Researching Early American Mariners of the Napoleonic Wars - Part 14 - The Case Study

Researching Mariners


Peleg Bunker

Peleg Bunker was a Quaker from Nantucket and one of the whalers who worked for William Rotch. He is not obscure, so mentions of him in published works appear on Internet searches, including but not limited to the following:

Published Sources

  • Nantucket Doorways by Edward A. Stackpole and Christopher B. Summerfield, 1992
  • Why Nantucket Quakers? by Robert J. Leach and Willard C. Heiss, 1979
  • The History of Nantucket: county, island, and town, including... by Alexander Starbuck, 1969
  • Catalogue of Nantucket Whalers: and Their Voyages from 1815 to 1870, Hussey & Robinson, printers, 1876
  • Whales and Destiny: the Rivalry Between America, France and Britain... by Edward A. Stackpole, 1972
  • Les Baleiniers français, de Louis XVI à Napoléon by Thierry Du Pasquier, 1990
  • Ships Employed in the South Sea Whale Fishery from Britain: 1775-1815... by Jane M. Clayton

American Documentation

Edward A. Stackpole Collection, 1750-1990 (the author of two of the above books)
Manuscripts Collection
Research Library & Archives
Nantucket Historical Association

The main source for biographical information is the “sketch” of his life by Peleg Bunker's great-granddaughter, Lydia Bunker Gardner. However, the letters from Peleg are her copies and the account of his capture by the French is hers, as told to her and written many years after the fact.

Peleg Bunker LetterSource: Edward A. Stackpole Collection, 1750-1990, Manuscripts Collection, Research Library & Archives, Nantucket Historical Association

Lydia Bunker Gardner wrote in her sketch that:

  • Peleg Bunker was a whaling captain from Nantucket
  • During the American Revolution, Bunker took his family to New York state, and returned to Nantucket and to whaling when the war ended
  • He then worked for William Rotch in London
  • During the Napoleonic Wars, while sailing the Falkland, an English whaler, Bunker was "captured in the English Channel by the French"
  • He was marched to Verdun prisoner of war camp with the Falkland's officers and men
  • He spent five years in the camp
  • The United States government made "every effort...for their release"
  • "Appeals were sent to Bonaparte from the Friends Society, of which Peleg Bunker was a member" for his release
  • Upon receiving the news of his release, "the joy of it... was too much for Peleg Bunker...and he died instantly...."

The copied letters, one to Peleg's wife and one to an unnamed son, are dated 1805 and 1806; both are from Verdun. They mention:

  • A Christopher Bunker who had been in hospital but was recovered and returned to prison
  • That Peleg had received two letters from his sons, Obed and Tristan
  • That Benjamin Hussey in Dunkirk was the person through whom Peleg's wife could send letters to him

This is a lovely summary of his life, career, capture and death but, as will be seen, there are a couple of discrepancies. Yet, this is the source used by the authors of some of the published materials that mention Peleg Bunker.


Peleg Bunker 1804 letter p1

Peleg Bunker 1804 letter p2

Source: United States Department of State, Despatches from United States Ministers to France, 1789-1906, Vol. 9. Microfilm copy, 1958, roll 250 Mi 5. (Seen in the Archives nationales de France, Pierrefitte-sur-Seine), Letter dated 4 March 1804

Among the microfilmed diplomatic dispatches, we find  copies of letters from Peleg Bunker himself, asking the American Minister to France to intercede on his behalf. In the letter above, Bunker states that:

  • He arrived in England from America during the Peace [of Amiens, 1802-3]
  • The ship he had arrived on was sold [leaving him with no return voyage]
  • He took a job as Chief Mate on an English ship sailing to the South Seas
  • During the voyage, the Master died and he assumed command
  • He was captured on the return voyage as his ship was entering the English Channel, by the French privateer, the Vaillant, of Bordeaux
  • He encloses a notarized copy of his Seaman's Protection Certificate by way of proof of his American nationality [not filmed at this point but later]

Captain Bunker is bending the truth a bit here, as we shall see. He implies that he was a mate and seaman, when he had been a master for some years. He implies that he had simply taken a job on an English vessel when he had been sailing for Rotch's English whaling companies exclusively for at least ten years. It is true that the master on his vessel died and he assumed command, and it is true that his ship was captured by the Vaillant.

It is apparent that the Minister in Paris, Robert R. Livingston, wrote to the French authorities claiming Peleg Bunker as an American citizen who should be released, for the reply, dated the 30th of April, appears in the dispatches. The Director of Administration in the Ministry of War wrote to Livingston: 

"As Captain Bunker...was taken while sailing under the British flag and in the service of England, it is the intention of the First Consul [Napoleon] that he be considered as a prisoner of war." 

From this, it would appear that Peleg's great-granddaughter was mistaken that he died of joy at having been released.

British Documentation

Though American by birth, Bunker was sailing a British vessel, he was considered to be a British prisoner of war by the French. He was also considered to be one of their own by the British,  and appears in some British documentation. The Times newspaper lists him, as do the Admiralty records on prisoners in France.

