In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Britain routinely removed British sailors who were found on American ships, and those removals often included Americans. The practice, known as impressment, became one of the central causes of the War of 1812.
In an effort to protect American seamen from impressment, Congress authorized the issuance of Seamen’s Protection Certificates, which identified seamen as American citizens. Since citizenship was a requirement, you’ll typically find the place of birth listed and could find naturalization details for immigrants.
For identification purposes, the records also include physical descriptions. Typically age, height, complexion, eye and hair color is given as well as scars and other distinctive physical features.
Ancestry.com has posted a collection of Seamen’s Protection Certificates that was indexed through the World Archives Project in partnership with the New England Historic Genealogical Society (www.americanancestors.org). This collection includes certificates from the ports of Bath, Maine; Portsmouth, New Hampshire; New Orleans, Louisiana; and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, during the period 1792 through 1868.
Witnesses attested to the accuracy of the statements, and often you’ll note that they shared a surname and may be a spouse, parent, sibling, or some other relative.
One thing that’s interesting as you browse this collection is the number of African Americans listed. This is significant since records on African Americans can be difficult to locate for this time period. Digging a little deeper, I ran across the book “Black Jacks: African American Seamen in the Age of Sail,” by W. Jeffrey Bolster. Browsing the introduction online, it tells the story of how Frederick Douglass dressed as a sailor, borrowed a Seamen's Protection Certificate, and made his way to freedom from slavery on a train to Philadelphia. Free black seamen were a common sight so he wouldn't arouse suspicion. The introduction further reveals that, "As American shipping expanded during the early nineteenth century, employing more than 100,000 men per year, black men like Douglass's benefactor filled about one-fifth of the sailors' berths."
Be sure to check for multiple entries if you locate an ancestor in this collection. John M. Rownd applied for a certificate in Philadelphia in 1804. In his application he swore that he was born in the county of Worcester in the state of Maryland and that he was eighteen years of age at the time, as witnessed by Samuel H. Rownd. He is described as five feet, four inches, light brown hair, grey eyes, sharp nose, round chin, smooth freckled face, and of a brown complexion.
3An 1807 application for a John Morris Rownd, also of Worcester, Maryland, is also in the collection. This time he is described this time as five feet, six inches "with his shoes" (perhaps accounting for the some of the height discrepancy), but of a light complexion, and dark brown hair. Although this application is dated three years later, his age was again given as eighteen years of age. This application was witnessed by Mary Rownd, who was acquainted with him “from his birth.”
Despite the inconsistencies in his age and countenance, it appears this is the same John Rownd based on the distinguishing marks that are listed in both records. Both cite a scar on the inside of his right thigh and a brown mark on his right hip, as well as a squint (or cast) of his left eye.
A third document from April 1815, states that John M. Rownd believes that sometime around 1808 he received a Seaman’s Protection Certificate, but "which he hath unfortunately lost; the same having been taken from him when captured by the Belvidere frigate." Although this document is a little sparser when it comes to details that identify John Rownd, his signature is very similar to that on both of the other certificates, albeit a little shakier.
The “HMS Belvedere” was a British frigate that was in service during the War of 1812. Was John captured during the early stages of the War of 1812 or perhaps impressed into service before the conflict? In either case, it’s an interesting twist to his story.
Whether your ancestors were mariners or landlubbers, there are fascinating stories in these records. They give us a glimpse of our nation’s seafaring history, and they’re just waiting to be explored and plundered.