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February 2020

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


Researching Early American Mariners of the Napoleonic Wars - Part 4

Researching Mariners

Follow the vessel, Look for the man

Where American Mariners Found Work

  • A naval vessel – Many men who became merchant seamen or captains began their careers in the Continental Navy and went to merchant vessels, often unwillingly, when that Navy was disbanded. If on a British Royal Navy vessel the merchant seaman was probably unwillingly on board, having been impressed.  Recall that a seaman would not be found on a United States Navy vessel before the Navy's establishment in 1794. American seamen also were found, albeit rarely, on vessels of the French and Russian navies.
  • A merchant vessel - This offered better pay than a naval vessel, but a much greater risk of being abandoned in a port far from home. Crews were smaller, food was marginally better, and voyages were shorter than naval cruises or patrols at remote stations. Merchant vessels plied all variations of the Atlantic trade routes between the United States and Britain and Europe. 
  • A slave vessel - Some seamen refused to work these vessels and those who did work on slavers tended to continue to do so. Knowing which your ancestor tended to work can help to narrow your search. The most common route followed by American slave ships was the West Africa-Caribbean Islands-United States triangle. However, they also followed a route from West Africa to South Africa to South America.
  • A fishing or whaling vessel - A fisherman was not a merchant seaman but early in a seaman's career, he may have been a whaler or fisherman.  Fishing vessels sailed to the Grand Banks or in North American coastal waters; whaling vessels sailed to Greenland or to the South Seas whaling grounds.
  • A privateer, a "private armed vessel" - Such a vessel operated legally only during a time of war and only with a Letter of Marque or commission from the government. Privateers sailed on short “cruises”, attacking the merchant shipping of the enemy. Seamen usually jumped at the chance to sail on a privateer, for the opportunities for wealth were considerable, though the life was also very dangerous.
  • A prize ship – A prize vessel was a vessel that was captured by a privateer and that must be taken in to a friendly port and sold. It was manned by a crew from the privateer. 
  • A pirate ship -Not very many seamen chose to work on a pirate ship as it was so brutal and the risk of hanging, if captured, was so great. Pirate ships carried no papers and did not maintain crew lists, so information about the men on them is more limited.

When looking for a vessel, bear in mind the key points for its identification and for differentiating it from others with the same name.

  • Name of the vessel
  • Name of the captain/master/shipmaster
  • Name of the owner
  • Type of vessel, e.g. brig, schooner, snow, sloop, frigate, etc.
  • Port from which sailed and port of destination, for any particular voyage

Often, the mention of a vessel will read something like this: "Brig Eliza, Cooper, Antwerp" meaning that the brig Eliza, master Cooper, arrived from Antwerp.

Some types of archives in which you might find vessels:

  • Ship's journals or log books - Many of these are published online by museums and archives
  • Personal diaries of captains and crew - Increasingly, these are scanned and appear online on many different websites. These are quite useful in that they often name other seamen.
  • Lloyd's List, found at 
  • Newspapers, the Shipping news section
  • Finding aids of archives, libraries and museums

Once you have an idea of his vessel and its voyages, you can look deeper into the archives of the places where a merchant seaman sailed and where you might look for documentation on him.

©2020 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

Researching Early American Mariners of the Napoleonic Wars - Part 3

Researching Mariners


Some knowledge of shipping and naval activity during these wars will help in knowing where to seek documentation on American mariners.


American Revolution

  • Both Britain and the United States authorized privateers to attack one another’s merchant shipping. American seamen captured by the British were sent to prisons in Great Britain.
  • Benjamin Franklin, ambassador to France, devised a plan to send out privateers manned by Americans from French ports to attack British shipping. His purpose was to take British prisoners who could then be exchanged for American prisoners of war in British prisons. On the whole, it was not very successful.
  • America's Continental Navy was small and relied heavily on French naval aid to win the Revolution.

1785 to 1794

During these years, there was no United States Navy. Hundreds of qualified seamen, lieutenants, navigators, ship’s carpenters, sailmakers, etc. who had been in the state and the Continental navies, were out of work. Many sought work on merchant vessels Others, who saw themselves as career naval men, joined other naval forces, particularly those of France and Russia. Joshua Barney, hero of the American Revolution, left the United States in anger in 1794 because he felt that the position he was offered in the new US Navy did not reflect or properly reward his talents and previous service. He joined the French navy and led a squadron in Saint Domingue, as Haiti was then known, to suppress the Haitian Revolution. John Paul Jones, America's other naval hero, left to serve in both the French and Russian navies.

1792 - 1815 

French Revolutionary Wars, Quasi War, Napoleonic Wars, War of 1812 Europe

Early during this period, the French Navy was nearly destroyed, firstly by its own navy men joining the French Revolution and rising up against the mostly aristocratic officers, and secondly by the losses in the sea battles against the British, including:

  • What the British term the "Glorious 1st of June" and the French call the "Bataille du 13 prairial an II" in 1794
  • The surrender of the Mediterranean fleet to the British in 1794
  • The naval Battle of the Nile in 1798
  • The naval Battle of Trafalgar in 1805

After this, Britain's Royal Navy became the supreme naval power in the Atlantic, and impressed more American seamen than ever. What remained of the French fleet was blockaded by the British Royal Navy in French ports, especially Brest, with occasional important escapes. With its reduced navy trapped, France encouraged privateering. French privateers were highly successful against British merchant vessels, and those of Britain's allies, including American vessels. French privateers sailed from any port on the Atlantic coast from Bayonne to Dunkirk, but especially from Brest and Saint Malo, and they included many American seamen on board.

During the Quasi-War, French vessels captured hundreds of American merchant vessels. France was furious that the United States refused to repay the costs of French military aid given to the United States during the American Revolution and also felt that the Jay Treaty of 1795 with Britain was a betrayal of the trust formed during that war and of the Treaty of Amity that the US had signed with France in 1778. Many of the American seamen from the captured vessels were taken to France and jailed.

In the Caribbean:

  • Pirates become well established, easily hiding on all those tiny islands
  • The slave trade was strong, with American and Spanish slave ships dominating
  • Privateering was prominent, as the cargos were so valuable and the local governments so corrupt or weak, the waters were excellent for raiding
  • Increasingly, South American privateers attack Spanish and Portuguese vessels in the region


South American Wars of Independence

What  were known in English as "insurgent privateers" sailed from South American ports and attacked Spanish and Portuguese vessels. After the end of the War of 1812, from about 1815, many of these privateers are owned and manned by Americans, mostly outfitted in Baltimore.


An American Seaman Could have:

  • Served as a young man in the Continental Navy
  • After the war ended, he could have worked on a New York vessel carrying grain to Liverpool, then
  • Changed to an English vessel carrying iron to Boston, then
  • Been captured by a French privateer and taken into Lorient
  • Been released from prison temporarily to work on a French privateer
  • From which he may have been on the prize crew to take a prize vessel to Norway, but on the way
  • He may have been captured by the Royal Navy and sent to prison in England
  • Eventually, he could have been released in 1815, at the end of the War of 1812, and then
  • Gone on a cartel vessel to Baltimore, where he
  • Signed on to a privateer bound for Buenos Aires, after which he
  • Retired a rich man, (or not)

How to find him?


©2020 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy