Page images
PDF
EPUB

carried in a seaman's pocket. The file probably resulted from the seaman's oath when he was issued a duplicate certificate that he would return the lost one to the collector should it be found.

Also for New York some signed “oaths” or affidavits survive. These do not contain personal data about the seaman, just his name and place of birth and the oath of a witness as to his belief in the truth of those facts.

Finally, for Philadelphia a great many individual oaths or “proofs of citizenship” survive. Some are as early as 1797, and the series is fairly complete from about 1800 until 1861. The Philadelphia records are the most useful of the surviving records for insights into the seamen, their social framework, and the impressment protection process. Fortunately, the sample is a good one. Philadelphia City and County was the largest metropolitan area in the United States in the early nineteenth century. In 1810 its population was 111,210, compared to 96,373

in New York City and County. Furthermore, over the years the collectors of customs in Philadelphia were sticklers for following the dictates of the law to "file and preserve the proofs of citizenship produced by the seamen." Relative to collectors in other ports, they were more demanding in the detail of proof they required. A number of officials-notaries, justices of the peace, aldermen, and occasionally mayorsadministered the oaths, and each used a different printed form. But each records nearly the same information. Probably the general format was specified by the collector of customs, so that all the forms show

-the name and age of the seaman -his height, hair color, complexion, and

usually eye color -scars, other distinguishing marks, and

usually tattoos -his stated place of birth, or place and

date of naturalization -his signature (or mark) swearing to the

[graphic]

truth of the information

years, or there

Anchet

- the name and signature (or mark) of a
witness swearing that the facts about
the seaman were true "to the best of his
knowledge and belief"
-the name and title of the official giving

the oath.

Each “proof of citizenship” presented to the collector represents a seaman entering or reentering the seafaring labor force, or possibly one fraudulently applying for an extra certificate. Once a sailor received a protection certificate, he might use it for years if he remained in the labor force. Thus, for any given year the affidavits in the file do not indicate the number of active seamen (which can be inferred to some extent from surviving crew lists) but rather new entries and reentries. We can, however, draw many conclusions from these records because they cover thousands of seamen over a considerable number of years in a reasonably typical Middle Atlantic port. Examine now some of the questions we can ask.

-What proportion of new seamen were

Negroes and "men of color"? How does this compare to the proportion in the seafaring force as indicated by crew lists? -How literate were these seafarers, judg

ing from their signatures? ? How many "made their mark"? Were younger sailors more literate than older ones? -How tall were they? Roughly, how do

height and age correlate? -How many had had smallpox? How

many were vaccinated for it? -How prevalent was tattooing? What

picture subjects were used? -How prevalent were such handicaps as

missing eyes, legs, and fingers? -How did the onset of the War of 1812 affect the number of seamen wanting impressment protection?

2 The correlation between signature and literacy is indirect; undoubtedly many persons of the early nineteenth century who could not read or write could nevertheless sign their names acceptably. However, the seamen's protection records are the only source of information about the literacy of seafarers large enough to allow statistical comparisons. To make inferences, therefore, a seaman who made his mark was assigned literacy level 1; a barely legible signature, level 2; a better but uneducated hand, level 3; a clear, educated hand, level 4; an excellent penman was considered literate at level 5.

-At what age did boys go to sea?
-Did the young ones run away to sea or

go with their parents' approval?
-What were the age ranges of seafarers?

What was the most prevalent age?
-Did new seafarers have urban or rural

origins?
-What were the prevalent national stocks

in the American seafaring force, judg-
ing from the seamen's names?
-How many were naturalized?

...uer Tod, Esq. one va une Aldermen of the City aforesaid, Mihael Martin

four

inches high, duh complection, Black hair, 16

years

of

age, marked with Me smuk hap pricht mhin filtrem, foul Bochor, incho

, MC To, che siht dem Lauufer zus' Kring legally sworn, favs that accord: to the best' f his

-What evidence is there to support or

deny the credibility of the oaths? In other words, were the British right or wrong to contend that the protections were likely to be fraudulent, requiring

as they did only one witness? For this article, applications for protection certificates were examined for most of the year 1812, all of 1813 and 1814, and the second quarter of 1815–a total of about eight hundred men. This period was chosen primarily because of the author's curiosity about the operation of the impressment protection process during the war. Secondly, the British data about American prisoners of war to some extent provide checks on height-age correlations and racial mix figures. Finally, the main value of the protection certificate applications is in the early years. For later periods, other sources of information about age and height are available. For the early nineteenth century, the applications, the crew lists, and the British data seem to be unique sources.

