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American Merchant Seamen of the Early Nineteenth Century: A Researcher’s Guide

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The title belies the actual theme of this book which is a guide to researching American merchant seamen who were caught up in the conflicts of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, when such men were often captured by both the British and French. It is privately published but available on Amazon.

The author has spent many years researching American seamen who became prisoners of war and using this expertise has compiled this book to guide genealogists who wish to research their ancestors who were American seamen. However, while there is little regular documentation of American seamen who lived and worked during the first three decades of the nineteenth century, those who were made prisoner have left some trail of their existence that can be studied, and this book describes how. It was the Napoleonic Wars and the War of 1812 that increased the number of documents that recorded many of these men, but records can also be found of American seamen who served on merchant vessels and privateers during the South American Wars of Independence 1808-1833.

One interesting topic covered by this book is that many American seaman from 1792 to 1815 were captured by the French. One of the causes of the War of 1812 was the impressment of Americans by the Royal Navy, and some of these men found themselves prisoners of war in France when their vessels were captured by the French Navy or shipwrecked along the European coastline. The Quasi-War of 1798-1800, an undeclared war at sea between France and the newly formed United States, also resulted in American seamen being held captive in France.

The author begins with a section entitled ‘Follow the Vessel, Look for the Man’ and runs through the types of ship on which a seaman could serve – naval and merchant ships, slavers, fishing and whaling, privateers, prize ships and in some cases pirate vessels, with the emphasis on the fact that a man could serve on board more than one of these types of ship during his career at sea. The book references all the archival sources that are available for vessels of American, French, and British origin and how to use these records to search for a specific man. Subjects such as Seaman’s Protection Certificates are examined in detail and this section explains how and when these were issued and how they were used and abused, and where to access them online. The author has referenced all the available archives, both in paper format and online that can be used for this research. Other documents that can be used include ship’s papers, dispatches from United States diplomatic Ministers and Consuls, Prize cases, and War of 1812 pension records.

One aspect of the prisoner of war story that I have never considered is that many of the Americans pressed into service on board Royal Navy ships found themselves captured by the French. If they could convince their captors that they were American nationals impressed against their will, then they would be released, some to make their way back to the US, some to sign onboard French merchant vessels and privateers, and some to settle in France. A section on French documentation covers this aspect, including records of prisoners of war held in France. The author uses case studies to show how such records can be used. The same approach is used for British documentation and their sources.

The book finishes with two case studies; a seaman from Marblehead, captured on a French privateer, joins the Royal Navy; and a Nantucket whaler who died in a French prison. Both are comprehensive studies of these men and gathers together all the document sources that tell their story. There is also a detailed and especially useful bibliography.

For studying American seamen in general and those who were held as prisoners of war this is one of the most useful and comprehensive guides to the subject I have come across. It references document sources that I had not thought of using in my own research into prisoners of war. My copy is already well-thumbed! American Merchant Seamen of the Early Nineteenth Century: A Researcher’s Guide is a slim volume but full of remarkably interesting and useful information. Highly recommended.

Paul Chamberlain

February 2021

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