Peleg Bunker in the TimesSource: The Times, London, England, 5 June 1804, no. 6041, p. 3, col. 3, ;

The Times printed a list on the 5th of June 1804 of masters of British vessels who were alive and well in French prisons (above). It included a P. Bunker, master of the vessel William Bruce, of London, not the Falkland. In fact, no Falkland appears on the list.


Bunker death in ADM registerSource : Register of Deaths for British POWs 1794-1814, ADM 103/631 frame 278, TNA,

The Admiralty received reports from the French about the deaths of prisoners of war. These are available on The page above shows the death of Peleg Bunker, capitaine marchand, or captain in the merchant marine, at Verdun on the 24th or 25th of February 1806. 


Bunker closeup


The next post continues the case study with the French documentation on Peleg Bunker.

©2020 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

Researching Early American Mariners of the Napoleonic Wars - Part 13

Researching Mariners

Documentation and Archives

British Documentation

Continuing to look at British documentation in detail:

Royal Navy Muster Rolls and Pay Lists

It can be quite difficult to use these lists to identify with any certainty an American seaman of this period. Mariners of the day told of being impressed into a Royal Navy vessel and of various actions being taken by their captors to obscure the Americans' identity and nationality.

  • Seaman's Protection Certificates and any other documents sometimes were torn up and thrown into the sea
  • On the muster and pay lists:
    • Americans were given false birthplaces in Britain instead of the true ones in the United States
    • Americans were registered under the names of dead British crew members
    • Many men were listed merely by name, with no details at all

Yet, there were some cases where they were entered honestly, with their true names and places of birth, and with the fact that they were impressed noted as well. In most cases, however, further, corroborating documentation will be needed.

HMS Manilla 1
Source: HMS Manilla, ADM 37/2602, TNA


The example above shows a nearly empty list from the HMS Manilla. The column headings for the left-hand page are: 

  • Bounty paid
  • Entry [into the Navy]
  • Year
  • Appearance [on the vessel]
  • Whence and whether prest or not
  • Place and county where born
  • Age at Time of Entry in this Ship
  • No and Letter of Tickets
  • Men's Names
  • Quality [rank]
  • D, DD or R [Discharged, Dead or Run away]
  • Time of Discharge

The whole page of names are dittoed as having come from the "HMS Thisbe late" on the 8th of November 1809. With a page such as this, you would have to search through the whole book and those coming earlier or later to find an entry for your man with more detail. It can be a few hours in the archives, but the search can be fruitful. This is part of a later page in the same book, showing more detail for each man: 

HMS Manilla 2

Source: HMS Manilla, ADM 37/2602, TNA


The last fully visible name, Henry Hornewater, is also the first name on the earlier shown page. Here, more detail is given. He was transferred from the "Thisbe late Latona", he was aged twenty-two, from New York in America. A bit of research (online but also and especially in Rif Winfield's British Warships in the Age of Sail, 1793-1817) shows that the HMS Thisbe, Latona and Manilla all were off Portugal in late 1809. So,  "Thisbe late Latona" would indicate that these men would have been first on the Latona, then loaded onto the Thisbe, which then passed them to the Manilla. By then, Henry Hornewater  appeared as an ordinary seaman on the Manilla's list. He remained on the HMS Manilla until, two years later, she was wrecked off the coast of Holland; he survived the wreck and was taken prisoner by the French. Hornewater, a "man of colour" (homme de couleur) from "Wappin's Creek" (probably Wappinger Creek), New York, told his French captors that he had left Philadelphia on an American vessel that was wrecked off the coast of Portugal. The crew made it ashore, where they were impressed by a Royal Navy gang. 

The search for this man in British records would continue in the HMS Latona's musters and pay lists to find Hornewater's first appearance on that vessel. Then, in contemporary American newspapers, especially from Philadelphia, the search would be for mentions of wrecks of Philadelphia vessels off Portugal in 1809, which could lead to the name of his initial vessel.


Finding Royal Navy Muster lists and Pay lists

As ever, to find a man, you must know the name of the vessel, or at least one of the vessels, on which the man served in the Royal Navy and the approximate date when he was on board. The records of the National Archives of Great Britain can be searched online to know if those books for that vessel for that time have survived. They are massive and, though one may order copies, it is not at all inexpensive to have copied an entire book or even a year's pages within a book. If you cannot go to Kew to do this research, it is best to hire an experienced naval researcher to do it for you. (Beware, many generalist genealogists or researchers do not understand these books and leave out crucial information.)

FindMyPast has the musters of a few vessels, but almost none of this era. It is a good idea to check their list of ships' names before bothering to search.

If you think the American mariner you are researching remained in the Royal Navy, (and some did,) you may also be interested in:


This ends the discussion of resources. The next post gives a case study of the mariner from Nantucket, Peleg Bunker.

