For Those Who Go Down to the Sea in Ships

By Carolyn L. Barkley

Part 1: Seamen’s Protection Certificates

Between the end of May and the beginning of July, Americans observe two holidays, Memorial Day and Independence Day, that celebrate generations of statesmen, soldiers, sailors, militia men, merchant seamen, and others who helped form and preserve this nation. When we celebrate Independence Day, we are not only commemorating the birth of our nation, as represented by the Declaration of Independence, but we are also celebrating the outcomes of the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. Both of these events represent periods in our history when the future of the new nation was in real danger.

Even after the close of the Revolutionary War, Great Britain did not let its former subjects in the colonies go easily. None, perhaps, were more in danger than those who followed the sea, venturing into the oceans where Britannia clearly ruled the waves. With its active European military campaigns, blockades of foreign ports, and a need to control its wide-spread empire, Britain was in constant need of manpower for the Royal Navy. One frequently employed method of acquiring sailors was the press gang whose members habituated pubs and brothels in Britain, rounding up deserters and innocent citizens alike. Not content with preying solely on British subjects, these gangs began to “press” seamen from neutral commercial vessels, including American ships. In addition, ships of the Royal Navy began to stop these neutral ships while at sea in order to inspect crew lists and remove individuals whom they considered to be British subjects.

American ship captains appealed such seizures to their government. As a result on 28 May 1796, an Act for the Relief and Protection of American Seamen (1 Stat. 477) was passed by Congress, establishing procedures for the issuance of certificates of citizenship. The Collector of Customs at an individual port of entry would issue these certificates to merchant seamen and masters of merchant vessels engaged in foreign trade. The intent was to document a seaman’s American citizenship and thus prevent his detention or impressment into the Royal Navy. An application for the “protection” certificate cost $.25 and was entirely voluntary. The certificate itself was issued only after the individual provided proof of citizenship. The Collector did not retain a copy of the application itself, but did keep copies of the proofs provided and did record the issuance of the certificate. He also provided regular reports to the Department of State listing all of the seamen he had registered under the act during the previous quarter. As time passed, the need for protection certificates was reduced significantly and few if any were issued between 1875 and the beginning of the First World War when, in 1917, seamen once again felt a need to prove their citizenship. National Archives Record Group 36, Records of the United States Customs Service, includes seamen’s protection certificate files from 1796 to 1869. (Records for those issued between 1917 and 1940 can be found in Record Group 41, Records of the Bureau of Marine Inspection and Navigation.)

National Archives Microfilm Publications M1826 (Port of New Orleans), M1825 (Ports of Bath Maine and Portsmouth, New Hampshire), and M1880 (Port of Philadelphia) include “Proofs of Citizenship Used to Apply for Seamen’s Protection Certificates.” Inclusive years vary for the various ports. The majority of these declarations, arranged chronologically by year and then by the number assigned by the Collector, were most frequently recorded on printed forms. These forms disclose the number assigned by the Customs Collector, the name of the witness, the name of the seaman, his age, place of birth, residence at the time of the declaration, port and date of declaration, height, hair color, eye color, and complexion (ruddy, white, brown).

For a genealogist, these declarations can provide a treasure trove of information often unavailable elsewhere. Here are a few examples:

  • On 30 September 1817, Manuel Gonzales appeared before Philip Pedesceaux, N.P., to attest that he had been an inhabitant of the Province of New Orleans since 1810. He indicated further that he was a native of Briana[o], Portugal and was 36 years old with dark hair, dark eyes, and a dark complexion. He stood 5’4” tall and signed the document with his mark. Joseph Fereyra and Joaquim Lozano witnessed his application. (M1826, reel 8)
  • On 6 January 1818, John Allan [Allan], seaman, appeared before Carlisle Pollock, Esquire, N.P. to attest that he was a native of Philadelphia and a citizen of the United States. He was 24 years of age, stood 5’3”, and had black eyes, black hair, and black complexion. He signed his application with his mark and the document was witnessed by Nicholas Marchand. (M1826, reel 8)
  • On 7 January 1818, William C. C. Claiborne, Governor of the Territory of New Orleans, certified that the oath of allegiance had been “duly administered to Etienne Augustine, a free man of color on 4 January 1811.” Augustine then attested before Narcissas Broutine, N.P., that he was a native of the city of St. Nicholas (St. Domingue), but had been a citizen of “this place” previous to       30 April 1803 (the date of the cessation of the Louisiana Purchase to the United States) and was still a resident in 1811. He was 5’10”, had black hair, blue eyes and a “honey” complexion and signed his own name to the document. Witnesses, described as “two additional freemen of color,” were Lewis Daunoy and Lewis Simon. (M1826, reel 5)
  • On 16 January 1848, James Turner, described as “small in comparison,” applied for a certificate in Bath, Maine. He was born in Baltimore, Maryland, and described as aged 25, standing 5’ 3¼”, and was an African with “wooley” hair and black eyes. (M1825, reel 2).

