Prologue Magazine

Do We Have Any Records Relating to French Spoliation Claims?

Spring 1991, Vol. 23, No. 1 | Genealogy Notes

By Angie Spicer Vandereedt


What are French spoliation claims? I'm glad you asked. French spoliation claims are claims presented by United States citizens against France, Spain, and Holland for vessels and cargo taken by privateers prior to September 30, 1800, and condemned at ports controlled by those countries. A majority of the vessels were captured during the Quasi-War between the United States and France (1797–1801), although the French spoliation claims can include all property captured by the French at any time.

Franco-American relations became strained in the late eighteenth century for several reasons. While France was at war with Great Britain, the United States attempted to remain neutral but encountered many difficulties due to harassment of its merchant vessels by both belligerents. When Jay's Treaty was signed on November 19, 1794, in an attempt to improve Anglo-American relations, the French viewed it as a violation of earlier agreements signed with their government, as well as a violation of American neutrality. As a result, the French government passed several decrees permitting their privateers off the coasts of North and South America, Europe, Africa, and the West Indies to capture American merchant vessels.1

Efforts by American diplomats to persuade the French to revoke the decrees and pay for the indemnities failed. Tempers flared, both in the United States and France, but neither formally declared war. The United States formed a small navy, hired privateers, and allowed merchant vessels to arm themselves for defensive purposes. Congress also revoked the treaties signed with France in 1778 and 1788 and authorized the recruitment of a regular army to prepare for possible invasion.2

The hostilities between France and the United States continued until the signing of the Convention of Mortefontaine on September 30, 1800.3 The final version of the convention made no provisions for the settlement of claims for indemnity, however, leaving the issue for the future. Unfortunately for the claimants, no one realized how far into the future some of the claims would be settled. Indeed, the paper trail for some claims continues well into the twentieth century.

The Louisiana Purchase treaty of April 30, 1803, was one of the first of many efforts to resolve the disputes. The second convention to the treaty states that as part of the payment for the Louisiana territory, the United States would pay the claims for which the interest could not exceed twenty million francs. The convention further provided for a three-member commission to examine and settle the claims. After the commissioners made their decisions, the claims were turned over to the French government for final approval. Under this commission, which lasted from July 5, 1803, to December 1, 1804, a total of 356 claims were allowed, and 174 were disallowed.4 The rejection of a claim only meant that the United States would not be held responsible for its payment. It was left to the government of France to decide its own liability in those cases.5

Several more treaties and conventions followed, but none totally resolved all of the claims. Claimants then appealed to Congress for assistance with little success. Finally, on January 20, 1885, Congress passed an act (23 Stat. L. 283) empowering the United States Court of Claims to hear and examine evidence relating to outstanding French spoliation claims that originated before July 31, 1801. A total of 5,520 petitioners presented their claims to the court within the two years specified by the act. The court was to decide which claims were valid and the amount to be awarded to the victorious claimants. The court's decisions were then sent to Congress for action.6 Instead of submitting the decisions to the Department of the Treasury for payment, Congress referred them to committees for further review.7 Congress made at least four appropriations for payment of the claims allowed by the court of claims. These were on March 3, 1891 (26 Stat. L. 897), March 3, 1899 (30 Stat. L. 1161), May 27, 1902 (32 Stat. L. 207), and February 24, 1905 (33 Stat. L. 743).8 Many claims, however, remained unsettled as late as 1924.

Several agencies gathered evidence over the years to assist Congress and the courts. It is not surprising, then, that records relating to the claims are in sixteen record groups in the National Archives. As a result, the French spoliation claims present a challenge for anyone wishing to track all of the information relating to them.

Why Should Anyone Do Research in the Claims?

The records can be fascinating. Anyone interested in maritime history, United States trade relations with other countries, Franco-American relations, the Quasi-War, or even genealogical research, can find a wealth of material in these records. A study of the records of the French spoliation claims is a study of the complicated process of resolving international claims.

The genealogical aspect should not be underestimated. In many cases, the representatives of the original claimants were the spouses, children, or other relatives of the claimant. Such relationships are usually mentioned in the records of the claims and can prove to be very useful to those attempting to trace their family trees. They can also shed light on the business practices of an ancestor or on the abilities of a ship's master.

Unlike most genealogical records, the records relating to the French spoliation claims are dispersed among many agencies' records. The key to researching the claims for genealogical purposes is learning which cases might have involved the ancestors of the researcher How that is determined depends upon what the researcher already knows. If there is only speculation that some family member had some interest in a claim, the search could be long and tedious. Even if the name of the person is known, there is no guarantee that the claim will be found. The first step when only a small amount of information is known is to examine the various lists of claims available in the printed archives. Most of the lists provide the names of vessels captured, masters of the vessels, and the claimant. They do not always indicate how the claimant is involved in the claim.

If the name is found in one of the lists, then it is usually a simple task to determine the claim number. If the number does not appear on the list, an archivist can be consulted for the next step. If the name is not found, then the task becomes more difficult. As with most research projects, the more you know, the better off you are.

