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January 2020

Researching Early American Mariners of the Napoleonic Wars - Part 2

Researching Mariners


This period was a time of war for much of Europe and the Americas, many of them at the same time. 

  • American Revolution 1776-1783 between the American colonists and Great Britain
  • French Revolution 1789-1799 a French civil war
  • Haitian Revolution 1791-1804 a Haitian slave uprising against French colonists and France
  • French Revolutionary Wars 1792-1802,  between France and the rest of Europe and Great Britain 
  • Quasi-War 1798-1800 between France and the newly formed United States

In Europe, there was a year of peace in 1802, when the  Treaty of Amiens was in effect, then war broke out out again between France and Britain in the:

  • Napoleonic Wars 1803-1815, during which the United States was neutral and trying to profit from the conflict. In the fight against Napoleonic France, Britain expanded the Royal Navy to an unparalleled naval power, always hungry for men. The constant need for more men lead to the press gangs on shore and impressment at sea. So many Americans were impressed and forced to work on Royal Navy ships that this was one of the main causes of the
  • War of 1812, between the United States and Great Britain, which lasted from 1812 to early 1815 and which was overshadowed in Europe by the immense war against Napoleon.
  • The South American Wars of Independence 1808-1833, between the colonies in South American and Spain or Portugal, these wars were, in many ways, sparked by the earlier revolutions and by the Napoleonic conquests of the Iberian colonial powers, and were at their peak after the Napoleonic Wars ended.

During all of these wars, American merchant seamen could be found on vessels of all nationalities and types. Merchant ships of all European nations as well as of South American nationalities included Americans on their crew lists. American merchants traded with belligerents on all sides and the merchant fleet grew quite large, sailing to all Atlantic ports, where shipmasters often left seamen stranded, leaving them to seek work on any vessel that would have them. Primarily during the War of 1812, American privateers with mostly American crews attacked merchant vessels of enemy nationalites, e.g. Britain and her allies. American whaling vessels, based not only in Nantucket and Halifax but in Britain and France, operated in Northern and Southern Atlantic whale fishing grounds.

The next post will look at naval and shipping activity a bit more closely, showing where American merchant seamen were active.

©2020 Anne Morddel

 French Genealogy

Researching Early American Mariners of the Napoleonic Wars - Part 1

Researching Mariners

We have been working on this subject for some years and continue to do so. Last year, we published an article in the NGS Magazine, (April-June 2018, pp. 29-34) "Resources for Tracing Impressed American Seamen", which covered part of the subject. For some time, we have tried to interest genealogy webinar hosts in a talk and case study that would cover the subject in greater depth, and even prepared all of the slides, but they felt that there was not enough interest. We do not believe that. So, we have decided to give the contents of the entire talk here, Dear Readers, in a series of posts, for we believe that many of you may be researching ancestors who were Nantucket whalers or merchant seamen or privateers or prisoners of war caught in the mayhem of the  Napoleonic Wars and the War of 1812.

There will be a slight overlap with that article, but not much, as the focus is not limited to those merchant seamen who were impressed.  The example in that article was a man named Ambrose Dodd, a merchant seaman from Marblehead who had signed on to a British vessel, was captured by the French and Held as a prisoner of war. He claimed to have been impressed by the British but was not. However, when the French released him from prison temporarily to crew a French privateer, that vessel was captured by the British and he was, if not impressed, coerced to join the Royal Navy, in which he served until the end of the War of 1812. The case study here will be of the Nantucket whaler, Peleg Bunker, who was among the whalers who moved to Dunkirk, then to Britain, and who worked the fisheries of the South Atlantic, until he, too, was captured by a French privateer and held as a prisoner of war in France, where he died in 1806, just before he was to be released.

Our subject is limited to documenting American mariners, the ordinary seamen, masters and whaling men - in American, British and French archives of the Napoleonic Wars and of the War of 1812. Much of this is online, but most is not. However, archival finding aids are online and it is possible to order copies of the documents you need. British archives tend to send paper copies in the post, while French and American archives tend to send digitized copies by e-mail. To do this research, you will need not only access to the Internet, but an ability to read a bit of French, to decipher nineteenth century handwriting, and patience. We would add here that a certain level of intellectual integrity will also be necessary; there can be no bending of the facts to fit the ancestor, no conflation of similar and misspelt names into one man, no rejection of the inexplicable. By the end of this series of posts, you may well discover that your mariner ancestor was not "lost at sea", and you may be able to document, with some rather personal detail, his extraordinary life.

©2020 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy