Records About Impressed Seamen, 1793-1814
Part 1: Historical Background
From the end of the American Revolution until the conclusion of the War of 1812, the U.S. Government was concerned with British impressment of seamen on American ships and with the repatriation of men thus impressed. (In some cases seamen were also impressed by French and Spanish naval officers). An act of May 28, 1796 (1 Stat. 477), authorized the President to appoint agents at foreign ports who were charged with the following duties:
... to inquire 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 detained by any foreign power, to endeavour, by all legal means, to obtain the release of such American citizens or others....
In order for the U.S. Government to obtain "full and speedy information" on impressments, the act also provided that, if the impressment occurred within a foreign port, masters of U.S. ships were to "make a protest" to the American consul. If the impressment occurred on the high seas, it was to be reported to the collector of customs at the first U.S. port at which the vessel arrived. These officials were required to periodically report to the Secretary of State "an account of such impressments or detentions, as shall appear, by the protests of the masters, to have taken place." Vessel masters were further required by the act to transmit a copy of the protest directly to the Secretary of State. The protest was required to state:
... the manner of such impressment or detention, by whom made, together with the name and place of residence of the person impressed or detained; distinguishing also, whether he was an American citizen; and if not, to what nation he belonged.
On March 2, 1799, another act (1 Stat. 731), required the Secretary to submit to Congress an annual statement containing an abstract of the reports received on impressments. The State Department continued to seek repatriation of seamen throughout and after the War of 1812.
Part 2: Microfilmed Records
Two National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) microfilm publications contain information on impressed seamen, 1793-1814:
- M2025 . Registers of Applications for the Release of Impressed Seamen, 1793-1802, and Related Indexes. 1 roll.
- M1839. Miscellaneous Lists and Papers Regarding Impressed Seamen, 1796-1814. 1 roll.
Part 3: Records Description
M2025. Registers of Applications for the Release of Impressed Seamen, 1793-1802, and Related Indexes. 1 roll.
NARA microfilm publication M2025 consists of four volumes of registers of applications for the release of impressed seamen, with related indexes.
- First Volume
The spine of the first volume is labeled Index to Register of Applications for Release of Impressed Seamen, 1794-1797, but the inclusive date span is actually July 19, 1793-June 24, 1797. Arranged roughly alphabetically by the first letter of the seaman's surname, it includes the date of application for the seaman's release and the page number where further information can be found in the second volume, described below.
- Second Volume
The cover of the second volume is labeled Mr. King's Book, and the inclusive date span is July 19, 1793-June 24, 1797. An inside title page reads:
A Catalogue of Seamen, Stated to be Citizens of the United States and Natives, Impressed from American vessels on board British ships of war, For whose Discharge Applications have been made Through Lord Grenville by Mr. Pinckney And his Successor Mr. King.This volume is arranged chronologically by the date of the application for the seaman's release. For each seaman, the information provided varies, but may include the following: state of which he is a "citizen and native"; name of American ship from which he was taken; name of British ship on which he was carried off; date when he was impressed; evidence of his U.S. citizenship; and result of his application.
- Third Volume
The cover of the third volume is labeled Applications for the Relief of Impressed Seamen, 1797 to 1801, David Lenox, Agent, but the inclusive date span is actually June 26, 1797-October 4, 1800. An index in the front of the volume, arranged roughly alphabetically by the first letter of the seaman's surname, indicates the page number where further information about the seaman can be found. The substantive contents of the volume are arranged chronologically by date of application for the seaman's release. If known, the following information is provided for each seaman: name of the person to whom the application was made; name of the American ship from which he was carried off; name of the American ship captain; state of which impressed seaman is a "citizen and native"; date of impressment; name of British ship on which he was carried off; name of the British ship captain; evidence of the seaman's citizenship; and result of the application.
- Fourth Volume
The cover of the fourth volume is labeled Applications for the Relief of Impressed Seamen, &c. 1800. 1802. David Lenox U.S. Agent. The inclusive date span is October 6, 1800-May 1, 1802. An index in the front of the volume, arranged roughly alphabetically by the first letter of the seaman's surname, indicates the page number where further information about the seaman can be found. The information provided in the substantive contents of this volume is the same as that provided in the third volume, except that the name of the British ship captain is not indicated.
M1839. Miscellaneous Lists and Papers Regarding Impressed Seamen, 1796-1814. 1 roll.
NARA microfilm publication M1839 consists of five sections (called "Targets" below); the subject categories and time periods covered by each Target overlap.
- Abstracts of returns from Collectors of Customs of impressed seamen, 1796-ca. 1806.
- Lists of seamen impressed during 1795-1796.
- Various lists of impressed seamen, ca. 1795-1813.
- Copies of reports to Congress listing impressed seamen, ca. 1796-ca. 1803. These documents are onionskin press copies of handwritten documents and are extremely difficult to read due to the inherent blurriness of the copying process.
- Lists of American seamen discharged from British service in 1797.
- Master lists of impressed seamen. This section consists of four different master lists, as follows:
- The first list is undated.
- The second list has "Impressed Seamen" as its title page, and the explanation "Applications from Impressed American Seamen, received since 1 July 1809" on the second page. It extends to March 30, 1810.
- The third list is titled "List of seamen whose names have been communicated to the Dept of State since the last Report to the House of Representatives on the 5 day of March 1810." The title page also includes the index to seamen whose surnames begin with the letter A and B; the remainder of the volume indexes the remainder of the alphabet.
- The fourth list is titled, "Cases of Impressed Seamen," and is a chronological register of seamen impressed between January 11, 1811 and April 10, 1812.
- Letters relating to and lists of applications made for the release of impressed seamen, 1802-1811.
- Lists of impressed seamen, ca. 1796-ca. 1801.
- Resolutions of the Senate and House of Representatives, 1806-1813.
- Accounts of Collectors of Customs for publishing in newspapers regarding impressed seamen, 1805-1807.
- Lists of, and correspondence regarding, some seamen confined on British ships, 1811. This section also includes depositions taken regarding the impressment and citizenship of seamen George Warren of Marblehead, Massachusetts, and William Bowman of the Borough of Portsmouth, County of Southampton, [England?].
- Target 2
This section consists of protests and lists of impressed seamen, ca. 1796-ca. 1810.
- Target 3
This section consists of a small volume labeled "Statement of J. Hawkers, U.S. Vice Consul, in 1812, at Plymouth, Expenses for Relief of American Seamen &c, Impressed Seamen &c." It mostly contains correspondence on this subject.
- Target 4
This section consists of lists of impressed seamen, ca. 1797-1801.
- Target 5
This section consists of documents originally filmed in Target 1 that were refilmed to ensure legibility.
Part 4: Where to Find these Records
M2025: Registers of Applications for the Release of Impressed Seamen, 1793-1802, and Related Indexes, is available for public viewing at the following locations:
- National Archives at Atlanta
- National Archives at Boston
- National Archives at Chicago
- National Archives at College Park, MD
- National Archives at Denver
- National Archives at Fort Worth
- National Archives at Kansas City
- National Archives at Riverside
- National Archives at San Francisco
- National Archives at Seattle
- National Archives at Washington, DC