©2020 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

Researching Early American Mariners of the Napoleonic Wars - Part 12

Researching Mariners

Documentation and Archives

British Documentation

Continuing to look at British documentation in detail:

British Records of Prisoners of the War of 1812

In the period of the Napoleonic Wars before the War of 1812, if the British found American seamen on the crew of a vessel of French of another European nationality, the men were impressed then and there into the Royal Navy. (We have come across only one American who convinced his captors that he was French and so, instead of being impressed into a naval ship, was sent to a prison in Britain, from which he promptly escaped.) Only when war was declared were the captured Americans sent to prisons in Britain. At this time, word managed to fly around the Royal Navy's vessels across the globe and soon, nearly all American seamen who had been impressed declared that they could not be forced to serve their country's enemy. Hundreds were shipped from Royal Navy vessels directly to British prisons. Whether captured or "surrendered" on board a Royal Navy vessel, they were entered into the prisoner registers.

The prison registers are online on two commercial websites. The first is British Online Archives, in the collection entitled "American prisoners of war, 1812-1815". It is a cumbersome website to use. You must know the date of capture and the place where the man was first registered as a prisoner of war.

Taking the capture of the Teazer, off Bermuda in December 1812, we can find the list of the crew as prisoners in the register entitled "Ships and Depots in Overseas Locations - Bermuda, 1812-1815" on page 22:


Teazer prisonersSource: British Online Archives, American Prisoners of War, 1812-1815, Ships and Depots in Overseas Locations - Bermuda, 1812-1815

The list of men continues for two more pages. The details are:

  • They were captured by the HMS San Domingo
  • The capture was on the 16th of December 1812
  • The place of capture was at sea
  • The name of the prize was Teazer, a schooner
  • The vessel was sailing as a privateer
  • Each man's full name and rank or quality are given
  • The date when the man was taken into the custody of the prison, here, the 21st of December
  • What vessel brought him in, here the same as made the capture
  • What happened to him, whether he was Exchanged (E or Ex), Discharged (D), died (DD) or Escaped (Esc)
  • Date of the above
  • Where he was sent

All were discharged onto a cartel, the Bostock, bound for New York, on the 27th of January 1813.


The second online resource for prisoner of war registers is, which is much, much easier to use. This example shows American seamen who had been impressed or captured or "sent into prison by his own request" (that is, refused to serve on an enemy vessel) and sent to Dartmoor prison.

  • Charles Davey, of New Orleans, was impressed at Liverpool
  • William Coleman, of Salem, was a seaman on the Lyon when she was captured by the Brilliant.
  • Tannuks (?) Coopor, of Baltimore, was a seaman who had been sent to prison at his own request
  • William Simons, of Nantucket, had been impressed into the Sherebrook, then was taken out and sent to prison



 Full Page

POW 2 

Left side


Right side

Source:, Prisoners of War 1715-1945, Napoleonic Wars, Dartmoor Prison

These prisoner of war registers are a wonderful resource,  giving for each man:

  • His name
  • The date of his capture
  • The name of the ship from which taken
  • The name of the capturing vessel
  • His place of origin
  • His physical description, including scars and tattoos
  • The prison to which he was sent
  • The date of his transfer or release, or death


British Documentation continues in the next post.

©2020 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

Researching Early American Mariners of the Napoleonic Wars - Part 11

Researching Mariners

Documentation and Archives

British Documentation

During the period after American independence, American mariners, (some of whom were old enough to have been British before independence) continued to sail to the ports they knew and for the captains and companies they knew, both American and British. The custom of captains abandoning crew in port when they were sick, (most often in Liverpool on the British side), or not employing them for the return voyage meant that the American mariner had to find work on whatever vessel he could in order to get back home.

Working on a British vessel involved him much more directly in the European wars and increased the likelihood that he would be perceived as British by that country's enemies and treated as such, possibly becoming a prisoner of war in France. He also increased the possibility of being impressed, as press gangs prowled port cities such as London and Liverpool, kidnapping any healthy-looking men and, especially, any experienced seamen. Once the War of 1812 began, Royal Navy vessels attacked and captured American vessels, particularly privateers and recaptured many of their prizes, making all of the American crew prisoners of war in Britain.

In British records and archives of this period, the best resources for researching American mariners are:

  • Prize cases
  • Prisoner of the War of 1812 records
  • Royal Navy Muster Rolls and Pay lists
  • Contemporary newspapers

In all of these, the research focus must still begin with following the vessel and then of finding the man. Where, as with the prisoners of the War of 1812, commercial data bases have made it possible to search on a man's name, knowing his vessel will help to distinguish him from others with the same or similar names.


British Prize Records or Prize Cases

An enormous number of these have survived. They are not online but can readily be seen at the British National Archives at Kew (TNA) and copies ordered online. They contain, at the very minimum:

  • The name of the prize (captured) vessel
  • The captain's or master's name
  • The name of the capturing vessel
  • The capturing captain's name
  • Affidavits from the crew of the either vessel giving very precise details about the capture

For some reason, the British prize case files have much more of the captured vessel's documentation than we have seen elsewhere, including crew lists, cargo manifests, and all kinds of vessel registration papers. In one docket, we even found the personal expenses with a description of a new suit of clothes bought by the master of the prize vessel, a man from Rhode Island, before he was captured.

