial Entry Books series (pages 49-50)
  • Board of Trade Acts group of series (pages 59-67)
  • Board of Trade group of series (pages 67-82)
  • Board of Trade: Commercial series 1 and 2 (pages 82- 83)

The reference in this example does not specify 'Colonial Entry Books', 'Acts' or 'Commercial', and so the relevant description is 'Board of Trade group of series' (pages 67-82). Note that it is not the 'America and the West Indies series'.

Turn to page 67 and find the heading BOARD OF TRADE followed by an alphabetical list of colonies. New York is on page 77.

Look down the column under the New York sub-heading to number 7 and read across to the corresponding reference which is CO 5/1040.

Example two: Reference 'Colonial Entry Bk Vol III'

Find the 'Summary descriptions of old series' on page ix at the front of the key.

This reference falls into the category 'Board of Trade: Colonial Entry Books series' which is on pages 49-50.

Turn to page 49 and find the heading COLONIAL ENTRY BOOKS. You then need to turn to page 50 to find the sub category for AMERICA AND WEST INDIES: Original Correspondence.

Read down the columns to find number 3 (which represents Vol III) and read across to see that the corresponding reference is CO 5/900.

Example three: Reference 'Board of Trade, Proprieties 3'

Find the 'Summary descriptions of old series' on page ix at the front of the key.

This reference falls into the category 'Board of Trade group of series' which is on pages 67-82.

Turn to page 67 and find the heading BOARD OF TRADE. Then follow the alphabetical sub headings until you find 'Proprieties' on page 79.

Read down the column to find number 3 and read across to see that the corresponding reference is CO 5/1258.

Guide reference: Overseas Records Information 32

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