There is no comprehensive index to the claims. Most of the claims records are organized by the vessel names, the claimants' names, or the claim number. It also helps to know when the claim was presented. Claims presented early tended to involve fewer people than those that appear later because the early claims were either bought by others or handed down through generations, with the children of the first claimants possessing the right to divide the claims among them.

If a person is not on a list, and it is not known when he or she became involved in the claims, the only recourse is to go systematically through the records. It is best to start with the Records of the United States Court of Claims (Record Group 123), then the Records of International Claims (contained in Record Group 76), and then the petitions to Congress.

Justice Department Records

The most extensive collection of records relating to the French spoliation claims is in Record Group 123, Records of the United States Court of Claims. Many case files contain correspondence and evidence relating to claims presented to the court under the act of Congress of January 20, 1885. There are also two lists of claimants in the finding aids for RG 123. One is arranged by claimant, another is arranged by vessel name. The vessel list includes the claim numbers, which are needed in order to request the records.

Record Group 205, Court of Claims Section (Justice), also includes several series of records relating to the French spoliation claims. Two indexes to the claims are in one volume covering the period February 7, 1885–January 20, 1887. The first is arranged alphabetically by name of claimant, the second, by name of legal representative. Both provide the name of the vessel, the master, and the claim number. Evidentiary materials, 1793–1888, which were collected from the French archives, include numerous lists of vessels captured, copies of testimony, correspondence, and notes from ships registers. One word of caution, though: Most of the records are in French with no translation. The largest series in this record group relating to the claims are dockets, February 7, 1885–March 31, 1903, and eleven volumes of papers and proceedings relating to the cases presented before the court of claims.

A small amount of material relating to the claims is in Record Group 60, General Records of the Department of Justice, Letters Concerning French Spoliation Cases and Other Matters, July 21, 1899–February 21, 1902.

State Department Records

Another extensive collection is in Record Group 76, Records of International Boundary and Claims Commissions and Arbitrations.Records Relating to International Claims Commissions, Preliminary Inventory No. 177, is a good starting point for anyone interested in doing research in these records.

Record Group 59, General Records of the Department of State, is not a great source, but it does contain some references to the French spoliation claims. The State Department decimal file 411.051 includes a few letters from individuals inquiring as to whether or not certain claims were ever settled. Other references to claims may be found on microfilm: Numerical and Minor Files of the Department of State, 1906–1910 (M862); Miscellaneous Letters of the Department of State, 1789–1906 (M179); and Dispatches from U.S. Ministers to France, 1789–1906 (M34). Indexes to the Numerical File and Miscellaneous Letters have not been filmed. Another series that may shed some light on the claims is Reports of the Secretary of State to the President and Congress, 1790–1906.

Record Group 84, Records of United States Foreign Service Posts, includes some correspondence to and from United States ministers in France relating to the claims. My advice to anyone attempting to search these records for such references is to look near the time periods during which there was a commission in session attempting to resolve the claims. There may also be some correspondence after January 20, 1885, relating to the State Department's efforts to obtain evidence from the French archives, both in these records and in the diplomatic dispatches mentioned above.

Legislative Records

There are many petitions from claimants among the Records of the United States Senate (Record Group 46) and the Records of the United States House of Representatives (Record Group 233). The records include journals, original bills, petitions and memorials sent to congressional committees, and correspondence of the committees. Both houses of Congress published lists of private claims: Digested Summary and Alphabetical Lists of Private Claims Which Have Been Presented to the House of Representatives, and Lists of Private Claims Brought Before the Senate of the United States. Histories of bills concerning French spoliation claims can be located in the journals of the Senate and the House.

Petitions and memorials relating to French spoliation claims were usually referred to the committees on foreign affairs, on claims, on the judiciary, or on French spoliation claims. Some of the petitions and memorials to the House were turned over to the Department of State, ca. 1885 (now in RG 76), and some of those were later sent to the United States Court of Claims (now in RG 123). Further assistance may be found in the two guides to the records of the House and Senate prepared by the Center for Legislative Archives in the National Archives and Records Administration.

Printed Archives

The most complete lists of claims presented to the court of claims under the act of January 20, 1885, are in Senate Executive Document 102, 49th Congress, 1st Session. The first list is arranged alphabetically by name of claimant, the second is arranged alphabetically by vessel name, and the third is an alphabetical list of claimants incidentally mentioned in the first two lists. The lists include the year of capture; names of underwriters, agents, executors, and attorneys; amount of claims; ports the captured vessels were carried to; the convention under which the claims were originally presented; and reason the claims were rejected. This document is available in printed form under the title French Spoliation Claims: Report of the Secretary of State, 1886: Reports Broadhead and Tuck (S1.2:f88/2). Also in the printed archives are Senate and House resolutions, printed speeches concerning the consideration of bills relating to French spoliation, reports of House and Senate committees, and lists of claims settled by the United States Court of Claims. Printed copies of laws concerning French spoliation claims can be located in the Statutes at Large of the United States of America, copies of which are widely available.

