Customs records at the National Archives often provide interesting glimpses of personal information about our seafaring ancestors. The occupational hazards of the maritime trade after the Revolutionary War, especially the threat of Impressment by the British, caused many American sailors to purchase seamen’s protection certificates, such as the one pictured here that was issued to Massachusetts seaman John Simmons by the U.S. Consul in London in 1794. The protection certificate served as a mariner’s passport to verify the bearer’s nationality. They typically identified the sailor’s name, vessel, captain, port of origin, and place of birth, while the reverse side provided a personal description including age, height, weight, eye and hair color, complexion, and distinguishing marks or scars.
Seamen’s protection certificates can be located at the National Archives using the online Archival Research Catalog (ARC). The Simmons certificate comes from the textual series “Proofs of Citizenship Used to Apply for Seamen’s Protection Certificates for the Port of Philadelphia, 1792-1861″ (ARC ID 563421).