Below are pages from the prize file of the capture of the American privateer of the War of 1812, the Teazer.

Teazer privateer

Teazer 1

Teazer 2

Teazer 3

Teazer 4

Teazer 5

Source:  Teazer Prize Case, HCA 32/1323/1943,  TNA


The account states that the Teazer was an "American schooner privateer", was fitted out in New York, and carried a "privateer commission"; that her commander was Frederick Johnson, with John H. Calligan and James Reynolds as lieutenants, all present giving evidence to the mayor of the town of St. George on Bermuda. On the 16th of December 1812, on the high seas, off Bermuda, she encountered the HMS San Domingo, Captain Charles Gill,  was captured, "and was immediately burnt and destroyed". All fifty-one officers and crew surrendered and were taken prisoner. The date of the account is the 22nd of December 1812. (As you can see, this first-hand account has some serious differences with the Wikipedia article on the Teazer, taken from an 1899 classic that is riddled with errors.) Other than the officers, the crew are not named and the captors did not bother much with the ship's papers or a crew list before they torched the prize. The crew would have been taken to England as prisoners of war.

Prisoner of war records are what we will investigate in the next post.

©2020 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy


Researching Early American Mariners of the Napoleonic Wars - Part 10

Researching Mariners

Documentation and Archives

French Documentation

French birth, marriage and death records

Let us not forget the obvious, the civil registrations. Some seamen stayed in countries where they landed and appear in registrations of marriages, their children’s births , and in registrations of deaths. These, especially marriages, give much more information than in vital records in the United States or the parish marriage records of the same period in Great Britain.


Robert Johnson marriesSource: Roscoff, Actes d’état civil, Mariages An XI-1812, 3 E 295/24, AD Finistère,


The above example is a screen print of a digitized Marriage registration dated the 24th of July 1809, in Roscoff, Finistère. (A port favoured by smugglers and privateers.) The groom was Robert Johnson, seaman, aged 27, of Newborn [New Bern?] North Carolina, the Son of the late Robert Johnson and of Mary Brown. The bride was Suzanne Nicole Bian, of Roscoff.

The happy couple had three daughters, Marie Reine, born the 5th of November, 1810; Victoire Catherine Emilie, born the 8th of February 1812; and Suzanne Claire Guillemette, born the 2nd of May 1814. Note that the last birth registration repeats the Johnson was born in Newborn, North Carolina.


Marie Reine JohnsonSource: Roscoff, Actes d’état civil, Naissances, An XI-1812, 3 E 295/12, AD Finistère,


Victoire JohnsonSource: Roscoff, Actes d’état civil, Naissances, An XI-1812, 3 E 295/12, AD Finistère,


Suzanne JohnsonSource: Roscoff, Actes d’état civil, Naissances, 1813-1817, 3 E 295/13, AD Finistère,


In most cases of identification in genealogy, signatures are helpful. The above registrations offer three versions of Robert Johnson's signature (he was away at sea when Victoire was born). 


Johnson signatureRobert Johnson's signature at his marriage in 1809


Signature MarieRobert Johnson's signature at the birth of his first child in 1810


Signature SuzanneRobert Johnson's signature at the birth of his third child in 1814

Sadly, Robert Johnson was lost at sea in 1817. His wife, Suzanne had to go before the Tribunal in Morlaix and have him declared legally dead. The entire judgement was copied into the death register, with much detail. As shipmaster working for Hilary Boucaut, he had sailed the sloop, Dowe of Guernsey for England on the first of December. A few days later, wreckage washed ashore near Locquirec, to the north, but all hands were lost. The entry and judgement go for three and a half pages, of which this is the first:

Robert Johnson death

Source: Roscoff, Actes d’état civil, Décès, 1813-1822, 3 E 295/35, AD Finistère,

It is most likely that Robert Johnson's family knew where he was but, unless letters or diaries survive, it is unlikely that the researcher will find him in North Carolina records after 1809. French records reveal a life and family, as well as how he died.


Finding French birth, marriage and death records

Millions of these registrations are online, on the websites of the Departmental Archives or of the Municipal Archives (especially for the major port cities of Brest, Cherbourg, Bordeaux, Saint-Malo, Le Havre, etc.). These may  be accessed free of charge but the websites are entirely in French, of course. In addition to the port cities, if you suspect that your mariner ancestor may have been a prisoner in Napoleonic France and died in prison, you will want to look at the death registrations of the main cities where American seamen were held: Arras, Cambray, Valenciennes and Verdun. 

French commercial genealogy websites, which charge a fee, have some civil registrations. The value of is that what they do have is indexed but, recalling that they do not have all of the country's registrations, a negative result for a search could mean either that the mariner was not in France or that he was but do not have the relevant civil registration collection on their website.

(For a full explanation on how to research French civil registrations and to understand them, please see our book or our course.)


French Naval Records

We can offer little advice here. We have come across nearly a dozen men who claimed to have been forced into service in the French Navy, the Marine. However, they do not name the vessels, so it is impossible to search for a crew list. Even with a vessel name, locating the records for the Marine vessels of the First Empire is not at all easy and little is known, not even all of the vessels' names. A partial list, filled with question marks, can be found here, on the brilliant blog of SEHRI.

