How to look for records of... American and West Indian colonies before 1782
How can I view the records covered in this guide?
How many are online?
1. Why use this guide?
Use this guide to find out about records of the British administration in colonial North America (present day United States) and the West Indies.
The records can tell you about:
- the earliest English settlements (rather than settlers) in North America
- Native Americans
- the slave trade
- English conflicts with the Spanish and French
This is not a guide to records relating to colonial settlers. For this sort of research, start by looking at our research guide on emigration. Colonial newspapers are also a useful resource – our research guide on newspapers has more information.
For records relating to Canada, see our research guide on colonies and dependencies.
2. Essential information
Britain’s North American colonies were founded and developed during the 17th and 18th centuries. Responsibility for colonial matters fell at various times to the:
- Secretaries of State and Board of Trade (called the Lords of Trade and Plantations)
- Secretary of State for the Southern Department
- Colonial or American Secretary (for the period 1768-1782)
Most decisions were made by local officials, rather than the British authorities, and the records they created are kept in American archives. Search for state university archives and libraries or try the following websites to locate appropriate resources:
- The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA)
- Contact information for state archives (on the NARA website)
- Library of Congress
3. Using our catalogue to find records
For tips on searching the catalogue, use the help page.
Look for mentions in this guide of:
- department references such as CO (Colonial Office) or T (Treasury)
- record series references such as CO 1 or T 77
These will help you to focus your search for relevant records using the advanced search option in our catalogue.
Our catalogue contains descriptions of our records. Some of the records described in this guide are available online (through an academic subscription) but for many that you find references for, you will need to either visit The National Archives at Kew or pay for copies to be sent to you. Alternatively, you can pay for research.
4. Key sources
4.1 Online sources
The best place to start your research is with the Colonial State Papers online collection. This is available to institutions such as universities and public libraries that have subscribed.
The collection combines The National Archives record series CO 1 with the Calendar of State Papers, Colonial and some parts of CO 5 and CO 389 (see below).
4.2 Records at The National Archives
The following record series are available at The National Archives in Kew. Click on the following series references to search for records within each respective series using keywords and dates.
- CO 1 America and West Indies, Colonial Papers 1574-1757
- CO 5 America and West Indies, Original Correspondence 1606-1822
- CO 318 West Indies, Original Correspondence 1624-1951
- CO 323 Colonies, Original Correspondence 1689-1952
- CO 389 Board of Trade, Entry books 1660-1803
- CO 390 Board of Trade, Miscellanea 1654-1799
To see what records are available online
- go to the advanced search page
- use a wildcard search within a particular record series (such as CO 5) or department reference (such as CO)
- select ‘online collections only’
4.3 Published sources
The Calendar of State Papers, Colonial; North America and the West Indies 1574-1757 is a collection of transcripts and abstracts of original documents bound together in published volumes.
The Calendar brings together papers from different sources, printed in date order. The original papers are in CO1 (up to 1688) and CO 5 (1688 to 1807).
See our research guide on How to use the Calendar of State Papers Colonial, America and the West Indies 1573-1739.
5. What sort of documents can I find?
For each colony there are five main types of record, explained in greater detail in the sections below. They are:
- Original Correspondence with the Secretary of State
- Original Correspondence with the Board of Trade
- Entry Books of the Secretary of State
- Entry Books of the Board of Trade
- Collections of Acts and Sessional Papers of the colonial legislature
For some colonies only there are also
- naval officers’ returns of shipping
- military and naval despatches
- collections of land grants and other materials
6. Original correspondence
These are collections of
- reports, orders and instructions from and to the officials in each colony
- correspondence with officials and other people in the United Kingdom
- correspondence between the Secretary of State and the Board of Trade
There are calendars of the correspondence of the Board with each colony in
Alternatively, use the “Journals of the Board of Trade and Plantations”, available in the reading rooms at The National Archives at Kew, which also provides summaries of original correspondence.
7. Entry Books
Entry Books were used to record correspondence going in and out of the Colonial Office, although from 1700 they only record items going out.
They contain full copies or summarised versions of despatches, letters, reports, petitions, commissions and instructions.
8. Acts and sessional papers
Colonial authorities sent copies of their Acts and Proceedings to the Privy Council for approval or rejection. They were then forwarded to the Board of Trade.
Search the catalogue using keyword expressions such as ‘Maryland Acts’. There will be information in PC 1 and PC 2 but this will not be picked up by a catalogue search and you will need to look speculatively within those record series.
