This paper examines the origins of the first American state archive, the Alabama Department of Archives and History, founded in Montgomery in 1901. Appearing more than thirty years before the establishment of the National Archives, the ADAH proved an important source of emulation for other state archives. It also played a fundamental role in constructing Alabama's collective memory in the wake of post-Reconstruction social tumult. Focusing on the practices of the Archives' first director, Thomas McAdory Owen, it places the initial decade of his directorship at the center of two intertwining dynamics: the political ambitions of the state's white, anti-Populist government, and the growing emphasis in academic history on close and "objective" study of archival documents in the production of historical scholarship. The paper demonstrates how contemporary thought impacted the collection policies of the ADAH and argues for Owen's importance for understanding the complex nature of the relationships archivists forge with the societies around them.