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Going Deeper Into U.S. Maritime Records, Part 2: Deserters, Casualties, and Shipwrecks

Going Deeper Into U.S. Maritime Records, Part 2: Deserters, Casualties, and Shipwrecks

What does a genealogist do when an individual seems to fall off the face of the earth? Look high and low for them of course, but it’s even more important to find records of why they seemingly disappeared. This is relatively common with ancestors who worked in the maritime industry; an industry that operated with a high rate of desertion and casualties. The other challenge is that when tracing maritime ancestors, you are operating within a very large geographical area, much more so than in most research cases. Fortunately, for genealogists and researchers, there are a number of record sets and resources that can help with researching these types of incidents in the maritime industry.

U.S. Customs Service and State Department Records

Starting in 1803, the U.S. Government required the collectors at the customs house keep a record of all personnel serving on commercial and merchant ships. Crew lists and articles of agreement filed with the U.S. Customs Service are at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) under Record Group 36. However, there may be earlier crew lists in archives and special collections. Under oath, a captain of a ship presented a true copy of the crew list to the collector at the port of embarkation and subsequently, all ports of arrival. If the captain failed to do so, he was punished with a heavy fine. A ship could have made several stops along a particular route or voyage. It’s important to examine these crew lists for amendments like names crossed off or the letter “D” for deserted. These are strong clues that they left the voyage mid-journey.

Many seamen would desert, become ill, or fall overboard halfway along the voyage. When this occurred, the captain was required to report the incident to the local U.S. consul of that port and which subsequently was forwarded back to the customs collector at the port of embarkation. Records of U.S. Consuls are located in NARA Record Group 59, General Records of the Department of State and are organized by the embassy or station where they served. The State Department also kept a separate series of American seamen who did not desert, but rather were impressed or forcefully detained by British naval powers. These records can be found only on microfilm at the National Archives:

M2025 . Registers of Applications for the Release of Impressed Seamen, 1793-1802, and Related Indexes. More information can be found here (pdf).

M1839. Miscellaneous Lists and Papers Regarding Impressed Seamen, 1796-1814

Checking both Customs Service and State Department Records for these types of records will ensure an exhaustive search because a copy of the notice may exist in one or both places. While indexing NARA’s microfilm records for the U.S. Custom House in Salem, Massachusetts, I found many examples of desertion and casualty notices sent from ports across the U.S. and the world.

Fig 1. A list of men who didn’t return on the 1828 voyage of the Brig Reaper of Salem, Massachusetts. Two of the crew died at sea and four deserted the vessel. The notice was forwarded to the collector of the district of Salem from the collector of the district of Newport, Rhode Island.
Fig 1. A list of men who didn’t return on the 1828 voyage of the Brig Reaper of Salem, Massachusetts. Two of the crew died at sea and four deserted the vessel. The notice was forwarded to the collector of the district of Salem from the collector of the district of Newport, Rhode Island.

 Many immigrants worked on ships as a way to bypass processing by officials and enter the United States. The Immigration Acts of 1917 and 1924 required that all alien crew members be processed by the captain and immigration officials. National Archives microfilm publication A3417, Index To Alien Crewmen Who Were Discharged or Who Deserted at New York, New York, May 1917 – November 1957 includes the names of 600,000 men and will help in researching the original lists from NARA microfilm T715.

U.S. District Court Records

Genealogists and researchers may be able to find wonderful records of their seafaring ancestors in federal court records, a record set that is often under utilized. Since 1789, the United States District Court has held jurisdiction over what are called admiralty cases. In colonial America, there was a separate admiralty court which heard cases pertaining to the shipping industry. In 1872, Congress appointed the Federal Courts to handle claims related to deceased or deserted seamen. The National Archives have these case files separately as “Deceased Seamen Case Files.” The contents of the case files vary, from a one page summary or account of their wages and effects, to a variety of documents including wills, affidavits, and correspondence from family members. I was very excited when I first surveyed these records in person at the National Archives because of their enormous genealogical value and wrote a post on my personal blog. The case files for Massachusetts and Maine courts can be browsed as images on FamilySearch.

Finding a court case for your ancestor’s ship is not always easy. District Court records are held in NARA Record Group 21, Records of The United States District Court. None of these cases include full name indexes and some background research will need to be performed to find if such a case exists. If you think the district court records contain a case related to your ancestor’s ship or voyage, try contacting the regional branch of the National Archives that has court records for that state. The NARA online catalog doesn’t always reflect the entire scope of the collection because NARA facilities have an internal index of all the cases they have on file. Usually an admiralty case will be under the name of the vessel or the master, while deceased seamen’s files are under the seamen’s name.

Records Related To Shipwrecks

An ancestor may very well been lost at sea because they died during a shipwreck. Storms and poorly calculated decisions have led to thousand of shipwrecks. How does a genealogist find out if their ancestor was a victim of one of these tragedies? Newspapers are always a good place to try, not just for shipwrecks, but for maritime research in general. Some publications were specific to the maritime industry like Lloyd’s List (dating back to 1741!) and The Marine Review. There are also many online projects that have compiled data on shipwrecks both in the U.S. and internationally. A good list of these can be found here. At NARA, wreck reports for U.S. vessels are dispersed among records of the U.S. Customs Service (RG 36) and Records of the United States Coast Guard (RG 26). The U.S. Life-Saving Service was created in 1878 and it’s records (part of RG 26) include logs and wreck reports. Some wreck reports from the late 19th and 20th century are also on microfilm at NARA:

T720A-B. U.S. Coast Guard Reports of Assistance to Individuals and Vessels, 1916-1940. (Indexes are T719-T721)

T729. Marine Casualties of The Great Lakes, 1868-1873.

T925. U.S. Coast Guard Casualty and Wreck Reports, 1913-1939. (T926 is in the index to this series)

P2262. Wreck Reports Filed with Collectors of Customs in the Districts of Alaska, 1898-1912; Oregon 1874-1915; and Puget Sound (Washington)

A4237. Abstracts of Vessels, 1836-1841, and Wreck Reports, 1874-1924, from the Records of the Collectors of Customs of Oswegatchie District, New York.

Fig 2. U.S. Life Saving Service wreck report for the Schooner William H. Marshall (24 Apr 1878). 
Fig 2. U.S. Life Saving Service wreck report for the Schooner William H. Marshall (24 Apr 1878). 

Feeling like you are under water because you’re not able to find that long lost seafaring ancestor? Bring your head to the surface and start with the multitude of resources available in this post! While not every family tree contains seafaring ancestors, genealogical research in maritime records demonstrates that brickwalls can be solved if researchers examine records related to their ancestor’s occupation.

Don't miss your chance to read part 1 : Going Deeper into US Maritime Records.


Jake Fletcher is a professional genealogist, educator and blogger. He currently serves as Vice President of the New England Association of Professional Genealogists (NEAPG).



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