Editor’s Note: The following is a lightly revised and updated post originally written by the late Carolyn L. Barkley on how to research Merchant Marines that may be part of your family’s history. As Ms. Barkley originally mused, her own curiosity led her to research more about the individuals, ships and records available for those in this career.
Merchant marines have played an important role in American history. Without their efforts and sacrifices, the outcome of many of our armed conflicts would have been quite different. If you believe that there was a merchant mariner in your family, a little research effort will reward you with a new understanding of the life experiences of that individual.
Historical information is often located (thanks to the power of the Google search engine) in unexpected sources, and I found one of the best historical overviews of the history of the merchant marine on a site dedicated to mesothelioma, a form of cancer caused by exposure to asbestos. (Further reading dispelled any sense that this combination of topics was coincidental. During the modern military period, exposure to military materiel and construction exposed civilian and military personnel to high concentrations of asbestos, making mesothelioma a significant medical risk.)
In summary, the historical article outlined events that shaped the merchant marine, beginning with the dependence of the American colonies on the shipment of commercial goods back and forth between colonial and European ports. As the colonies gravitated toward war, so did merchant shipping, and these ships were loosely designated as the “merchant marine.” One seminal event was the June 1775 seizure of the HMS Margaretta by citizens in Machias, Maine, thus preventing its shipment of lumber to Boston for British barracks construction. This action, then, anticipated the formation of both the U.S. Coast Guard and the U.S. Navy. Beginning with the Revolutionary War, merchant ships and their crews would become crucial for all American war efforts, ferrying supplies and troops to depots and ports where they were most needed. Early on, the relationship between merchant mariners and their government was on an “as-needed” basis, with letters of marquee granted to privateers and other citizen ship owners engaging them to sail with cargo as agents of the government. No official formation of a merchant marine service occurred, however, until the 1920s. Continue reading…