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Published Quarterly by the National Archives and Records Service of the General Services Administration
In the years preceding the War of 1812, the British practice of impressment-forcibly taking seamen from American merchant vessels for service in the British navyaroused public opinion in the United States more than any other subject since the Revolution and became one of the major irritations leading to the war. So intense were the emotions provoked by the issue that even today the word impressment needs little explanation to most Americans. Aside from these political consequences, moreover, one of the administrative effects of impressment was the accumulation of a vast amount of detailed information about individual American seamen. The records now at the National Archives, together with a series at the Public Record Office in London about American prisoners of the War of 1812, apparently constitute the only surviving real source of knowledge of the appearance of our seafaring forebears.1 No com
parable base of data exists for any other sector of the early American population. Except for small, scattered amounts of information about particular persons, the seamen's records represent our only reasonably accurate picture of these early nineteenth-century Americans-who they were, how tall they were, how old, how tattooed, how literate.
The records were created as an indirect result of a flagrant case of impressment in 1796. Officers of H.M.S. Regulus boarded the American merchantman Lydia and took five men
on the pretext that they were British citizens. The incident vividly illustrated the problem: Americans were unable to sail the seas in their own ships unless they carried proofs of their U.S. citizenship acceptable to British boarding officers. The papers seamen normally carried during this period were often less than convincing; the British, who in any event were looking for seamen rather than proofs, usually brushed them aside.
Congress, reacting to public outrage at the Lydia affair, passed the "Act for the Relief and Protection of American Seamen” on May 28, 1796. The law required each district collector of customs to keep a book registering the names of seamen who produced to him authenticated proof of
Research for this article was conducted with the support of a grant from the American Philosophical Society.
1 Seamen's protection certificate applications are a series of the records of the Bureau of Customs, Record Group 36, National Archives Building. The quarterly abstracts and the crew lists mentioned later are also series of the same record group. Series ADM103 at the Public Record Office pertains to American prisoners of war.
their American citizenship. To these seamen he was to furnish a certificate of their American citizenship-a “protection certificate.” The collector was also required to file and preserve the proofs of citizenship the seamen brought him and to send a quarterly list of the seamen he registered to the secretary of state.
The act was a congressional compromise, and thus the requirement for authenticated proof of citizenship was not stringent. The oath of one witness before a notary as to the U.S. birth of the seaman established the proof needed for a protection certificate. It probably would have been difficult or impossible in many cases for seamen to produce real proofs, given their own mobility and the poor communications of that day. Therefore the law did not prevent impressment. The British normally refused to honor protection certificates issued by collectors of customs, asserting that any sailor could easily find a witness willing to swear to his American birth.
It was the operation over the years of the 1796 law that created the records about protection from impressment available today in the National Archives. Quarterly abstracts or lists of seamen sent by district collectors of customs to the secretary of state have survived from forty-eight ports, usually in small quantities and usually from the period after 1815. These abstracts give the name of each seaman and very brief descriptive material.
For the port of New Haven, individual printed application forms survive. Apparently prepared by the collector of customs, they summarize the information each seaman provided as proof of citizenship. The forms give the same information as the abstracts, as well as the signature of the witness in many cases.
For New York a few actual protection certificates survive. The wording follows precisely the form of the 1796 act, even for certificates issued as late as 1860. The certificates are worn and frayed, as if long
Thomas Grady's application for a seaman's protection certificate. Next page: Grady's certificate.