With this post, we finish looking at French documentation in detail. Many of the principles and avenues of research are applicable in the other European ports where American seamen could be found, especially: Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Bergen, Hamburg, Cadiz, Toulon, Marseille, Livorno (Leghorn) and Genoa.

Next, we look at British documentation.

©2020 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

Researching Early American Mariners of the Napoleonic Wars - Part 9

Researching Mariners

Documentation and Archives

French Documentation

Continuing to look at French documentation in detail:


During the Revolution and the First Empire, the movement of people was strictly controlled both within France and at the borders of the country, especially once the Revolutionary governments became stronger and were determined to stop emigration. Passports were not permanent documents of identification. They were permissions for specific journeys and were to be signed by the authorities along the way. It is rare for the documents themselves to have survived. What can be found in the archives are the applications, sometimes with correspondence, or the administrative copies, falling into two main groups.

The first group is the passport request documentation, which varies greatly from one place to another. These requests were made from the Police Générale during the Revolutionary Period and through the end of the First Empire. They were not unique to French citizens because, at that time, everyone required permission to travel within the country. Thus, there are requests from Americans in France on business to go from Paris to a port, for example or, as another example, from shipmasters to go from a port, where their vessel had been taken as a prize, to Paris to attend the Prize Council.


Smith Passport request - AN pierrefitte

Source: Police générale-Demandes de Passeports, 1793-1818, F7, Archives nationales-Pierrefitte

In the above example, dated at Antwerp [at that time a part of the French First Empire], 21 Messidor An 13 [10 July 1805] the Prefect of the Department of Deux-Nèthes writes that Willet Smith, American businessman, arrived in Antwerp on 29 Prairial [18 June] on the American vessel Neptune, from Philadelphia, and wishes to travel to Paris. The marginal note indicates that the request was approved and the permission document issued. Few of such requests from seamen seem to have survived but there are quite a number from shipmasters and captains.

The second type of passport record is a pre-printed register or log of all passports issued by towns or cities. These were in use mostly, but not exclusively during the Terror, from roughly 1793 to 1795.  In port cities, they contain the names of many American seamen.


Passport - AM CherbourgSource: Passeports, 1793-5, 4H2, Archives Municipales de Cherbourg

Above is an example of the passport register book used in Cherbourg. There are three to four entries per page, all numbered. This one, entry no. 14146, dated 3 Prairial Year 10 [23 May 1802] gives quite a lot of detail about Samuel Salmon:

  • He was born in Charleston.
  • He was a seaman in the United States of America
  • He had arrived from England
  • He wished to travel to Bordeaux and had a letter from the prefect giving him permission to do so
  • His physical description is given
    • Aged 22
    • Height 1m 76cm
    • Eye colour: grey-blue
    • Nose: pointed
    • Mouth: average
    • Chin: round
    • Forehead: low
    • Face shape: oval

 On the lower left can be seen his signature. If a Seaman's Protection Certificate were found for him, this would allow for a comparison of descriptions and signatures to verify his identity.


Finding Passport Requests

  • Those from the Police Générale (see the first example) are found in the Archives nationales at Pierrefitte. The entire name index is online:
  • Those from a city or town (see the second example) usually are found in the various Municipal Archives, the Archives municipales, of the cities. In some cases, they have been sent to the Departmental Archives, the Archives départementales.  (See the left-hand column on this page for links to all of the Departmental Archive websites) A very few of these passport register books are online, on the AD websites.


Records of Prisoners of War in France

About 1400 American mariners were imprisoned with British mariners in France. They arrived in ports on captured ships and were marched to prison depots all over France, but mostly in the north and east. The French military and marine archives are filled with lists of these men, sometimes separated as Americans, sometimes jumbled with the British. (We have compiled a database of their names and are writing a book about them.)


Source: Prisonniers de Guerre Anglais, Yj29, SHD Vincennes

This 1807 sample shows four men who were released from prison and sent to Antwerp to take a ship home. It gives their names, the vessels on which they were captured and the port to which the captured vessel was taken.

  • Christopher Folger, of the Perseverance, taken to Bordeaux
  • Kerr Berkley, of the Hebé, taken to Dieppe
  • Benjamin Merry, of the Hebé, taken to Dieppe
  • Job LeProvost, of the Union, taken to Bordeaux


Finding Records of Prisoners of War in France

Lists of American prisoners are mingled with the dossiers on British prisoners of war in Series Yj in the Service Historique de la Défense, Vincennes. Where a man was captured from a Royal Navy vessel, his name may appear on lists of British prisoners; there, only his place of birth will show that he was American. The French lists of American prisoners are not online. However, the French lists of British prisoners were sent to the Admiralty in Great Britain and these now appear online in the "Prisoners Of War 1715-1945" section of

French Documentation continues in the next post.

©2020 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

Researching Early American Mariners of the Napoleonic Wars - Part 8

Researching Mariners

Documentation and Archives

French Documentation

Continuing to look at French documentation in detail:

Local Police Files

During the French Revolution, Terror, the Revolutionary Wars and then the Napoleonic Wars, it was not rare for Americans to appear in the local police files. 

