The New Orleans Notarial Archives holds some 40,000,000 pages of signed acts compiled by the notaries of New Orleans, Louisiana, over three centuries. They reside in the only archive dedicated to notarial records in the United States. Established in 1867 by the Louisiana Legislature, the New Orleans Notarial Archives relates closely to those European and Western Hemisphere repositories that share Louisiana’s heritage of civil law. The world’s civil law notarial archives derive from a Roman law-based system that elevated the notary to a prominent place in society as a draftsman, guarantor, and archivist of contracts in the private sector.
For centuries, citizens visited the local notary, or perhaps their family’s notary, to execute agreements. They bought land, borrowed money, made wills and pre-nuptial contracts, formed partnerships and corporations, agreed to building contracts, purchased shop inventory, deposited plans and surveys, appointed agents, and so on, before the notary public. In New Orleans before the Civil War, they also bought, sold, and emancipated slaves.
In civil law jurisdictions such as Louisiana, the notary then acted as an archivist of the document he drafted, witnessed, and signed. His completed acts were public records. By law he had to maintain an office open to the public during regular hours. He had to have his notarial acts bound at least every second year. As a precaution against fire, his office had to be in a brick building with a tile roof.
The tile roofs did not always protect all notarial records. Evidence of fire loss and damage exists in the archives, where some pages are singed and some notarial volumes still smell of smoke. Pedro Pedesclaux – who was first a Spanish Royal Notary in 1788, then a French notary during the 20-day return to French colonialism in 1803, then an American notary until his death in 1816 – earned heroic stature when he saved his and his predecessors’ records from a disastrous fire in the French Quarter in the late 18th century. It is largely thanks to him that the Notarial Archives contains records dating back to 1735.
In the early to mid-19th century, a growing and prosperous New Orleans attracted a sizeable population of trained surveyors and civil engineers who left their mark on the archives with thousands of hand-drawn surveys and architectural drawings. The city’s historically rich built environment benefits from the treasury of documentary evidence contained at the Notarial Archives.
Over time, the notary’s archives grew large. Citizens repaired to the office to view title information and to order true copies of the original contracts in the notary’s archives. When a notary died or retired, he passed his records down to a chosen and trained successor in office. This system prevailed in New Orleans from the time of the city’s founding in 1718 until 1867, when the Notarial Archives superseded individual notarial offices in New Orleans.
From 1867 until July 1970, notaries continued to archive their most current records, turning their older ones into the Notarial Archives at prescribed intervals. Therefore, in order to retrieve a record made before August 1970, one must have the name of the notary who created it and the date on which it was created.
Since July 1970, records are filed directly in the Notarial Archives and receive an NA number for identification purposes.
The location of the Notarial Archives has changed over time. Its first home – during Reconstruction – was in a courthouse on Royal Street. In the 1950s, it moved to what was then the new Civil District Courts building in the city’s shiny new Civic Center. In September 1998, the then-crowded Notarial Archives moved its oldest records out of the courthouse basement, creating a Research Center on the third floor of 1340 Poydras Street. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina forced the rest of the Notarial Archives out of the courthouse basement and into new office space on the fifth floor of 1340 Poydras.
One thing has not changed over time: notarial records continue to be bound into volumes, just as they were when archivists and bookbinders from the Works Progress Administration worked through the records in the 1930s, and replaced worn bindings with now-faded blue-green canvas covers. To this day, notarial records are bound into volumes, ensuring integrity of arrangement and a relatively secure housing format. Preservation microfilm of the paper records is housed at the State Archives in Baton Rouge.
The Notarial Archives continues to preserve the valuable documents under its care and to make them accessible to the legal community, the academic research community, architectural historians, genealogists, and to the general public at large. Thanks to New Orleans’ colonial legacy, the notarial record-keeping system that arrived with the French, endured through the Spanish, and survived Americanization created a wealth of historical documents that continue to this day to restore and refresh the city’s rich cultural experience.