By Maureen Hayden
TERRE HAUTE —
Among the millions of government documents deposited in the Indiana State Archives are Civil War-era telegrams from President Abraham Lincoln to his stalwart ally, Indiana Gov. Oliver Morton.
Until recently, the telegrams were sitting in cardboard boxes in a state government warehouse designated a decade ago as the “temporary home” for nearly two centuries worth of state records.
Now they’re being scanned into the state's digital archives to eventually join a growing collection of historic government records that can be accessed online.
Many reveal information about ordinary Hoosiers.
With just a few clicks of a mouse, a visitor to the Indiana State Digital Archives website (www.indianadigitalarchives.org) has access to 2.7 million records. They include naturalization records of immigrants who settled in Indiana; the “Negro” registries of Hoosiers forced by a 19th-century state law to report their race; indexes of inmates committed to prison and mental institutions; and “muster roll” information on more than 200,000 Indiana soldiers who fought in the Civil War.
“Our collections are absolutely fascinating,” said Jim Corridan, the Indiana state archivist and director of the Indiana Commission on Public Records.
While federal funds have helped support the digital archives project, a wealth of information has been preserved and protected on a shoestring budget. Corridan gives much credit to a dedicated band of volunteers known as the Friends of the Indiana State Archives. “They make Indiana history come alive,” he said.
Since 1991, they’ve been working with the state archives staff to both protect and promote a vast array of government records that date back to Indiana’s origins as a territory. That includes the papers of every governor; the bills, acts and reports of the Indiana General Assembly; and the case files of both the Supreme and Appellate Courts.
But their work also includes archiving the documents of the not-so-famous. That includes the military records of Indiana soldiers who served in wars from the Battle of Tippecanoe to the Vietnam War.
There’s some sense of urgency to their work: The millions of historic documents are housed in an old warehouse with a leaky roof about eight miles from the Statehouse. The state lacks the money to build a structure that would meet standards – including heat and humidity controls – recommended for preserving historic documents.
“That’s why we consider the records to be endangered,” said Steve Towne, an IUPUI archivist and president of the Friends of the Indiana State Archives. “It’s as if we’re waiting for a disaster to happen.”
Loss and destruction of government records is evidenced by what’s missing from the archives. There’s only a portion of the original naturalization records of immigrants, for example. Similarly, the archives include only some of the little-known “Registries of Negroes and Mulattos” – a county-by-county mandatory registry that stemmed from a 19th-century state law restricting the migration of African-Americans into Indiana.
This summer, the volunteers completed a massive task for the digital archives: A database of more than 213,000 Indiana soldiers who fought in the Civil War. Taken from handwritten “muster rolls,” each record contains information about a soldier’s age, when and where they entered the Union army, as well as the company and regiment they joined. Many contain brief notes, including the date and cause of death.
Meanwhile, the 5,000-plus Civil War-era telegrams issued to and from the Indiana governor’s office likely won’t be accessible online until June. They’re still being scanned and indexed by the digital archives staff at IUPUI working in partnership with the Indiana State Archives. They should prove popular, too. The telegrams offer a glimpse into the political battles being waged at the time. “We think our politics today are nasty and divisive,” Townes said. “It doesn’t hold a candle to what was going on then.”
Maureen Hayden is Statehouse bureau chief for CNHI’s Indiana newspapers. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org