Prologue Magazine

Genealogical Fallout from the War of 1812

Spring 1992, Vol. 24, No. 1 | Genealogy Notes

By Ruth Priest Dixon

© 1992 Ruth Priest Dixon

The impressment of American seamen by the British was one of the causes of the War of 1812. The practice also resulted in the creation of extensive records about merchant seamen that are of great value to genealogists and historians. These Seamen's Protection Certificate Applications for what might well be called a merchant seaman's passport have remained virtually untouched since they were originally filed. Now they are being organized and preserved, and those from the early years are already indexed. These records are in the Old Military and Civil Branch at the National Archives. 1

Seamen's Protection Certificates (SPCs) were authorized by the Fourth Congress on May 28, 1796, to protect American merchant seamen from impressment. The British maintained that they had a right to use press gangs to forcibly recruit British seamen in port or on the high seas, and their attitude was "once a British subject, always a British subject." In fact, any English-speaking sailor was in danger of being impressed. During the war with Napoleon, the British stepped up impressments. 2 The Archives records tell many tales of impressment. John Howard appeared before a notary in Philadelphia on September 3, 1807, and described his experiences. He sailed on the ship Martha Washington out of Savannah bound for London with Certificate No. 14148 issued in June 1806 in his pocket. The ship "sprung a leak" and put into Antigua on St. Johns island "in distress." Here he was "pressed" by the British and put on board the sloop of war Timrod, and the "Protection was forcibly taken from him." He escaped and returned to Philadelphia. The deposition of Sarah Dickinson dated April 11, 1811, states that her son, John Dickinson, twenty-two years old and born in Philadelphia, sailed in June 1809 for Liverpool and that she had been informed that he was impressed and detained on board one of the British ships of war. In applying for a duplicate SPC in 1817, James Francis stated that he "had a protection granted him by the Collector of this Port on or about 12 March 1806 which was torn up and destroyed by a British Captain when at sea." After about 1815 the impressment of seamen ceased, but the Seamen's Protection Certificates had proved to be a valuable form of identification and continued to be issued until just before the Civil War. The practice was resumed for a short time during the World War I era.

The application records of the Port of Philadelphia are by far the most extensive and the easiest to use. Applications through 1823 are indexed on three-by-five-inch cards; those for 1814, 1824–1830, 1834, 1844, and 1854 are also on computer. In addition, the customs collectors' "abstracts," quarterly reports of the SPCs issued, exist for about half the quarters for that port. Abstracts are filed alphabetically by first letter of last name. The Work Projects Administration (WPA) made two indexes of abstracts, one for New York and one for "Other Ports." The abstracts, of course, are one step removed from the original and do not contain all the information on the applications, which apparently were destroyed, but they are useful genealogical sources. Few certificates appear in Archives records; they were issued to and belonged to the seaman. Some random records exist for about fifty other ports, primarily abstracts, registers, and a few applications.

Because the purpose of the Seaman's Protection Certificate was to identify the seaman clearly, the application required his name, age, place of birth, physical description "as may be," and was either attested to by a knowledgeable person or by documentation. (Very early applications tend to have documentation; later ones have attestation.) Public officials and notaries devised their own application forms to suit their fancy; some were simple, some flamboyant. The physical description usually included height; color of hair, eyes, and complexion; distinguishing marks such as tattoos, birthmarks, scars, or disfigurements; and sometimes the shape of the nose, chin, and face.

The applications filed in Philadelphia show a wide range of ages and birthplaces. While most seamen applied for a certificate when they were in their twenties, boys in their teens and men in their thirties often applied. Boys as young as eleven and men as old as seventy-seven are on record. Geographic distribution is equally broad. The Atlantic seaboard states are well represented, most seamen coming from Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, New York, Maryland, New Jersey, and Delaware. Some gave Connecticut, Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Rhode Island, North and South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida as their place of birth. A few came from the District of Columbia and as far away as Ohio, Illinois, Kentucky, and Louisiana. A good number were foreign born.

