National Archives at Boston

Search Strategies for Ships

Researching Ships and other Vessels

About Vessel Documentation

Since 1789 all private vessels have been required to be documented with the government, just as automobiles are today. The U.S Customs Service was responsible for documenting vessels up until the 1960s when this function was taken over by the U.S. Coast Guard. As a result, many different types of official records were kept that are now useful to researchers interested in the history of a particular vessel. These records can provide descriptions and measurements, names of owners and masters, mortgage information and other useful information.

Examples of the kinds of government records relating to vessel documentation:

  • Records of registry, licenses, and enrollments
  • Records of oaths and bonds for registry, licenses, and enrollments ( and for subsequent renewals)
  • Records of tonnage admeasurements
  • Records of vessel mortgages and sales
  • Crewlists

Records of Vessels prior to 1967

Vessel documentation from 1789 until 1967 was a function of the U.S. Customs Service and for a brief time, the Bureau of Marine Inspection and Navigation. The Customs Service divided New England into Collection Districts that were headed by a Collector of Customs and associated with major ports. Districts were also often further subdivided, with assistant collectors maintaining offices at other ports. Holdings of these records at NARA cover almost every port in New England and range in date from 1789 through 1967. On April 1, 1967, the Coast Guard became a part of the Department of Transportation and assumed responsibility for the documentation of U.S. vessels.

While NARA has the majority of these records, its holdings are by no means complete. Records of some collection districts or ports were dispersed or deposited with public libraries, colleges, or other local history collections before the National Archives was created. In addition, because of fires, floods, or simply the hazards of early methods of records storage, records for certain ports may be incomplete.

Locating Records of SpecificVessels

Because of the volume of records and our limited staffing, we are ordinarily unable to conduct research for specific individual records. It will be necessary for researchers to visit NARA in order to examine the records for the information they are seeking. The best procedure is to call, write, or email prior to visiting NARA at Waltham and explain what kind of information that you are seeking. Please be aware that there are no master indexes for locating vessel information and that the same names of vessels may appear at different time periods and at different ports. If you are searching for information about a vessel it is therefore critical that you know the name of its home port, and have some idea of time period. It will also be helpful, though less critical, if you know whether the vessel was engaged in coastal trade, fishing, or foreign trade. With this information our staff can tell you about NARA records at Waltham that may be useful for your research.