For Those Who Go Down to the Sea in Ships

By Carolyn L. Barkley

Part Two: Records Relating to Impressed American Seamen

Last week’s article discussed seamen’s protection certificates, first authorized by a Congressional act (1 Stat.477) in 1796. These documents were intended to protect an individual from being “pressed” into service, principally into the British Navy, but occasionally by French or Spanish vessels, by documenting his American citizenship. Some mariners either did not obtain a protection certificate or the certificate did not achieve its intended goal, and as a result were pressed into service against their will. Three years later, in 1799, the problem continued to plague shipping and Congress passed an additional law (1 Stat. 731) to track and repatriate impressed seamen.

Taken together, these statutes authorized inquiry “into the situation of such American citizens or others sailing, conformably to the law of nations, under the protection of the American flag, [who are] impressed or obtained by any foreign power, to endeavor, by all legal means, to obtain the release of such American citizens or others…” If such action occurred in a foreign port, masters of sailing vessels were expected to protest the action to the American consul. If the action occurred at sea, the master was to report the episode to the Collector of Customs at the first American port in which the vessel arrived. The captain was also required to transmit a copy of his protest directly to the Secretary of State, containing information about the manner of impressments or detention and by whom the action was taken, as well as the name and residence of the individual who had been impressed or detained. The report would also indicate whether or not the individual was an American citizen, and if not, to what country he belonged. The customs collector was required to submit a periodic report, also to the Secretary of State, who in turn was required to submit an annual report to Congress including abstracts of the reports received concerning impressments. Statistical summaries reveal the extent of the impressment problem:

For the period 11 March 1803 through 31 August 1804, 1,538 applications for release were made to the British government in cases of impressed Americans. Of those, 306 were duplicates, 373 were refused discharge as the individuals had no documentation, 437 were ordered discharged, 105 were not found on board the specified ships, 120 refused to be discharged as they had taken bounty or entered British service, 17 had married in England, 13 had deserted, and 2 had drowned or died. Six appeared not to have been impressed, 6 were lost when their ships sank, 88 had protections from consuls or vice consuls, 49 refused discharge as they were said to be British subjects, and 2 were prisoners of war.

Here are a few examples taken from NARA microfilm publication M1839, “Miscellaneous Lists and Papers Regarding Impressed Seamen, 1796-1814”? (Record Group 59):

  • 23 January 1797 [date of protest]; Ship Independence out of New London, Connecticut; Master Ichabod Goodrich. Impressed, 22 January 1797: James and Alexander Anderson, William Gray, Ezekiel Holding and Simon Hubal, all of Connecticut, by the British Ship of War Ceres. In the column titled “whether they had protection,” was written “it does not appear.”
  • 10 February 1797 [date of protest]; Sloop Polly & Betsy out of Providence, Rhode Island; Master Benjamin E. Gorton. Detained Simon Humphrey, John Armington, William Holdridge, Matthew Allen, all of Rehoboth, Massachusetts, impressed by French privateer, name unknown, taken and carried to Basseterre [St. Kitts] 1 November 1796, put in prison and detained until 8th; all had protections.
  • Joseph Bailey, protection [certificate] from Joseph Huler, Collector of Salem No. 2233, on board the British ship La Franchise, 2 April 1804.
  • Affidavit of Robert Stanley, master of the Schooner Adelaide of Baltimore, dated Baltimore, 1 June 1796 “in a voyage from [  ] the said schooner was captured by the British ship of war Argonaut, Capt. Ball, and sent to Jamaica.”? On making the capture all the men were taken out of the schooner, but were restored at Jamaica. Whilst she continued at Jamaica, Samuel Brown and Joseph Richards, both natives, and William Jones, a citizen of the United States, were impressed by the British Ship of War Jamaica, Capt. Bingham, but they were afterwards restored.

These abstracts are useful for genealogical purposes, providing place of origin, frequently indicating a wife and/or number of children and where they resided, as well as whether the individual had a protection certificate.

  • John Gynett [Gunell?] has a certificate of his marriage 15 June 1804 by Reverend John C. Punze [?] Protestant minister at New York.
  • William McDonald pressed from ship Charles Cutter of Norfolk, protection 8 October 1804, White Plains, New York, born in 1777.
  • William Cox, “a native of Amsterdam, came to America when a child with his Parents has been twice married in Philadelphia and has three children living. He was Impressed at Jeremie by his Majesty’s ship Scorpion, but has since been turned over to the Dictator where he is now detained.”
  • William Clark, a “native of New York and a citizen of the United States has been impressed and is now supposed to be detained on board the Leviathan. Said William is the son of Richard Clark of New York, by trade a beggar.”

