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Maritime Occupations in the US Federal Census

How would you react if you discovered your ancestor's occupation was listed as "wharf rat?"In the 1880 US Census, 19 year old Major Thomas living in Mobile, Alabama is called just that! In that particular schedule, young Major was a prisoner in the Mobile County Jail.[1] Without knowing that wharf rat is a term for someone who loads/unloads cargo off ships, you might have come to a different conclusion.


Back in June, I wrote about records specific for researching seafaring ancestors in the United States. However, clues about their occupation can be gleaned from standard genealogical sources that are not specific to maritime life. When searching for sailors, captains, privateers, etc. it's always good to look at the standard genealogical sources before delving into shipping records because researchers more often than not need certain details to find a record of their ancestor on a maritime voyage.

Since 1850, the United States Census has instructed enumerators to note the individual’s occupation, thus these records are direct accounts of what they did for work. I have been curious, though, as to the diversity of maritime occupations in U.S. Census Records because sometimes the occupations they list are unfamiliar. What I also found unusual in learning about maritime trades is how descriptions of occupations are interchanged frequently. For example, a person who was a seaman, sailor, seafarer or a mariner essentially meant the same thing.

As an example, I searched the 1880 US Federal Census on I used Ancestry because the census search form allows you to search by occupation-only if desired. Below are examples of occupations for seafaring ancestors found in the U.S. Census:

  • Boatswain’s/Bosun’s Mate - Boatswain's mates are senior members of a ship’s crew. They supervise members of the ship’s department related to the hull and deck.

  • Customs Collector - Head officer at the customs house. Administered maritime and navigation laws, trade regulations, and protection of American seamen.

  • Inspector of Customs - There was no official title of inspector in the U.S. Customs Service, so this occupation could encompass the other positions of surveyor, weigher, and gauger. These positions were responsible for the collection of duties, assessment of cargo, and confiscation of illegal goods.

  • Longshoreman - A manual laborer who loaded and unloaded cargo off ships. Other names for this occupation that are recorded in the U.S. Census are dock loader, stevedore, lumper, and wharf rat.

  • Master Mariner - A master mariner is not the captain of the ship, but rather he is second in command and the only one eligible to command the ship in the event the captain is unable to.

  • Oiler - A member of the ship’s engine department.

  • Pilot - Pilots were instructed to navigate other ships through hazardous waters outside the port of arrival. They were required to have a substantial knowledge of waterways, inlets, and other landmarks surrounding a particular port.

  • Ship Commercial Agent - Agents for shipping companies consigned or invested in commercial ships and their cargo as insurance for any loss that would be incurred during the voyage.

  • Ship Caulker - Caulkers worked with shipbuilders; they were specifically assigned to making the hull of a ship watertight.

  • Ship Master - The captain of the ship, but could also be the ship’s owner.

  • Shipwright - A builder and repairer of ships. Other terms for this occupation include shipbuilder, ship carpenter, and ship joiner.

Heading farther back in time and across the pond, there are even more peculiar names for occupations that originate in England. While perusing Rodney Hall’s “Index of Old Occupations,” I found some peculiar job titles held by persons in the maritime world. Shipwrights or ship builders used to be called a chippy. A jerquer was an officer at the customs house who searched ships, while a coast waiter surveyed arriving ships and their cargo. How about aquarius ewar, which happens to be a waterman or riverman, someone who ferried passengers across rivers and through tributaries.[2]

Image source: Library of Congress

Many of these terms have faded with history and are no longer in use. The website for the U.S. Census Bureau provides an index for occupations and industry used in the 2010 Census, which provides how various titles for seafarers are described today.[3] It is important for genealogists to investigate occupation titles when we are unsure or they are unfamiliar. In heavily stratified industries such as maritime, these occupations take on very specific roles and we can learn a lot about their day-to-day tasks at sea or in the harbor. Consider the fact also that your ancestor may have to find work elsewhere when the shipping industry was in a slump or on the decline. In 1860, my 3x great-grandfather Owen O’Neill stated his occupation title as sailor[4], but by 1870 he was working as a farmer.[5]

Have these or other peculiar occupation titles appeared in your own research? What sources did you utilize to find out more about their line of work? Learning about your ancestor’s job is a great way to bring his or her story to life.



[1] 1880 US Federal Census, Mobile, Mobile County, Alabama, population schedule, 7th ward, enumeration district (ED) 142, page no. 19, dwelling 112, line 30, Major Thomas; Accessed on (online database: 29 Jan 2016), image 19 of 66; citing NARA microfilm publication T9.

[2] Rodney Hall, “Hall Genealogy Website – Old Occupation Names,” last updated 22 Mar 2015. accessed 6 Feb 2016.

[3] United States Census Bureau, “Industry and Occupation - Indexes,” accessed 6 Feb 2016.

[4] 1860 US Federal Census, San Mateo County, California, population schedule, Belmont post office (Township no.3), p. 39, Eugine [Owen] O’Neill; NARA Publication M653, roll 65.

[5] 1870 US Federal Census, San Mateo County, California, population schedule, Belmont, p.1, dwelling 9, family no. 12, Owen O’Neill; NARA Publication M593, FHL microfilm 545,586.


Jake Fletcher is a genealogist and blogger. Jake has been researching and writing about genealogy since 2008 on his research blog Travelogues of a Genealogist. He currently volunteers as a research assistant at the National Archives in Waltham, Massachusetts and is Vice President of the New England Association of Professional Genealogists (NEAPG).


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