Publication Date

December 1, 2012

Perspectives Section

AHA Annual Meeting

There seems to be no end to what people will say about the uniqueness of New Orleans. While much of it is true, and fair parcels of it boosterism, there is one institution here that is truly unique among American cities. The New Orleans Notarial Archives is the only extant archive of its kind in the United States. Louisiana, the only civil law state in the country, has preserved the civil law notarial tradition, unintentionally creating a treasure trove for historians.

According to the archives’ consulting archivist Sally Reeves, under civil law “the notary acts as an archivist,” collecting and cataloguing all consensual contracts. Wills, inventories, mortgages, transfers and sales of property (including slaves), building contracts—all of these documents entered the office of a notary, not just for a signature (as under common law) but also for permanent safekeeping. The purpose of this process is the protection of property rights through the creation of an evidentiary record, so that if disputes arise, parties can refer to the original contract. According to Reeves, the records come with “a guarantee of authenticity contributed by public perusal” since any errors could be found and amended. “We tell people all the time, believe the evidence you’re reading.” By the nature of the notarial process, she insists, “there are no mistakes.”

Notaries passed along their files to whoever took over their office when they died or retired. Hence, they possessed both their own notarial acts and those of their predecessors. When the Notarial Archives was created in 1867, in a postbellum effort to gather and protect all notarial documents under one roof, “it was a battle royal,” according to Reeves, to convince notaries to surrender decades-worth of contracts to a central archivist. One notary, for instance, had contracts in his possession going back to 1750.

The collection remained organized by notary until 1970. (Today it is numerical only.) Each notary produced an index of names for every bound volume he recorded, and many of these indexes are available in digital form on the archives website. One way to find the documents you need is to start with conveyance records, which are organized by the names of the parties involved in a transaction, and find the name of the notary there, then go to that notary’s collection at the archive. This typically leads to many more documents, since notaries catered to family, friends, particular ethnic groups, or neighborhoods. J.B. Marx, for instance, was a Jewish notary who catered to Anglo families in the 1830s and 1840s. Louis Martinet handled the contracts of many Creoles of color. William Castell’s volumes contain agreements entered into by members of the local Irish population. And then there are the volumes of Marc Lafitte, a notary in Saint-Domingue before the revolution, who came to New Orleans with other refugees. His volumes document where the refugees lived in Saint-Domingue, where they resided in Santiago de Cuba (where many stopped before coming to Louisiana) and where they settled in New Orleans.

In addition to the files of individual notaries, the Notarial Archives in New Orleans holds nineteenth-century watercolors of lot surveys, many of which include detailed architectural renderings of buildings on a given lot—everything from plantations to shotgun houses, Creole cottages, markets, and servant quarters—including floor plans and landscape designs. They were created as legal descriptions and advertisements for public auctions and displayed in large public spaces. The plans are quite large in size, exquisite in detail, and provide rich visual evidence for historians interested in daily life in nineteenth-century New Orleans. They are also a favored resource for historic restoration projects.

What makes the Notarial Archives compelling for historians, according to Reeves, is that they were created and maintained for private, not public, purposes. The documents, in turn, are full of stories about family finances, marriages and deaths, property acquired and sold, children and inheritances, which might not surface in other types of documents. “We do not hold government records,” says Reeves, “but the records of the people. We hold only amicable agreements, not the adversarial transactions found in court records. Notarial acts represent what functions in society, not what malfunctions.”

Mary Niall Mitchell is the Joseph Tregle Professor in Early American History at the University of New Orleans.