These abstracts can also be rich in anecdotal information. Here’s one of my favorite entries:

  • Edward Lennord, a “Citizen of the United States and a native of New [York?], was impressed from on board an American Sloop the Salley, Joseph Taylor Mastor [sic] by one of His Majesty’s Ships of War, her name unknown and the officer commanding the impress boat refused to give the information. Said Taylor had a protection, but on producing it to the officer, he [the officer] tore it in pieces and then threw then over board in the presence of the Master of the Sally.”

If your ancestor was a seaman named George Warren from Dorset, you would be delighted to find the following deposition:

“George Warren, now on board H.M.S. Royal William at Spithead, having been impressed at Poole by the Press Gang there on his oath saith That he was born in Wimborn in Dorsetshire, and is now about 24 years of age. That he was employed by different farmers in the neighbourhood of Wimborn until he was about 10 or 11 years of age; that he was the apprentice to a gentleman at the Island of Jersey as a servant until he should attain the age of 21 years; but left the employ in about a year and a half after he was apprenticed and shipped himself on board an American merchant ship called the Mentor commanded by Richard Patrick, then at Jersey, and sailed in her to Marblehead in the state of Massachusetts in North America, and on her arrival there bound himself as an apprentice to the said Richard Patrick for the term of five years to serve at Sea, being then about 13 years of age, that he served out his apprenticeship in the Mentor and made a variety of voyages to France, Spain and the West Indies; That after his apprenticeship expired, being then about 18 years of age, he sailed from Marblehead in the Schooners Mary, Friendship, and the Three Sons in similar voyages until the Embargo in North America was laid on, and then staid [sic] on shore at Marblehead for about 14 months; that he married a native of Marblehead; that after the Embargo was taken off on March 16 (but the year he does not recollect) he sailed in the American Merchant Ship Eliza, from Salem to Gibralter [sic] and returned to Salem; That he then proceeded to New York and shipped on board the American Merchant Brig Ann, and sailed in her to Greenock in Scotland and returned to New York and then made a voyage in the American Merchant Ship Ores to Liverpool and back to New York and about the month of February 1811 he entered at the Rendezvous at New York for the American Frigate Constitution and received 20 dollars bounty and joined her in New London in the State of Connecticut in North America in the month of March last; that she sailed from thence shortly afterwards and proceeded to Boston, and thence to Annapolis, and left America about the 5th of August last; and arrived at Cherburg in France, and sailed from thence after staying about four days, to the Downs and from thence to the Texel and returned to Cherburg and after staying a week or fortnight, then came to Spitalhead at the Port of Portsmouth. That about 8 or 9 weeks since which he believes was about the 16th or 17th of November last, he deserted from the boat of Constitution at Portsmouth point, together with another Seaman of the name of William Smith, who is now on board the Royal William and is an Amen Englishman as he was informed by him, that he immediately went to Wimborn to his mother and afterward shipped at Pool in a Brig belonging to M. Garland of that place called Hope, and was impressed from her. That he does not know that any of the crew of the Constitution were British subjects except the said William Smith, never having heard any of them say that they were so. That he had a protection as a Citizen of the United States of North America, which he delivered to M. Wadsworth, the third lieutenant of the Constitution. Sworn at Portsmouth, 22 January 1811.

Further reading reveals that William Smith was really John Taylor, born in Colnbrook near Windsor in the year 1789, the son of George Taylor.

Similar records can also be found in NARA microfilm publications M2025, “Registers of Applications for the Release of Impressed Seamen, 1793-1802 and Related Indexes,” Roll 6 of M588, “War of 1812 Papers” of the Department of State, 1789-1815.” Textual records involving impressed seamen are housed at the National Archives at College Park in Record Group 59.

Records pertaining to seamen’s protection certificates and to impressed seamen may fall outside of the usual research scope of many genealogists. Diligence in searching out such records, however, can provide valuable information in the form of clues, such as Willliam Clark’s three marriages in Philadelphia or William McDonald’s birth date in 1777, and may provide historical context for a life at sea as in the story provided to authorities by George Warren. If you have a sea-going ancestor in this time period, these records are an essential resource for your family research.

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