Family History Friday: Seamen's protection certificates served as an early mariner's passport.

Simmons002Customs 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).

2 thoughts on “Family History Friday: Seamen's protection certificates served as an early mariner's passport.

  1. I live in Australia and would dearly like to search for a Protection Certificate for my g g grandfather. I have found some records on line on Ancestry and have just ordered a book with from Amazon with the Port of Philadelphia records, however woul appreciate your guidance as to where i might be able to find New York and other records apart from NARA. I will visit one day but it might be awhile.

    I look forward to hearing from you


    1. Hi Sue,

      Thanks very much for your comment. Protection certificates in the 19th century were typically issued by the U.S. Customs Service, but the records can sometimes show up in non-federal repositories (until the National Archives opened in 1934, most federal agencies were left to their own devices on how they managed/disposed of their own records). So, in addition to the Customs records we have for various ports, including New York, it might be useful for you to explore the records held at the respective state archives and historical societies where your ports of interest are located. Private maritime museums–Mystic Seaport in Connecticut is a big one–also have manuscript collections that include protection certificates, and some such as Mystic have searchable databases online. NARA’s records for New York include quarterly abstracts of certificates issued between 1815 and 1869 and these are available on microfilm. You can request a search of those records if you send a research question with your ancestor’s name to

      Good luck!

      – John

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