National Archives Microfilm Publication M2003 provides access to the “Quarterly Abstracts of Seaman’s Protection Certificates for New York City (1815-1859),” although some quarters do not have extant abstracts. These records include the certificate number and its date, the seaman’s age, height (or description of stature), complexion (often noted as only light or dark), nativity, state, and remarks such as “naturalized.” In later years, hair color was added as a descriptor. A review of one page of abstracts finds seamen with a variety of places of birth including Massachusetts, Maine, South Carolina, New York, Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and New Jersey. An interesting example was found in the third quarter of 1862: Abbot Kinsman’s certificate, issued on 9 August 1862, listed his age as 17, his height as 5’8”. He had dark hair and a dark complexion. He was born in China of American parents. If your ancestor was Abbot Kinsman and you had been searching in vain for his place of birth, this record would be invaluable to advancing your research.

It will be important for you to check as many extant records as possible regardless of the indicated port. I found that in smaller ports such as Bath, Maine, the applications tended to be from seamen from the immediate region (and perhaps neighboring states). In large ports such as New Orleans, New York, and Philadelphia, seamen’s places of origin spanned a large American and European geographical landscape. In particular, these records represent an important source of documentation for African Americans.

While I chose to do my research for this article by using microfilmed records at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., you can also access seaman’s protection certificate information online. If you are in the Archives building, you can search for them on the Archival Research Catalog (ARC).

If you are working from home or your local library, consider the important site is provided by Mystic Seaport in Connecticut. This site provides access to a “Seamen’s Protection Certificate Register Database” including approximately 31, 047 certificates issued by the Customs Collectors in Fall River, Gloucester, New Haven, and New Salem. These ports were not included in the microfilm collection at the National Archives, but the originals are held by NARA’s Northeast Region in Waltham, Massachusetts. By searching this database I was able to locate certificate information for my 4th great-grandfather, Oliver Lanfair [Lanfare] of Branford, Connecticut, who at age 22 was issued certificate #1452 on 2 March 1804 in the port of New Haven. Ten years later, his older brother, Horace, was issued certificate #1 on 23 March 1814. Even more satisfying, was my discovery of Oliver’s grandson (and my 3rd great-granduncle), Aaron S. Lanfair’s certificate #46 issued in Newhaven on 13 March 1840, when he was 15 years old. While I had known through my research that the Lanfairs were spice merchants sailing out of Branford and New Haven, I had not looked for their protection certificates previously. Needless to say, I plan to correspond with the NARA Northeast Region to request copies of these three documents.

Information pertaining to certificates are also available on which provides two online databases: “Indexes to Seamen’s Protection Certificate Applications and Proofs of Citizenship,” from original data published in Ruth Priest Dixon’s Indexes to Seamen’s Protection Certificate Applications and Proofs of Citizenship (Genealogical Publishing Co., 1998), and “Register of Seamen’s Protection Certificates from the Providence, Rhode Island Customs District, 1796-1870,” from original data published in the Rhode Island Historical Society’s book by the same title, published by Genealogical Publishing Company in 1995. Dixon’s title includes the ports of New Orleans; New Haven; Bath, Maine; Mobile, Alabama; Middletown, Connecticut; Alexandria, District of Columbia [Virginia]; Newport, Rhode Island; Rockland, Maine; Salem, Massachusetts; New Bedford, Massachusetts; Portsmouth, New Hampshire; and New London, Connecticut.

You may also want to consult some of the print sources that are available:

Although Ruth Priest Dixon’s Index to Seamen’s Protection Certificate Applications and Proofs of Citizenship, Ports of New Orleans, LA; New Haven, CT; and Bath ME as well as her Index to Seamen are both out of print, you can search the Genealogical Publishing Company’s website for either title, and by selecting “Notify Me,” you will receive an e-mail when they return to print later this year. A third Dixon title, Index to Seamen with Supplement 1796-1861 is currently available (Clearfield, 2001). In addition, Ms. Dixon’s research materials are open for research at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Other resources include a dissertation, in manuscript form at the Rhode Island Historical Society, by Jeremiah Olney and others entitled United States Customs House (Providence, R.I.) Records, and Maureen Taylor’s Register of Seamen’s Protection Certificates from the Providence, Rhode Island Custom District, 1796-1870…” (Clearfield, 2008).

Next week’s blog article will continue this topic with a review of the records pertaining to impressed seamen.

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