Discovery Your Family History

Researching Your Seafaring Ancestors

During your LDS family search, the most challenging of all types of genealogical research is searching for your ancestors who spent most of their lives at sea. Sailors, who worked as seamen rarely had any land deeds, took family pictures or they were buried at sea with no grave site markers or tomb stones identifying them. Great Britain often impressed American sailors into the British Royal Navy, thus making this type of genealogical research more complicated. It is possible that any of your ancestors, who may have been privateers, Mariners, or American naval soldiers, were among the ten thousand impressed seamen who served for the enemy between 1802 and 1812.

 Impressing American privateers and American soldiers to serve in the military was a common practice for British and French colonial rule, since 1757. The British Navy, for example, forced American sailors, from New York Taverns and other such gathering places into active duty. The British continued impressing American sailors even after the revolutionary war, and forced their soldiers and crews into the military during the War of 1812. Many historians believe that the Revolutionary war actually began in 1775, and ended in 1815.

 Seaman Protection Certificates

 In order to protect crew members of American Naval ships and privateers, Seaman Protection Certificates (SPC)’s were issued to all crew members and privateers alike. Although the British and French Naval officers stopped impressing American seamen after 1815, SPCs continued to be issued to American sailors throughout the Civil War and even throughout World War I. African American seamen, consisting of freed slaves, coloured people living in “Free” states, and runaway slaves served on segregated ships. They were issued SPCs and were impressed by the British navy during the war of 1812. Frederick Douglas, famous American Abolitionist and author, borrowed an SPC and escaped from slavery disguised as a sailor in 1838. If you are interested in furthering your LDS family search by finding out more about your seafaring ancestries, check out the records of Marine inspection and navigation. Records of your ancestors who lived at sea can also be found in the 1930’s merchant seamen documentation. These records can be found by visiting or by viewing NARA microfilm labelled M1932.

 Using Seaman Protection Certificates to Further Your Research

 During your LDS family search, you may be pleasantly surprised to find the information given by American sailors on their SPC applications to be fascinating indeed. You will not only find information consisting of date and place of birth and occupation, but you may also come across a sailor’s home address and a listing of his family members. A close family member, such as the sailor’s wife or mother often times signed a statement as a family witness identifying the sailor’s relationship to him or her. If you have been told that seamen only represented the Atlantic states this is only a myth. American sailors between the ages of 11 and 77 sailed the open seas to represent each state and territory in the United States during this time period. In order for a man to sail aboard a given ship, he was required to have a seaman protection certificate as proof of his United States citizenship. As you search for African American seamen, it is possible to uncover not only the place of birth, but if he is a runaway or freed slave, the name of his slave master as well.

 Where to Look For More Information

 Here are a few places where you can find information about your ancestors who were possibly mariners between 1775 and 1919. Although actual Marine issued SPCs are a rare find, and may not be available to genealogists you can certainly find SPC applications for several US ports, newspaper articles and Government reports with information that you can use for your family tree. Your ancestor(s) may have been captured by the British or French military, so it is possible to find applications for not one, but two or three certificates to replace the ones that were taken away from them after they were captured. The following is a brief annotated list of places you can search for these and other documents pertaining to your sea faring ancestors.

  • The National Archives database has several registered SPC applications dating from 1793 to 1814 for impressed seaman available on microfilm. The national archives may also have other information such as proofs of citizenship for SPC applications at various ports in the United States during this time period.

  • is another valuable resource, because applications for seem an protection certificates dating back to the period beginning in 1792 and ending in 1865 are available in digital format on the web site. Although the index of SPCs from the Port of Philadelphia is the most extensive, certificates from other well-known ports have been indexed, and were destroyed by the Works Protection Administration.

  • Information pertaining to officers who served in the US navy and marine corps after the War of 1812 can be found on the Naval History and Heritage command web site. Genealogists may be surprised to find a promotion awarded to naval and marine’s officers during the war of 1812 indexed as well as their basic information.

 You may also be able to review SPCs at your local genealogical society, library, war museum, and other such repositories. It is highly important that you don’t overlook one final, but highly valuable resource for genealogical research. This is the information found in early newspapers, news reports placed in brochures, and special notices placed in local magazines and newspapers. These finds are located in the state archives, local historical societies, and special collections at your local library.

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