Documentation and Archives
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.
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
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 www.Fold3.com.
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.
Finally, for researching New England seamen, one must explore the Mystic Seaport Databases (https://research.mysticseaport.org). 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
In the next post, we look at French documentation.
©2020 Anne Morddel