The Colonial Secretary's Letterbook

by Olaf U. Janzen, Professor of History
Grenfell Campus, Memorial University of Newfoundland
Corner Brook, Newfoundland
A2H 5G4

What is the Colonial Secretary's Letterbook?
According to Jerry Bannister, the Colonial Secretary’s Letterbook "is arguably the most valuable archival source for the study of early Newfoundland"; Jerry Bannister, The Rule of the Admirals: Law, Custom, and Naval Government in Newfoundland, 1699-1832 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003), p. 108. Personally, I would make that particular argument for the CO 194 papers (for which a separate Finding Aid is also being developed), but I must concede that the Colonial Secretary’s Letterbook would come in at a very close second place. Whereas the CO194 papers include a great body of information, including the superb annual "states of the fishery", on which official decisions and policies were based, the information found in rich abundance in the Letterbook reflects the day-to-day affairs of everyday life in early modern Newfoundland.

The earliest volume of the Letterbook dates back to 1749, when Governor George Rodney established a system of copying and compiling court proceedings, warrants, commissions, public decrees and official correspondence, as performed by his private clerk or secretary. As these records evolved, they came to include such things as bills of sale, indentures and deeds. By 1813, applications for land leases for agriculture purposes were forwarded to the governor's secretary. He also acted as registrar for civil documents and he received petitions on civil matters, including requests for relief.

These early volumes include records for more than one year. The number of years per volume varies, very quickly becoming fewer per volume as the amount of official paperwork being churned out in Newfoundland began to increase. You will note that each volume comprises two types of records, each with its own pagination. If you were to use the original bound volumes, you would discover that the "orders and proclamations" appear at one end of the volume; to read the "letters" it is necessary to flip the volume over where a second set of pagination begins. Collectively, the documents give us an intimate view of court proceedings, appointments, the activities of the community (for the most part St. John’s), governors’ commissions and public decrees, warrants, etc.. Jerry Bannister points out that the records of the CO 194 papers and of the Colonial Secretary’s Letterbook do "overlap somewhat..., [but] only the latter holds the bulk of legal minutiae produced by local courts..." (Rule of the Admirals, p. 108). Students and scholars exploring the social, political, legal, military, and economic history of Newfoundland in the eighteenth century after 1749 and into the early nineteenth century will therefore find the Colonial Secretary’s Letterbook invaluable, and it is with the hope of assisting and simplifying the task of using the Letterbook series that this Finding Aid is being compiled.

Some words of warning -- and a request for assistance
The originals documents are today housed in the Provincial Archives of Newfoundland and Labrador. There they are catalogues as GN2/1/A and the volume number. However, we are fortunate to have a microfilm copy of the earliest volumes in the Ferriss Hodgett Library of Grenfell Campus (the "Box No." identified at the beginning of the aid for each individual volume refers to the microfilm box number in our Library). Once we have finished the Finding Aid for these earliest volumes, I hope that we can acquire more reels and expand the Aid.This means that the project is far from complete, and only include those few volumes held in microform at Grenfell Campus. Users of the Finding Aid should also be warned that errors inevitably appear in spelling or in deciphering names and references; for this we apologize. Should you wish to make suggestions, offer corrections, or just provide a comment, we would be very grateful if you would contact Dr. Olaf U. Janzen so that the necessary changes can be made.

What we post here could not have been achieved without the assistance of students employed each summer as research assistants.

Finding aids are available thus far for the following volumes:

Newfoundland - Colonial Secretary's Letterbook

 GN2/1/A, Vol. 1  (1749-1752)  GN2/1/A, Vol. 2 (1752-1758)  GN2/1/A, Vol. 3 (1759-1765)
 GN2/1/A, Vol. 4  (1766-1771)  GN2/1/A, Vol. 5 (1771-1774)  GN2/1/A, Vol. 6  (1774-1777)
 GN2/1/A, Vol. 7 (1777-1779)  GN2/1/A, Vol. 8 (1779-1780)  GN2/1/A, Vol. 9 (1780-1783)
 GN2/1/A, Vol. 10 (1783-1785)  GN2/1/A, Vol. 11 (1785-1789)  GN2/1/A, Vol. 12 (1789-1797)

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last updated: August 5, 2015

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