  • Some Americans were rounded up with the British in 1803 - As soon as the Treaty of Amiens expired, France and Britain went back to war. Many British people had taken advantage of the short period from 1802-1803 and known as “The Peace” to visit France, which few had dared to do since the Terror. The men amongst them were rounded up in May of 1803 and imprisoned, and most were held until the end of the wars in 1815. With them, a few Americans were also arrested. These people were usually in business in France or were ship captains and not seamen. However, their cases can sometimes give details of their vessels and names of the crew.
  • Escaped American prisoners of war (more on them in a later post), however, were seamen who had been the crew members of ships captured as prizes and sent to prison. They nearly always headed for the coast, where they hoped for a vessel to take them home. Local police files can contain the bulletins sent round, sometimes with the names, ages and descriptions of the escapees.
  • There were also those Americans who were not arrested but were held under surveillance. These included artisans with skills valued by the French government, who were allowed to continue working. They also included American seamen who had just arrived on a prize vessel and were awaiting judgement on the prize. Most were sent to jail, but some towns allowed them to live in town under police surveillance.

Police files AD Charente-Maritime

Source: Archives de la Police, 5M7, AD Charente-Maritime

Above is an example of a police circular about an escaped, American seaman, written by the Police Commissioner of Lorient on the 30th of June 1810, to the Police Commissioner of La Rochelle. He says that John Sharps, of Baltimore, who was captured when the ship Heroine was taken by the French privateer La Dame Ernouf, had escaped. More, Sharps was among a group of four seamen who, when captured, had joined the crew of the capturing privateer at Concarneau and sailed with her to Lorient, where they escaped, "in the hope of getting to a port where they could find a ship to take them to England". Three had been recaptured, but Sharps was still on the run. The commissioner ends by asking that his colleague arrest John Sharps of Baltimore immediately, should he appear in his port. Probably, similar letters were written to other ports along France’s Atlantic coast. 

From this, you have:

  • The name of the man: John Sharps [probably but not certainly "Sharp"]
  • His place of origin: Baltimore 
  • His ship: the Heroine
  • An approximate date of the ship's capture: June 1810
  • The name of the capturing vessel: La Dame Ernouf

A quick bit of Google searching on the names of the vessels bring a contemporary news announcement in Google Books that reports that Captain Chabrié in the Dame Ernouf, captured the Heroine, of three masts [so, possibly a three-masted schooner], on her voyage from Halifax to London with a cargo of coffee, tobacco, wood, dried fish and more. From this, the next search can be Halifax departure records for more details about the Heroine and her crew.

Finding Local Police Records

Local police records are irregular. There can be a great carton of them in some places and nothing at all in others. They can be found in two types of archives:

  • Departmental Archives, in Series M
  • Rarely, the local police records of the Municipal Archives of port cities can contain some interesting letters about seamen

None are found online.

French Documentation continues in the next post.


©2020 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

Researching Early American Mariners of the Napoleonic Wars - Part 7

Researching Mariners

Documentation and Archives

French Documentation

Researchers benefit in France in that the French have been keen record keepers and archivists for centuries. Royal edicts and, later, governmental  laws have mandated the maintaining of archives by notaires, by administrators, by clerics, by the military, by the legislature and by many more. While some archives have been destroyed by natural disasters or war, most survive and may be accessed (under certain conditions designed to protect the materials) by the public. 

The most useful types of French archives for finding American seamen in France are:

  • Prize records - As in America, the records of judgements on prizes and of law suits concerning those judgements were maintained. However, none of these is online. Worse, the central Paris Prize Council archives were completely destroyed in 1871 when the building was burnt by members of the Paris Commune. 
  • Local police files - Seamen were often a troublesome lot, whatever their nationality and in whatever port, and many were arrested. Some records of such arrests survive.
  • Passport requests - Especially during the Terror but throughout the Napoleonic Wars, foreigners needed internal passports to move around France and, often, permission to leave the country. 
  • Prisoner of War records
  • Le Moniteur Universel - the national gazette of the day.
  • Civil registrations - French birth, marriage and death records, which began to be strictly maintained and which have quite a lot of detail.

Looking at each of these in a bit more detail:

French Prize Records

These follow the same pattern as US prize records and may include:

  • Lists of captured crew
  • Pay lists of privateer crew
  • Prize court judgement
    • If judged a "good" prize, the crew became prisoners of war
    • If judged to be not a valid prize, the crew were released

San Joseph pay listSource: Etat des Réparations 1811. 2Q 168. Archives de la Marine. SHD Brest


The San Joseph was a French privateer, operating out of the French port of Saint-Malo in 1810. The image above shows the top of the list of crew members and the prize money they received. The third name on this page is that of John Brown, carpenter, of Baltimore. Further down the list, which runs to several pages, more American seamen may be seen.