Choosing the war years, however, probably introduces distortions into the data. While parents might allow twelve-year-old sons to go to sea in peacetime, for example, they might well have been more reluctant during the war. The data also have limitations as a truly valid representative statistical sample in the modern sense. Applying for protection certificates was voluntary, so the number of records and the seamen they cover are a function of who felt they needed them-or whose skippers required them.

Considering the information potentially available in the records, the need to orga

nize the raw data to compare and correlate individual items and, in some cases, to analyze data items statistically was obvious. To make correlations with other data bases was also desirable. To treat in this manner even so small a sample as eight hundred records, each with more than twenty items of information, was for all practical purposes beyond pencil and paper. Furthermore, one purpose of the study was to demonstrate the use of data-processing techniques in dealing with historical information. Therefore, codes, card formats, and computer programs were developed to extract, correlate, and display the information.

Three principles were followed in developing the coding of the data. First, where possible, information items were given numerical codes to allow easy sorting and ranking and to pack more data on one card. Second, names of individuals were included and carried in alphabetical form because names are the links between the Philadelphia applications, crew lists, and the British P.O.W. data. Third, enough space was left on each data card to carry the unexpected and uncodable, but relevant or interesting, information that always appears in early records. One John Peters, for example, had "gold rings in his ears"; Amer Augustus, seventeen years old, was “an indentured mulatto boy."

Once the computer programs were written, the information sorted and ranked, the statistical operations performed, and the codes translated back into alphabetical print-outs, the insights began to emerge. The typical white American seaman in the 1812 period was twenty-one or twenty-two years old and surprisingly tall—5'8". He had a name of British or Irish origin; occasionally his name was German or Slavic, but this may have been regionally specific to Pennsylvania. He had brown hair and a fair complexion. He had some scars, most often on his hands. He was often tattooed. Only rarely was he missing an eye or finger. The one-legged sailor, a favorite in fiction,

3 The Philadelphia applications are not precise enough about height to be really useful to anthropologists. The notary probably did not always take the measurements; more likely he usually asked the seaman his height-which the man gave as exactly as possible if his impressment protection depended on the accuracy of the description. The British prisoners of war information is a much better data base for height. The measurements were apparently taken under specified conditions with the prisoners standing against a height marker.

does not appear in the sample at all. The typical seafarer could usually write his name, although with some difficulty; presumably he could also read a bit. He was native-born. Only twenty-three of the eight hundred were naturalized citizens. Although in this sample he was more likely to have been born in Philadelphia than anywhere else, there was a wide diversity of birthplaces-about 250 places for the eight hundred men, mostly small towns in the coastal states.

Even during these war years, many young boys went to sea. Of the eight hundred seafarers in the sample, thirty-seven ranged between eleven and fifteen years of age, and another seventy-one between fifteen and seventeen. Apparently the young ones did not usually run away to sea. In nearly half of the cases of certificates issued to seamen under eighteen the witness had the same name as the seaman, and the records often state that the witnesses were mothers, fathers, or sisters. Young boys went to sea in greater numbers as soon as the war was over. In May 1815, 18 percent of the new seamen were under eighteen, compared to 13 percent in 1813 and 1814.

At the other end of the scale, only twentyseven seamen receiving certificates were over forty years old. Two of the three oldest were the only men (except one) in the data set who were born on the western frontier: John Yates, fifty-three, listed his birthplace as Madison County, Kentucky, which must have been truly raw country when he was born there in the 1760s; Samuel Shelly, sixty-five, was born in Pittsburgh, then Fort Duquesne, before the French and Indian War. The crew lists show a slightly higher proportion of seafarers over forty. These men probably received their certificates at an earlier date and thus do not show up in the 1812-15 sample. Masters of the vessels were often older than their crews by large margins; being normally exempt from impressment, captains usually did not carry protection certificates. The older seamen

were shorter than the ones in their early twenties, possibly indicating that the postrevolutionary war generation of men were larger in stature than their forebears.

