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Colonial Louisiana records shed new light on US history

NEW ORLEANS — A marathon project is underway in New Orleans to digitize thousands of time-worn 18th-century French and Spanish legal papers that historians say give the first historical accounts of slaves and free blacks in North America.

Yellowed page by yellowed page, archivists are scanning the 220,000 manuscript pages from the French Superior Council and Spanish Judiciary between 1714 and 1803 in an effort to digitize, preserve, translate, and index Louisiana’s colonial past and in the process help revise American history.

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‘‘No single historian could ever live long enough to write all the books that are to be written from all these documents,’’ said Emily Clark, a Tulane University historian who has worked in the papers.

The few historians who have pored over the unique archive say it’s pivotal because it connects early America to the broader history of the Atlantic slave trade. It’s at the heart of a wave of research tracing American roots beyond the English colonies and into Spain, France, and Africa.

‘‘We don’t think of American society simply built from east to west, but we think of it as built from south to north,’’ said Ira Berlin, a University of Maryland historian. ‘‘As you begin to think of a different kind of history, you’re naturally looking for new kinds of sources to write that history.’’

This massive trove mostly describes domestic life as found in civil court papers, because the colony’s administrative records were taken back to Europe when the United States took possession of Louisiana in 1803. So they tell of shipwrecks and pirates, of thieves and murderers, of gambling debts and slave sales, of real estate deals and wills.

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