Learning about seafaring ancestors can prove to be as exciting as the adventures of many who crossed oceans to destinations around the world. My great, great, grandfather, Owen O’Neill, was born off the coast of South America aboard his Irish father’s frigate. After courting his wife in Boston, Owen sailed his family to California. From the 1850s until his death in 1871, he piloted a cargo ship that traversed daily from San Francisco to Belmont, California.
Many men of his time living near ports were employed in the maritime industries. The importance of the maritime industry led to the creation of records that, in many cases, have discoveries waiting for genealogists. With the right know-how, any researcher can re-tell the tale of their sea captain.
Many resources exist at the National Archives that remain only partially digitized. The Act of 1789 by the United States Government mandated that private seagoing vessels be officially recorded by the government. As a result, 100 district offices throughout the country were established for the agency of the U.S. Customs Collection Service. The U.S. Customs Service became responsible for recording information on vessels and their contents. Ships arriving at port were directed to the local customhouse. The customhouse was operated by the collector and his subordinate officers who collected details on the arriving ships. Among the records produced at the customhouse are:
- Arrival and Departure of American Merchant Ships
- Seamen and Marine Passenger Protection Certificates
- Names of Owners and Masters of a Ship
- Crew Lists
- Names of Officials at the Customhouse
- Manifests of Cargo on Board
Records of United States customhouses are located in National Archives Record Group 36, Records of the U.S. Customs Service. There are collections of passenger and crew lists that are digitized and searchable on Ancestry. These lists mostly come from Record Group 85, Bureau of Immigration. More federal records are accessible to researchers online if the seafaring ancestor in question served in the Navy.
- Ancestry.com, Passenger and Crew Lists
- Fold3.com – (search Navy in Catalog)
- RG 26, Records of the United States Coast Guard, 1785-1988
- RG 36, Records of the United States Customs Service, 1745-1997 (bulk 1789-1976)
- RG 41, Records of the Bureau of Marine Inspection and Navigation, 1774-1973
- RG 85, Records of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS)
While the National Archives has a majority of these records, some maritime collections were deposited with public libraries and local history repositories before the National Archives was created in 1934. Here are a few examples of maritime records from local history collections that are FREE to search:
- Maine Maritime Museum, Merchant Marine Muster, 1790 to the 1920s
- New Bedford Whaling Museum, Whaling Crew List Museum, 1807 to 1927
- Mystic Seaport, Seamen Protection Certificates, 1796-1871
- Newfoundland and Labrador Crew Lists, 1864-1942
Researchers new to these records will come across unusual terms. Here are definitions of some important terms to help your research:
- ADMEASUREMENT, CERTIFICATE OF
Before documents could be obtained for a vessel, it had to be measured. These certificates show name of ship builder and name of owner.
- CITIZENSHIP FOR AMERICAN SEAMAN, CERTIFICATES OF
Each certificate shows date of issue, name of seaman, his age and nationality and a brief physical description. These persons were required to give oaths of citizenship that were signed by witnesses.
Historically the word drawback denotes refunding the tax on goods to the master of the ship importing goods. The rationale for drawback was to encourage American commerce and manufacturing.
Same as tax.
A customs official who inspects dimensions of bulk goods subject to duty.
Lists of cargo.
- SEAMEN’S PROTECTION
Certificates protecting seamen from being impressed by foreign entities.
- SHIPPING ARTICLES
Agreements between masters of vessels and seamen on contract of the voyage. After the general agreement, they include the seamen’s signature, age, nationality, personal description, birthplace, address, and information on next of kin.
Genealogists should prepare in advance for searching these records. Many are not indexed and will require looking for multiple boxes of archival material. You will have greater success if you know name of the ship and the home port. Historical newspapers may contain information on your ship-owning ancestor. Court and probate records are also worth checking because boats are important property. Save time by confirming that your ancestor had a maritime job by checking the US Federal Census 1850 or later to determine your ancestor's occupation.
Finding Maritime ancestors can be a great surprise, but learning details about their lives is even better. If someone asked me to research the career of Captain Joseph Peabody of Salem, Massachusetts, I would use Records of The Customs Service in the District of Salem and Beverly to find what ships he mastered, where he imported goods, whom he worked with, and so many great details that would otherwise be overlooked.
Do you have any maritime ancestors in your family history? Share your ancestor's maritime stories here!
Jake Fletcher is a genealogist and blogger. He received his Bachelor Degree for History in 2013 and is now researching genealogy professionally. Jake has been researching and writing about genealogy since high school using his blog page Travelogues of a Genealogist.