From a genealogical perspective, the witnesses are perhaps the most significant information after age and place of birth. The name of any witness can help the researcher to expand his or her knowledge of the merchant seaman. Many times the witness has the same surname as the seaman, suggesting a relationship, and some identify that relationship as mother, father, sister, brother, aunt, or uncle. Some appear to be shipmates; they witnessed each other's applications although they come from widely separated birthplaces. Ira Dye suggests that some of the female witnesses may be the seaman's "wife" in that port. 3 Young seamen most often have an identified relative as witness. The witness for Isaac Philips, age twelve in 1826, was Hannah Simmons, his mother with a different surname. Sarah Loftand witnessed for her twelve-year-old son James A. Loftand in 1824. Jacob Black/Blake, age sixteen in 1820, had as his witness his father, Levin Blake. (The notary spelled the name "Black" and "Blake" on the same page.) It seems probable that the Samuel Nicholson who witnessed for William Henry Nicholson, an eleven-year-old in 1827, was a relative. Henry Bray, who witnessed for eleven James Bray, most likely was related to him. Mary Craycroft may have been the mother of twelve-year-old Theodore Craycroft, who applied in 1827. In 1814 Mary Howell swore that she had known eleven-year-old Thomas Little "from his birth." The witness on the 1814 application of Samuel Girdon Dannaker is James Girdon. Was Girdon the maiden name of Samuel's mother?

In processing these old applications, one pattern immediately catches the eye: there is an unexpected number of men of color. (For purposes of this discussion, seamen described as black, mulatto, Sambo, yellow, or colored are considered men of color.) At times they accounted for almost a third of the applications, far in excess of their proportion of the population. Because it often is very difficult to do research in African-American families, slave or free, the Seamen's Protection Certificate Applications are a boon to these researchers. The value of a document identifying a man of color as free is easy to understand. Sometimes these valuable identity papers were borrowed by a landlubber from a bona fide seaman. Frederick Douglass, for example, borrowed a certificate in 1838 and walked away to freedom. 4

There are rare finds of manumission in these records. Some suggest a custom of bound servitude after slavery and before freedom. In applying for a Certificate in 1797, Charles Anderson states he was born in Queen Annes County, Maryland, a slave of Richard Small, who freed all his slaves when he "became to be a Methodist." James Calahan, who was twenty-three in 1854, was born in Sower Town, Kent County, Delaware. His application states, "I also present a certificate from my former master George Jones." Peter Till, about twenty-nine in 1826, was born in Sussex County, Delaware. "The said Peter Till produced a certificate of his having been manumitted and set free by Benjamin Robinson a citizen of the State of Delaware to whom he had formerly been sold for a term of years by his original owner David Hopkins of said State, the proof of his freedom being duly recorded on the Orphans Court for the City and County of Philada." In 1804 Pompey Ridley, twenty years old, "a bound mulatto servant to Samuel Rhoads," a Philadelphia merchant, went to sea with Rhoads's consent. Three years later, Samuel Ridley, twenty-two, born in Long Island, New York, as was Pompey, stated that he was manumitted in 1792 by Stephen Vandyke on condition he would serve nine years with Anthony Morris, which he had done and so became a free man.

Naturalization information is equally interesting and more abundant in these records. The name of the court and the date of naturalization is often given. For example, on August 2, 1824, William Williams, a native of Wales, was naturalized "in the Court of Common Pleas of the city and county of Philadelphia." Even when the court is given without the date, researchers should check that court's records around the date the seaman applied for his certificate. Almost without fail the seaman seems to have gone straight from the naturalization court to a notary to make application for his protection. Bernard Tobin of St. Johns, Newfoundland, is described as an "affiliated citizen," having "declared my Intention of becoming a citizen of the United States in the Circuit Court of the United States holden in Philadelphia the 27th of December 1854, a Certificate whereof I herewith present." He applied for and got his protection certificate that same day.

