It’s easy to imagine why Record Group 217 has been obscure. With the nondescript name, “Accounting Officers of the Department of the Treasury,” it promises nothing more glamorous than 19th-century auditors’ records. It’s easy to see why, as the target of research, RG 217 has been a last-picked kid on the playground at the National Archives.
Today, RG 217 is on a fast track to becoming one of the hottest, underused records groups at NARA. Scholars love new primary sources. Since 2013, on some days, researchers must wait in their turn in the Reading Room to look at some boxes. Given the funding and time, wouldn’t you like to go sleuthing on a story dated between 1775 and 1927 to see what history has forgotten?
Thanks to the grants of generous donors administered by the Minnesota Independent Scholars’ Forum, I have been fortunate to conduct four research forays into RG 217 for the express purpose of identifying new primary sources about Federal interactions with Dakota people in Minnesota in the 19th century.
The shelving required to house RG 217 is so extensive that it wraps from the West to the East sides of the stacks at Archives 1 in Washington D.C. Removed from the stacks, the collection would cover three-quarters of a football field, side to side and end to end, to a depth of one foot.
See the Table of Contents in the RG 217 link above to overview the entire collection.
Scholars have largely overlooked RG 217 because we’ve not understood what it contains. In the late 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, the Congressionally-mandated Treasury auditing process categorically (and often invisibly) removed documents from the Federal record groups that have become the staples of scholarly research, like National Archives RG 75, Records of the Office of Indian Affairs.
Take the subject of Hugh Tyler, who students of Minnesota history know as a political friend of Alexander Ramsey, hired on as Commissary for the Treaties at Travers des Sioux and Mendota in 1851. We know little about Tyler apart from allegations made by a political rival, Madison Sweetser, in the wake of those Treaties. Sweetser alleged Tyler and Ramsey colluded to pass money under the table to their trader-cronies, money that ought to have been given to Dakota people.
A Congressional investigation exonerated Ramsey in 1854. William Watts Folwell, Minnesota’s first historian to assess the scandal, was dubious about the Senate findings.(1) As Rhoda R. Gilman summarized Folwell’s argument, “No record was kept of Tyler’s activities. But his expenses [reimbursed by Ramsey from Indian Affairs funds] were considerable.”(2)
It turns out that Hugh Tyler’s records were retained. Scholars today can examine Tyler’s activities during the negotiations of the 1851 Treaties –as well as Madison Sweetser’s and Alexander Ramsey’s settled accounts. (3) The records Folwell lamented as missing had been transferred from the Office of Indian Affairs to the Treasury for auditing. They are now located in RG 217.
Settled accounts were permanently collected at the Treasury, where the records backed up the work of the last people to handle them: auditors. They were not returned to the Federal offices that generated them. When NARA opened in 1935, it followed the archival practice of preserving the provenance of the collections it accessioned. That meant that records that came into the National Archives from the Treasury retained the order and identifiers assigned to them there, further obscuring the origin of these records outside the Treasury Department.
For example, Tyler’s account from the Treaty of 1851 is not filed by that year, where a scholar would expect to find it in RG 75. Rather, it is filed in RG 217 among other accounts settled in 1853, the year the auditor closed Tyler’s case.
In this way, the historically invisible auditing process segregated some of the most data-rich primary sources out of the NARA records collections scholars routinely consult. At the Treasury, some accounts were further removed by the time that passed before settlement. In the cases I have surveyed, an account may have been settled, and therefore was chronologically filed, from one to thirty-two years after the events captured in the file.
Institutional collections policies follow scholarly demand. We can’t be interested in something we don’t know exists.
But now we do. And I think it is no mistake that RG 217, among other newly discovered collections at NARA, is coming to light now. Digitization and the application of big data to history mean we have the tools at hand to mine these records for new stories and to update ones we think we know –tools that Folwell never dreamed of when he tried but failed to locate these records a century ago.
(1) William Watts Folwell A History of Minnesota Vol. 1, The Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1921. p. 290-293.
(2) Rhoda R. Gilman, Henry Hastings Sibley: Divided Heart, The Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2004, p. 131 and Mary Lethert Wingerd, quoting Gilman quoting Follwell in North Country: The Making of Minnesota, The University of Minnesota Press 2010, p. 383 n 31.
(3) Ramsey’s accounts from the Treaty are curiously misfiled in RG 217. If this anomaly is an artifact of the period settlement process, some accounts available to scholars today may not have been available during the Ramsey investigation.