Additional Records

Record Group 36, Records of the United States Customs Service, includes a fairly sizeable amount of evidentiary material relating to the French spoliation claims. Records included are vessel documentation and correspondence concerning the efforts by the Department of the Treasury to procure the records.

Record Group 39, Records of the Bureau of Accounts, includes several small series concerning the claims. One small entry, Register of Claims Against France, 1805–1806, in Record Group 53, "Old Loans" Records of the Bureau of Public Debt, includes a register of payments made on the French spoliation claims.

A note of caution about Record Group 56, General Records of the Department of Treasury: There are at least ten series which contain some information concerning the French spoliation claims. However, unless one is conducting the world's most exhaustive study of the claims, I would not advise pursuing most of these. The only entry dealing exclusively with these claims is Certificates Issued in Payment of French Indemnity, 1836 (2 vols.). A similar warning flag can be raised with regard to Record Group 217, Records of the Accounting Office of the Department of the Treasury. I located only one entry here that mentions the claims (Settled and Miscellaneous Treasury Accounts, September 6, 1790–September 29, 1894). This has been reproduced in Miscellaneous Treasury Accounts of the First Auditor (Formerly the Auditor) of the Treasury Department, September 6, 1790–1840 (M235, rolls 56–328).

There is a small amount of evidentiary material in Record Group 41, Records of the Bureau of Marine Inspection and Navigation, Copies of Customs House Records Used in the French Spoliation Claims, 1789–1811 (7 vols.). These are primarily copies of ships registers. Abstracts to these registers are annotated to show which vessels were captured.

Treaties and conventions relating to the attempts to resolve the claims are contained in Record Group 11, General Records of the United States Government. Printed copies of the treaties can be found in Treaties and Other International Agreements, edited by Charles I. Bevins for the Department of State. The originals of most of the international treaties have been microfilmed as Perfected International Treaties ("Treaty Series"), 1778–1945 (M1247).

Many of the records among the Naval Records Collection of the Office of Naval Records and Library, Record Group 45, were printed in The Quasi-Naval War With France, edited by Capt. Dudley Knox, for the United States Navy. There are, however, a few references that may not be in the Knox volumes. One may find information concerning American prisoners captured during the Quasi-War, a list of privateering vessels, and lists of armed American merchantmen during the Quasi-War with France.

As stated earlier, there is no set pattern for researching these claims. How one would proceed through the maze of records described above is dependent upon what type of information is requested and what the researcher already knows. I advise going to the printed sources first. James Brown Scott's The Controversy Over Neutral Rights Between the United States and France, 1797–1800, and Prize Cases Decided in the United States Supreme Court, 1789–1918, are good starting points for those interested in the background of the claims, as well as for those curious as to what the courts used as the basis of their decisions. Most of the material discussed under "Printed Archives" can be found at United States government depository libraries as well as in the Center for Legislative Records in the National Archives.

In answer to the title question: "Do we have records relating to French spoliation claims?" Yes. My question to you, the researcher, is: What information do you already know? Once you have answered that question, you can plod through the finding aids in search of the path that will lead in the direction you want to go. Who knows? You may even find what you are looking for.

Angie Spicer Vandereedt was an archivist in the Old Military and Civil Unit of the National Archives and Records Administration.


1. Some of the books written on the Quasi-War are: Alexander De Conde, The Quasi War: The Politics and Diplomacy of the Undeclared War With France, 1797–1801 (1966); Gardner W. Allen, Our Naval War With France (1909); and more recently, Michael A. Palmer, Stoddert's War: Naval Operations During the Quasi-War with France, 1798–1801 (1987).

2. The specific complaints of the United States and France are detailed in James Brown Scott, ed., The Controversy Over Neutral Rights Between the United States and France, 1797–1800: A Collection of American State Papers and Judicial Decisions (1917).

3. A printed copy of the Louisiana Purchase treaty can be found in Charles I. Bevins, Treaties and Other International Agreements, Vol. 7 (1971), pp. 801–811.

4. George S. Ulibarri, Records Relating to International Claims, Preliminary Inventory No. 177 (1974), p. 22.

5. Bevins, Treaties, pp. 818–821.

6. The reports containing the decisions of the court are available in printed form. A set of volumes containing the reports on the French spoliation claims is filed among the records of the Indian depredation claims. The last volume concerning the French spoliation claims is a report to the 64th Congress, 1st session.

7. Background information for the Records of the Court of Claims is in the reference file for RG 123 in an essay written by archivist Oliver Wendell Holmes. It is in the folder marked "D & P: RG 123, U.S. Court of Claims Preliminary Studies."

8. Information concerning congressional appropriations was obtained in a letter from Green H. Hackworth, Legal Adviser for the State Department to Mrs. Kendrick G. Sloan, August 7,1939, in answer to Mrs. Sloan's inquiry of July 18, 1939, 1910–1939 decimal file, 411.051/490, General Records of the Department of State, Record Group 59, National Archives, Washington, DC.


Articles published in Prologue do not necessarily represent the views of NARA or of any other agency of the United States Government.