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  • Maritime Records. An Overlooked Source for the Genealogist

    When one of your ancestors is found to be a seafaring man, the ordinary records are usually of little help in giving any details of his life. Rarely did he own property on land, he often married in some distant port far from his usual place of residence, and he might even have died at sea - all circumstances that serve to frustrate the genealogical researcher.

    Maritime records often help in identifying the life events of the ordinary seaman, although such documents are little known, and consequently little used by the average researcher.  The maritime records that I have found useful fall into six categories: custom house records, State Department records, Admiralty Court records, whaling records, privateering records, and records dealing with the African Slave Trade.

    Custom House Records

    The U.S. Custom Service was created in 1789 with the responsibility for collecting duties on imports, registering vessels, and enforcing the law governing seamen and ships’ passengers. The eastern coastline was divided into districts, each jurisdiction keeping its own records. The documents of most interest to the genealogist are:

    1.    Crew Lists: Made in triplicate, with the original filed with the local custom office, these papers are generally still available in state archives or local maritime museums.  Not only do they give the name, age, and place of birth of each crew member but also a description of his physical appearance.

    2.    Seamen Protection Papers: At the end of the 18th century impressment into the British navy became a problem. so the registration of U.S. seamen was instituted to provide mariners with identification papers. These certificates, issued through each custom house district, are of considerable genealogical value since they include, besides the sailor’s name, his age and place of birth, a description of his physical appearance, and occasionally his father’s name.  The National Archives, as well as state archives, have collections of seamen’s protection papers, in varying degrees of completeness depending on the port and the year.

    State Department Records

    The U.S. State Department records in the National Archives contain several major categories of documents of value to the maritime researcher. These relate either to impressed seamen or to claims made to a foreign government over maritime losses.

    1.    American State Papers (ASPO2- 196) and ASPO3-212): These contain approximately 3,000 names of impressed American seamen.

    2.   Registers of applications for release of impressed seamen (1793-1802): An index to these records can be found in the NGS Quarterly, vol. 60 (1972).

    3.   Unbound letters (1794-1815) relating to American seamen impressed by Great Britain. Alphabetically arranged.

    4.   French Spoliation Claims: The papers of American mariners seeking recompense for losses sustained during French attacks on U.S. shipping circa 1800. This collection lists hundreds of U.S. seamen.

    Admiralty Court Records

    The Admiralty Courts were established originally by the British Crown in order to adjudicate disputes arising out of colonial maritime activities.  Ordinarily, the business that would come before these courts would include:

    1.   Equity cases, such as violation of charters, disputes over seamen’s wages, salvage, etc.

    2.   Administrative cases, such as surveys of vessels damaged by storms at sea, or supervision of the sale of damaged vessels.

    3.   Adjudication of prizes taken by privateers.

    The originals of these court records are usually found in state archives, and selected court cases have been published. In addition, the Genealogical Society of Utah has microfilmed some jurisdictions.

    Whaling Records

    Although there never was any one governmental agency that controlled the whaling industry, a considerable body of literature dealing with this aspect of maritime activity has accumulated. Much of the data is derivative in nature, but the documentation is usually so good that the information can be considered reliable. Some examples:

    1.   Starbuck, Alexander, History of the American Whale Fishery (1964). A superb account of the vessels and the men who hunted whales from the 1600s through the early 1900s.

    2.   W.P.A. Writers Program: Whaling Masters -- listing of all ship captains engaged in the whaling industry from 1731 to 1925. [NEHGS Library, call number SH38/F43/1938]

    3.   Spears, John Randolph, Story of the New England Whalers (1908).

    Additional sources of information about the men and vessels of the whaling industry are the shipping reports found in all newspapers in seaports along our Eastern coast, and log books, journals, and individual diaries found in maritime museums and archives.

    The privateer was a civilian warship, authorized by our government to capture and destroy enemy shipping. A privateer had to be bonded, and before sharing in any captured booty, the prize had to be condemned by an Admiralty Court (q.v.). All this activity generated several classes of documents:

    1.   Articles of Agreement: These were contracts made between a ship’s master and the seamen regarding salary and shares of prize money. Of value to the genealogist is the listing of each seaman with his age and place of birth. These articles are usually kept in an official repository, such as the National Archives.

    2.   Letters of Marque: These documents name the ship’s master, the owner of the vessel, and sometimes its destination. Many such letters are found in state archives.

    The “African Trade” Records

    Distasteful as we might view the slave trade from the distance of several hundred years, there was a great deal of activity in the “African Trade” by all seaports along the Atlantic seaboard, and some of these records may mention your ancestor.  The shipping records dealing with the “slavers” have been extensively researched by historians, such as those mentioned below:

    1.   Brock, Robert Alonzo, “New England & the Slave Trade” in The William and Mary College Quarterly (1st ser.) 2[1893-94]:176.

    2.   Donnan, E., Documents Illustrative of the History of the Slave Trade in America, 4 vols. (1930-35).

    3.   Coughtry, J., The Notorious Triangle: Rhode Island and the African Slave Trade, 1700-1807 (1981).

    4.   Howe, George L., Mount Hope: A New England Chronicle (1959) [NEHGS Library, F89/B8/H84/1959]


    For the genealogical researcher, the records described above may be the only written evidence of a forebear’s service on board ship in the early days of this country’s history. Many of these records contain hundreds of names of ship’s masters, seamen, and ship owners. If your forebear was a mariner, searching these collections of maritime records may be well worth the effort.

    Editor’s Note: Readers may also want to look for maritime records in local histories of port cities. Another good source is New England and the Sea, by Robert G. Albion, William A. Baker, and Benjamin W. Labaree. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan U. Press, 1972. Also, a trip to Mystic Seaport may be most helpful.

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