Copies of Acts and Proceedings were kept by the colony itself and you can often find these in US state and university archives (see section 2).
9. Military and naval despatches
The best way to identify useful records is to use the List and Index Society Volume LIII: An alphabetical guide to certain War Office and other military records, available in the reading rooms at The National Archives at Kew and in other academic libraries. This provides a comprehensive lists of subjects and names of individuals which are cross referenced to the relevant records at The National Archives.
Alternatively, use the advanced search option in our catalogue and search within the following record series for despatches:
- WO 1, WO 2, WO 3, WO 4, WO 5 – War Office in-letters and miscellaneous papers
- CO 5 Original Correspondence 1606-1822 – contains despatches related to fighting against the French and various Native American tribes
- CO 318 Original Correspondence: West Indies – contains some military despatches
You can search more speculatively by searching within the department references ADM for navy records and WO for army records.
Keyword catalogue searches will only pick up records where the descriptions provide sufficient detail. Because the record series above are not described comprehensively you may not find what you need.
10. Land grants
10.1 Land grants by the Crown
In early colonial America, Britain considered land to belong to the Crown because it had been discovered and settled by its subjects.
The Crown granted land to companies to organise settlements and sometimes to people as a reward for services.
Although land grants were nominally made in the name of the Crown, most were made and recorded in the colonies rather than in London and these records may be available in American state archives.
10.2 Finding records of land grants
American loyalists, whose land had been handed over to the new American government following the American revolutionary wars, tried to claim compensation from the British government.
Records relating to their claims are in
There is no comprehensive index of the land grants made in colonial America but references to some grants are in:
- CM Andrews, Guide to the Materials for American History to 1783 in The Public Record Office
- Journals of the Board of Trade and Plantations
- Calendar of State Papers Colonial: America and West Indies
- Acts of the Privy Council, Colonial Series
Alternatively, search the catalogue with relevant keywords such as ‘land grant’ and ‘America’.
You can find indexes to claimants’ names in the List of Records of the Treasury, Paymaster-General’s Office, Exchequer and Audit Department and Board of Trade and other useful material in A Bibliography of Loyalist source material in the United States, Canada and Great Britain. Both items are available in The National Archives’ library.
11. Native American affairs
Records relating to Native American affairs in general, and to large tribes and confederacies not living in any one colony, are in record series CO 5.
12. Records covering all British colonies
The following record series relate to British colonies in general and will contain some information relating to North America and the West Indies:
- CO 323 Colonies General: Original Correspondence
- CO 324 Entry Books
- CO 388 Board of Trade: Original Correspondence
- CO 389 Board of Trade: Entry Books
- CO 390 Board of Trade: Miscellanea
- CO 391 Board of Trade: Minutes
CO 391 includes the Journal of the Board of Trade. Entries from the journal have been published in the Colonial State Papers (up to April 1704) and the Journal of the Commissioners for Trade and Plantations (April 1704-May 1782).
13. Treasury and customs records
Records from the Treasury and the Board of Customs can provide useful information about the colonies. The relevant Customs records are mostly trade statistics.
Use Andrews’ Guide to the Materials for American History Volume II to identify the relevant records from these departments.
14. Further reading
Some of the publications below may be available to buy from The National Archives’ bookshop. Alternatively, click on the links to view the books in The National Archives’ library catalogue and see what is available to consult at our building in Kew.
- C M Andrews Guide to the Materials for American History to 1783 in The Public Record Office (1912) [Some of the references given are out of date and need to be converted into current references]
- O T Barck and H T Lefler, Colonial America (1968)
- 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 (1926)
- B R Crick, M Alman and J W Raimo, A Guide to Manuscripts Relating to America in Great Britain and Ireland (1979)
- K G Davies ed, The Documents of the American Revolution (1972-1981)
- Guy Grannum, Tracing Your Caribbean Ancestors (2012) – also available from our bookshop
- R B Pugh, The Records of the Colonial and Dominions Offices (1964)
- A Thurston, Sources for Colonial Studies in the Public Record Office, Volume I: Records of the Colonial Office Dominions Office, Commonwealth Relations Office and Commonwealth Office (1995)
- P Walne, ed, A Guide to Manuscript Sources for the History of Latin America and the Caribbean in the British Isles (1973)
- Alphabetical Guide to the War Office and other Series (PRO List and Index Series vol LIII, 1931; reprinted 1963)
- Journals of the Board of Trade and Plantations