Florida has always been Native land and indigenous peoples play an important role in Florida's past and present. One way in which historians explore the history of Native Florida is through the government documents of European and American settlers. These documents are well-preserved because they were seen as important and objective historical documents. Today we recognize that no primary source can be completely objective, and that government documents reflect the biases and motivations of the governments and individuals who created them.
When interpreting government documents, consider the following:
Let's test our skills by analyzing the following government document.
Here is a letter sent on February 8, 1827 from Thomas L. McKenney, Superintendent of Indian Affairs in Washington, D. C., to Colonel Gad Humphreys, Indian Agent stationed in St. Augustine, Florida.
The Superintendent's office, located in the United States Department of War, kept copies of all correspondence sent out in a letterbook.1
These letterbooks are now kept at the National Archives and copies have been digitized and made available online. This letter is from Records of the Office of Indian Affairs, Letters Sent, Volume 3, Image 210.
Try to read the original handwriting by clicking the image to see an enlarged version. This letter is on the right of the two-page book in the image.
In the transcript that follows, I have written out any abbreviated words from the original letter.
To Colonel Gad Humphreys
Indian Agent, etc.
St. Augustine, Florida.
Frequent complaints have been made to the Department respecting Slaves claimed by Citizens of Florida, which are in the possession of the Indians; all of which have been acted on here, in issuing such orders to you as it was expected would be promptly obeyed—and lead to such investigations as should issue in fixing the right of the Claimants, or establishing the contrary—and that these proceedings would be followed by the proper reports to the Department. Nothing satisfactory has been received of you.
I now, by direction of the Secretary of War, again call your attention to this subject, in a general way; and particularly in regard to the claim of Margaret Cook; and require it of you forthwith to cause the Negroes, claimed by her, to be surrendered to her upon her entering into a bond with sufficient security of which you will judge to abide by the decision of such Tribunal as it may be esteemed proper, by the Secretary of War, to establish to decide upon the claim.
You will at the same time satisfy the Indians of the propriety and Justice of this course. Tell them the claim is set up; and that this act is merely to secure the property until the right is decided, when if it be in them they will be restored; and if, in the claimant they ought not to expect to hold them.
It is expected of you to report generally upon such other like claims as may exist in regard to Slaves.—
I am, Very Respectfully Your Obedient Servant,
Thomas L. McKenney
1. Read more about letterbooks in Mark Boonshoft's blog post, "Letterbooks, Indexes, and Learning about Early American Business," New York Public Library, July 20, 2015.
Try to answer each question for yourself before clicking to reveal my interpretation.
You can learn more about Colonel Humphreys's struggles to mediate among the Seminoles, white settlers in Florida, and his superiors in the United States government over the status of runaway slaves in Kevin Kokomoor's 2008 Master's thesis.
For more on the complex relationships among Black, Indigenous, and white communities in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Florida, see:
"Government document" is a very broad category that includes any information created or collected by a governing body. In the United States, this can include federal, state, or local governments, and includes such diverse types of information as laws, court rulings, speeches, correspondence among government officials, economic data, scientific research, international diplomacy, classified intelligence, feedback from constituents, and much more!
With such a wide range of information types, does "government document" even makes sense as a category? While we might ask different questions when interpreting each of these distinct types of information, what government documents do have in common is how they are organized. Usually they are organized by the agency or branch of government that created them. Therefore, historians who want to use government documents must first determine where to find relevant information. One way to figure this out is to ask some of the following questions:
For example, we now know that the United States federal government has long had a direct interest in regulating relationships with Native Americans. The letter from McKenney to Humphreys comes from the records of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Like many government agencies, the Bureau has had several different names and was at times organized under different executive departments. Wikipedia is helpful for tracing the name and organizational changes.
Despite the name changes, the majority of historical records created or received by the Bureau have been kept together. Most are in Washington, D. C. at the National Archives. Others are located in regional offices around the country.
Other collections of government documents that may be include large number of documents relating to the history of Florida include:
Strozier Library also holds a large print collection of government documents created by the State of Florida. These are in the compact shelving in the Scholars Commons, on the lower level.
The best place for state documents, however, is the State Library and Archives, located in the R.A. Gray Building at 500 South Bronough Street, a short walk from the FSU Libraries.
Florida State University Libraries | 116 Honors Way | Tallahassee, FL 32306 | (850) 644-2706