History for All the People

History for all the People

R. D. W. Connor
First Secretary, N.C. Historical Commission
First Archivist of the United States, 1934-1941

Archives and History in a Nutshell

A legislative mandate of March 7, 1903, established the North Carolina Historical Commission, the predecessor to today's Office of Archives and History. Due to budgetary constraints and the inability to assemble the members, however, the Historical Commission languished until the 1907 legislature amended the original act broadening the powers, increasing the budget, and allowing for the employment of R. D. W. Connor as full-time secretary. The first offices for the commission were in the northeast corner of the Capitol's second floor. Initially, the Historical Commission's most important perceived obligation to the state was to collect, edit, and publish documents—to make the records, both public and private, available to the citizens and to assure their preservation. Always the educator, Connor sought to build a Historical Commission that was public service oriented, in order to make North Carolina's history accessible to all citizens.

With the publication of documentary volumes as a primary objective, the Historical Commission issued its first two volumes in 1908. The commission's quarterly journal, The North Carolina Historical Review, was launched in 1924. Over the years the Historical Publications Section has offered pamphlets and books on a wide variety of topics, such as pirates and gold mining, as well as the time-honored documentaries.

In 1914 the General Assembly reassigned the Hall of History from the Department of Agriculture to the Historical Commission. That institution would change its name to the North Carolina Museum of History in 1965 in preparation for the move to the Jones Street building. Following several significant exhibits and in keeping with a legislative plan for a cultural complex, the Museum of History was granted a new and separate building. When the new museum facility opened in April 1994, the exhibit space tripled that of the old location.

In 1943 the agency's name was changed to the Department of Archives and History, better describing its function, importance, and permanence. The archival program began instituting a records management plan later that decade. The archives has continued to serve a growing number of genealogical and historical researchers over the years. Conservation techniques, microfilm technology, and the Internet all have had profound effects on archival policies and procedures.

In 1955 the legislature transferred most state historic site projects from the Department of Conservation and Development and various commissions to the Department of Archives and History, creating the Division of Historic Sites. The properties conveyed immediately were Tryon Palace, the Zebulon B. Vance Birthplace, the Charles B. Aycock Birthplace, Town Creek Indian Mound, Alamance Battleground, the James Iredell House, and Brunswick Town. Conservation and Development kept two historic properties, Fort Macon and Somerset Place, for further development as state parks. Special appropriations in 1955 allowed for the purchase of the House in the Horseshoe and for plans to purchase land needed to develop Bentonville Battleground. To administer the state's historic sites intitiatives, the department established the Division of Historic Sites in 1955.

With agency involvement since the 1930s, the administration of Tryon Palace was transferred to Archives and History with other historic properties in 1955. The official opening was April 10, 1959. It has grown in size and in scope of interpretation, now encompassing five distinct restored buildings and the restored palace gardens, and treating various periods and aspects of history. The 1840 State Capitol and the nearby Visitor Center joined Archives and History in 1975. At that time the Capitol was in the midst of extensive renovations, which would be improved upon in the 1990s. The State Capitol and Capitol Square remain a focal point of Raleigh tours and activities.

In 1939 staff members of the Historical Commission were instrumental in the formation of the Society for the Preservation of Antiquities, a private venture influential in the evolution of state historic preservation initiatives. The National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 authorized the creation of the National Register for Historic Places and charged individual states with conducting statewide surveys of historical properties. In North Carolina the survey was initiated in 1967; the first nominations to the National Register were made in 1969. Staff of the State Historic Preservation Office review federal and state funded projects to assess their potential impacts on historic properties and the take action to minimize negative impacts when possible.

Although the state had been involved in archaeological activities dating back to the investigation of the Frutchey mound (later Town Creek Indian Mound) in the 1930s, it was not until 1973 that the Archaeology Section was created, removing archaeological duties from the Museum of History and the Historic Sites Section. Underwater Archaeology has had a visible presence in the state for many years, most recently with the shipwreck believed to be Blackbeard's Queen Anne's Revenge. The Office of State Archaeology, capturing the imagination of the public, benefits from resourceful volunteer work throughout the state.

Effective October 1, 2001, Archives and History underwent reorganization as part of larger changes made within the Department of Cultural Resources. The Division of Archives and History was split into three distinct divisions under the new Office of Archives and History—State History Museums, State Historic Sites, and Historical Resources. In 1907 R. D. W. Connor wrote that "No people who are indifferent to their past need hope to make their future great." As the office that for nearly one hundred years has sought to make sure that the people of North Carolina are not "indifferent to their past," the agency celebrates its own history and hopes that the recognition of its accomplishments will make its own future great.

Ansley Herring Wegner
Research Branch


© 2004 North Carolina Office of Archives & History. All rights reserved.