In the sample of 800 men, 140 or 18 percent were black. Even an incomplete list of the terms used in the records,"free black man," "mulatto," "a mulatto man born free"-provides an insight into the social structure of the early nineteenth century. All but a few of the nonwhites were listed as “free.” Thus about one in five American seamen who received protection certificates in Philadelphia were Negroes, more than three times the proportion of free blacks in the general population of the area. For the 1812-15 period, the proportion of blacks receiving certificates was greater than the proportion in the crew lists (19 percent to about 10 percent), suggesting that black Americans went to sea during the war at a greater rate than in the years just before the war, or that blacks may have carried the protection certificates as evidence of their free status as well as for impressment protection. Even the affidavit forms may have been used for this purpose. Samuel Lebrang, a free mulatto, reinforced the worn folds of one such affidavit with roughwoven cloth. He had apparently carried it in his pocket since 1810. In 1814, when he was a member of the crew of the small private schooner Argo, Lebrang had a notarized

copy

made then turned both affidavits over to the collector of customs in Philadelphia as proof of citizenship and obtained a protection certificate.

In profile, the typical black seafarer in the sample was twenty-four years old and stood 5'61/2", slightly shorter than his white counterpart. At the under-eighteen and over-thirty ends of the scale, his literacy rate was about the same as that of the white seafarers he served with; for the group in their twenties, it was significantly lower. The black sailor's incidence of smallpox was significantly lower, but the sample is too small to draw any useful inference from

[ocr errors][ocr errors]

this. In this Philadelphia data set, the black seaman typically came from Maryland or Delaware.

Crew lists indicate that occasionally ships were fully manned by blacks, with the possible exception of the captain. The crew of six on the brig Fanny, sailing to Madeira in February 1813, were all listed as free Negroes; possibly the mate was also black. No description was given of James Maffett, the skipper. In other crews, blacks were usually listed as seamen or cooks, occasionally as coopers or carpenters.

The role of blacks in the War of 1812 and in early American seafaring history is only beginning to be studied. The seamen's protection certificates, particularly when examined with the available crew lists, contain diverse information on a subject that should receive additional attention from maritime historians.

There were only two Indians in the sample: Joseph Capey, twenty-seven years old, from Martha's Vineyard; and Judiah Williams, nineteen years old, from Salem County, Pennsylvania. They both stood 5'5" and were literate (Capey at level 2 and Williams at level 4).

About 7 percent of the men in the sample were tattooed, although the word "tattoo" was not used. The descriptions in the affidavits say "marked with a mermaid in India ink on his left arm.” By a wide margin the favorite subjects for decoration were letters, usually the seaman's own initials, often linked with another pair of initials, prob

ably those of a girl whose name we will never know. There was, of course, a practical reason for tattooed initials: identification of a corpse after shipwreck.

The anchor, as a badge of the profession or a superstitious appeal to a symbol of security, was the most popular other design-as it probably is with sailors today. Hearts, alone or entwined, eagles, crucifixes, and mermaids were also common. A few used Masonic symbols or a "halfmoon and seven stars.” Practically all tattooed seamen were white. The literacy of those with tattoos was significantly higher than the sample as a whole. Eleven (or about 20 percent) were between twelve and sixteen years old. One thirteen-year-old, William Mitchell, had his initials, an eagle, and a double heart tattooed on his right arm.

There is slight evidence that tattooing was more prevalent on some ships than others; possibly much of the tattooing at this period was a product of amateur shipboard work. The marked seamen seem often to have come into the same notary on the same day, as if they were shipmates herded in by their skipper to get protection certificates before sailing. Correlation of dates of birth with frequency of tattooing hints that the popularity of tattooing was periodic. There are small concentrations of

[ocr errors]

od, Efq. one of the Aldermen of the City aforesaid, tompoon Simmone free Nigma mmpufeet

inches high,

, Heed complection, Hack hair, 36

years of age, marked cut won his right nye, cut o de fue fringer left handle, too Mastera his forehead

beins'

to the

« PreviousContinue »