San Joseph pay list 2Source: Etat des Réparations 1811. 2Q 168. Archives de la Marine. SHD Brest


  • William Steward, seaman, from Baltimore
  • Daniel Schyes, seaman, from New York
  • Richard Lee, seaman, from Boston
  • Thomas Walters, seaman, from Baltimore
  • John Tucker, seaman, from Boston

It is most likely that these men signed on willingly in Saint-Malo, where they may have left or been abandoned by the merchant vessel on which they had arrived. In your research, if you followed a vessel to one of the major privateering ports and then lose your man, one reasonable place to look for him would be on a privateer.

Finding French Prize Records

As of the time of this writing, no French prize records are online. However, there are dozens of websites by passionate researchers contain an enormous amount of extracted information, including:

The two main types of archives facilities in France where one can find prize records are the Departmental Archives and the Service Historique de la Défense. Though the archives of the central Prize Council in Paris burned, those of local courts, the Tribunaux de Commerce did not, and may be seen by visiting the relevant Departmental Archives. There is no easy way to know if a prize case went to the Prize Council in Paris or to the local Tribunal, but, generally, if the captured vessel had a cargo that was perishable, it was often judged locally, as that was quicker. Some cases were discussed by the American consuls in their dispatches, showing where the case was judged and at times giving the printed publication of the judgement.

Various bits of prize case records are scattered in the Marine archives of the Service Historique de la Défense in the towns of Vincennes, Brest, Rochefort, Toulon, Lorient and Cherbourg. Most of what survive in these locations are lists and charts, not the depositions or decisions, but there are many names, especially in the pay lists


French Documentation continues in the next post.

©2020 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

Researching Early American Mariners of the Napoleonic Wars - Part 6

Researching Mariners

Documentation and Archives

American Documentation

Private Papers of United States Consuls

Many consuls’ private papers and correspondence are preserved. In some cases, these are more complete than the official correspondence, in some cases less so. There is no way of knowing until one looks.

Seamen in LorientSource: Letter from Aaron Vail. Jonathan Russell Papers, Hay Library, Brown University

This image(click on it to see a larger version) is of a list of American sailors written, in French, dated 1810, by the American consul in the French port of Lorient, Aaron Vail, to the French authorities, and this copy was sent to the American consul in Paris, Jonathan Russell. The sailors had been on the crew of the vessel Good Friends, captain Winslow Harlow, of Philadelphia. The vessel had been seized by the French. The mariners’ names are listed, with the amount of money Vail had advanced them:

Thomas Read, seaman

Richard Powell, seaman

William Tomlin, seaman

Joseph Wilson, seamen

Peter Steele, cook

Vincent Ashmely, apprentice or ship’s boy 


Finding Private Papers of US consuls

To know who was a consul or consular agent at any given port during the early nineteenth century, look up the port on the website Early American Foreign Service Database. (

Use Google and a few other search engines :

“[consul’s name] private papers”

“[consul’s name] family papers”

“[consul’s name] archives”

Remember to search the consul's name both as given and in reverse, e.g. "Aaron Vail" and "Vail, Aaron".

The papers may be in the Library of Congress, in National or State Archives, in university libraries or a private archive. Be prepared to enter into correspondence to request copies, if you cannot travel to do the research in the papers. Quite a few examples have been digitized as a part of the two hundredth anniversary of the War of 1812 and you may get lucky enough to find a letter from your ancestor online. 


Prize cases, or "libels"

During the era of privateering, a captured vessel was termed a "prize". It was taken into a port of or allied with the nationality of the privateer. In port, the prize would be judged as good or bad. If a "good prize" the privateers and their backers kept the loot; if a "bad prize", the vessel and its cargo, or compensation, were returned to the owners. For the privateer, it was crucial to man the prize with a good crew, headed by a "prize master", who would get it to a friendly port as fast as possible, not only to be able to sell the cargo before it might rot, but to evade the prize vessel being recaptured by another vessel and taken home as her prize. The original crew of the prize vessel became prisoners. 

In the judgement of prize cases, senior members of the privateer crew were interrogated, to know exactly what procedures were followed and when. If you are seeking a man who could have been a mate or a lieutenant on a privateer, you may find his testimony in a prize case. If you know that your seaman was on the capturing vessel, then you will want to request the file of the prize case from the NARA branch closest to the port where the case was tried. The following image is of the first twenty entries in the archives finding aid for the files held at NARA Boston. The prize case files for New York have been digitized and can be found on

Mass Prize cases

Source: Index to Massachusetts Prize Cases, NARA

Finding Out About Prizes Taken

As you hunt for the vessel, know that:

  • Reports of captures may be in newspapers, such as Niles’ Weekly or Lloyd’s Register
  • Reports of the sale of the prize vessel may be in newspapers
  • These reports give the location port where the vessel was taken and the case judged
  • You can then search the finding aids of the archives facility holding the records of that port
  • Mention must be made here of the impressive work by Greg H. Williams, The French Assault on American Shipping, 1793–1813 A History and Comprehensive Record of Merchant Marine Losses (Jefferson, North Carolina, and London : McFarland, 2009), which attempts to list and describe every case of of an American vessel captured by the French, through to the final resolution of claims. Unfortunately, it contains many errors, so any facts must be verified.