When using the index to the Philadelphia applications or the WPA index to abstracts, it is important to look for more than a single name. The index cards often reveal What appear to be family clusters. Each of the following lists people who had the same surname and came from the same place.

In the ten years between 1814 and 1824, James, Jason, Levi, Samuel, and William Blanchard, ages eighteen to twenty-eight, all from North Yarmouth, Massachusetts, applied for certificates. The same man, Thaxter Prince, served as witness for three of them.

Between 1803 and 1816, David, Ezekiel, Jesse, two Johns, Joseph, Joseph L., and Joshua Hand, all thirty or younger, all from Cape May, New Jersey, applied. Noah Hand witnessed for twenty-six-year-old Joshua, and Caleb Hand witnessed for twenty-year-old Joseph. In 1810, Charles and Eldridge Hand applied from neighboring Cumberland County, New Jersey.

Listed as black or free black, we find David, Jeremiah, John, and Perry Liston from New Castle County, Delaware, between 1810 and 1821. In 1799 another Perry Liston from New Castle County, age thirty-three, is listed as a freedman.

The applications of Antoine, Antonio, and Joseph Joachim reflect the changing flags over New Orleans. They were born in New Orleans, Mississippi Territory, and renounced allegiance to the king of Spain and the French Republic.

Eight men—Emanual, Alexander, four named John with different birth dates, Julius, and Constantine—described as mulatto, free black, or yellow, with the surname Francis came from New Orleans between 1808 and 1825. One renounced allegiance to the king of Spain; another stated he was a freeman at the time of cession of the Louisiana Territory.

While this article focuses on the genealogical value of the seamen's records, they contain significant data for other disciplines as well. Historians would be interested in the picture that can be drawn from Seamen's Protection Certificate Applications of certain localities. Most noteworthy, or at least the most apparent one, is Duck Creek Crossroads or Duck Creek Hundred, now Smyrna, Kent County, Delaware, where well over a hundred men, almost all of whom were men of color, applied for certificates between 1798 and 1825.

Occasionally the applications are a source of amusement. One notary spells Maryland "Meriland." Another is farther off the mark: he spells Louisiana "Lucy anna."

Is it worth a researcher's time and effort to try to find an individual seaman in the Seamen's Protection Certificate Applications? Most certainly, if there is any indication that he may have shipped out of Philadelphia. As indicated earlier, many of these records are indexed. While it is a more time consuming task, the Philadelphia customs inspectors' quarterly reports are a usable finding aid for unindexed years. Looking for seamen in other ports is less rewarding, but the WPA indexes to New York and Other Ports direct the researcher to the appropriate quarterly report for those ports. If family tradition or other sources direct the researcher to a specific port and time period, it would be worth looking at the unindexed applications or quarterly reports that may exist for any port. And of course, the good news is that the Philadelphia indexing project goes on.

Ruth Priest Dixon is a volunteer staff aide working on preserving, organizing, and indexing Seamen's Protection Certificate Applications for the port of Philadelphia. She received her M.A. in political science from George Washington University.


1 Records of the United States Customs Service, 1796–World War I, Record Group 36; Records of the Bureau of Maritime Inspection and Navigation, RG 41. See Guide to the National Archives of the United States (1974), pp. 168–172, 484; and Guide to Genealogical Research in the National Archives (1985), pp. 189–191. See also Ira Dye, "The Philadelphia Seamen's Protection Certificate Applications," Prologue 18 (Spring 1986):46–55; reprinted in Our Family, Our Town: Essays on Family and Local History Sources in the National Archives, comp. Timothy Walch (1987), pp. 60–65.

2 See Stuart L. Butler, "Genealogical Records of the War of 1812," Prologue 23 (Winter 1991): 420–425; and James Fulton Zimmerman, Impressment of American Seamen (1925) for discussions of the War of 1812.

3 Ira Dye, "Seafarers of 1812—A Profile," Prologue 5 (Spring 1973):10.

4 Frederick Douglass, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881, facsimile reprint 1983), p. 138.


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