District and Circuit Court Cases

In regions with busy ports, there were many cases of seamen taking masters or shipowners to court for failure to pay wages, for brutality or for other complaints, as this finding aid listing cases shows. Note how many seamen's names appear.

Mass District CourtSource: Index to Massachusetts District Court Cases, NARA Boston


Finally, for researching New England seamen, one must explore the Mystic Seaport Databases ( They are constantly putting more online. We recommend that you explore:

  • The four databases of crew lists from New England
  • The American Offshore Whaling Voyages 

The Mystic Seaport Museum, the Phillips Library of the Peabody Essex Museum, the Library of Congress and numerous other libraries have ships' log books.

In the next post, we look at French documentation.

©2020 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

Researching Early American Mariners of the Napoleonic Wars - Part 5

Researching Mariners

Documentation and Archives

A seaman who never advanced, never was impressed, never was on a ship that was captured, never married outside of the United States will be very hard to document. For the seaman who became a master or was impressed or was on a vessel that was captured or who married in Europe, there may well be mentions, documents, even whole files about him.

The main geographical areas for archival research on American mariners during the Napoleonic Wars are:

  • The United States
  • Great Britain
  • The European countries to which the mariner may have sailed. France is the example here but the research concepts apply just as easily to other European countries such as Norway or Portugal or Spain

Looking at each in more detail:

American Documentation

We are often trapped into thinking that what is available easily is all that is available. This mistake leads many people to think that the only useful American records on seamen are the Seamen's Protection Certificates, but there is much much more.

Dispatches from United States Diplomats and from United States Consuls

From 1792, consuls overseas were charged with aiding “distressed American seamen”. Distress could have been caused by illness, lack of money, imprisonment, impressment and, quite often, abandonment. The consul or consular agent in a port was the first person the seaman would have tried to contact when he was in trouble. He would have had to prove his American nationality to the consul, and this might have been done with his Seaman's Protection Certificate, if he had one. If not, he would give details of his family and birth to prove his nationality. Some or all of these details, or copies of his original letters, may survive in the consular dispatches. Consuls were also charged with reporting on American shipping in the ports where they were based. Generally, diplomats, the Ministers Plenipotentiary or the Ambassadors, left the aid of seamen to the consuls but, at times, they became involved in a case. Much of their correspondence about the cases survives in the Diplomatic and Consular Dispatches, which were microfilmed in the 1950s and which now may be purchased in digitized format from the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).

T223 Nantes p40Source: NARA, Dispatches from U.S. Consuls in Nantes, France, 1790-1906. T223, roll 1

The above image is of a typical consul's report on the American vessels that arrived in the port where he was based, in this case, Nantes. It covers the first six months of 1793 and gives:

  • The name of the vessel
  • The tonnage
  • The name of the captain
  • The port from which the vessel sailed
  • The cargo

The first three entries show :

  • On the 5th of January, the Polly, of 66 tons, Captain Wicks, arriving from Boston
  • On the 30th of January, the Eliza, of 110 tons, Captain Hitchins, arriving from Pillou (presumably Pillau, now known as Baltiysk, in Russia)
  • On the 5th of February, the oddly named Goat, of 80 tons, Captain O’Brien, arriving from an unnamed port in Spain.

Most records of vessels name captains, making research of these men easier. If you are tracing a seaman, his name will not appear but this kind of list will help in following the vessel.

Consular correspondence about specific distressed seamen can be incredibly revelatory about the man, as this unfortunately very faint example shows.

HarrisonSource: NARA, Dispatches from U.S. Consuls in St. Bartholomew, French West Indies, 1799-1899. M72, roll 1

This is a letter from R.M. Harrison, the consul in Saint Bartholomew, dated 3rd April 1821, discussing the case of an American seamen. It reads:

“...a man by the name of John Bowen, a native of Warren Rhode Island and a steady orderly person for that class of people….."[seamen had a dreadful reputation]

In this and subsequent letters, the story is told that Bowen and a group of seamen had rowed out in a boat and tried to join a South American privateer then in the harbour but were “chased off by a French Man of War”. They then found themselves far from the harbour and getting hungry. They rowed close to shore at a spot near a village and started shooting at goats for food. The mayor of that village started shooting back at their boat, hitting Bowen in the hip. His comrades sped away, having thrown Bowen on shore, where he crawled to a street and collapsed. He lay there, “without shelter or medical aid”, for many hours until a former shipmate discovered him and organized help. A further letter from the consul to the Secretary of State tells that Bowen lingered for two weeks and then died. If no letter to Bowen's family were sent or survived, if no one knew what happened to him, American records may say, at best, that he was "lost at sea". Here, his sad fate is given in full.

To find both diplomatic and consular dispatches, see the publication: “Diplomatic Records: A Select Catalog of National Archives Microfilm Publications”1986. This may be searched online at "The National Archives : Microfilm Catalog". Digital copies of the rolls may be ordered from NARA at : Sadly, they are not cheap.

American Documentation continues with the next post.

©2020 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy