American Maritime Documents 1776-1860

Stein, Douglas L. 1992


I could have used a book like this twenty years ago. Back then I was fresh out of graduate school, and processing my first maritime manuscript collections. Although I possessed an interest in maritime history and some knowledge of nautical terms, I had never come face to face with a Bottomry Bond or an Enrolment Certificate.

I soon discovered that the study of maritime history exposed one to many documents unique to this field, and that they must be accurately identified and interpreted by those of us entrusted with their management. Marine dictionaries an nautical encyclopedia were obvious sources, but a comprehensive monograph on maritime documents would have better served the purpose.

Now Mystic Seaport Museum has published such a volume, a book written to assist researchers in identifying specific documents and papers, which are unique in some measure to the conduct of America’s shipping industry through the first half of the nineteenth century. It is intended as a reference tool for students, educators, manuscripts dealers and collectors, librarians, archivists, curators and anyone else who may require a better understanding of maritime documents.

The period between the years 1776 and 1860 saw the development of Federal legislation designed to regulate and protect our maritime commerce. The documents generated by these statutes were issued through he United States Customs Service, an agency of the Treasury Department created in 1789, and by the U.S. Consular Service at foreign ports.

The variety of Customs and Consular forms are well represented in this guide, comprising over half of the documents described. The various licenses Certificates, passports, and Permits, etc., offer insight into how the government sought to develop American shipping, and create revenue by controlling the transportation and sale of imported goods, In addition, numerous Bonds and oaths have been included, showing the primary method employed to insure compliance with the various conditions under which a particular document was obtained. Other documents relative to the protection and safety of American seamen and passengers are also illustrated.

Business documents representing some unique aspect of the maritime industry have not been overlooked. Marine insurance policies and related papers are discussed in detail. The Charter party is also described, along with some of the more familiar and maritime-related receipts, Bills of lading and manifests, etc.

We have been liberal enough with our definition of ‘document’ so that we might include other relevant pieces of potential interest. Represented here are the “Morning Star” Contribution Certificate and the Freight Circular. Sailing Cards, although not manuscripts, have also been included, since they are interesting instruments of maritime commerce, valued by both researchers and collectors.

Any items that are specifically associated with naval matters have been excluded from this work. Hence United States naval commissions, reports, logbooks, etc., do not appear. Also, papers and documents usually considered common to any business or industry; i.e. ledgers, account books, payroll records, statements, etc., fall outside the scope of this volume, as do family papers such as letters and diaries, deeds, wills, and other similar pieces.

Many of the documents illustrated are printed forms, some are entirely handwritten, but nearly all possess a certain degree of consistency in form or content which makes them unique and identifiable. Some pieces are remarkably standardized, and changed very little during the time they were used. The Mediterranean Passport and the Sea Letter, for example, are documents whose physical appearance remained relatively unaltered.

Other documents and forms were frequently printed by local print shops near the ports where they were used, a situation which produced a variety of styles for Manifest, Articles of Agreement, Clearance Certificates, etc.

The examples found in this work have been taken primarily from the manuscripts collection at Mystic Seaport Museum. This collection contains more than five hundred thousand pieces, is extensively cataloged, and represents a major research source for the study of American maritime history. We have also solicited documents from other institutions in order to produce the best or most appropriate illustration for every piece described.

The illustrations are intended to assist in identifying these documents, and they are presented in a way that best satisfies this purpose. In most cases the photos have not been cropped. Instead the entire piece is represented, which allows the reader to better visualize the format or composition of that particular item. Larger documents have been reduced only to the point where they can be properly represented on a single page while some small items were enlarged a bit for the same reason. When dimensions of a document are important, they have been included in the physical description. In other instances I have indicated that a piece varied considerable in size, so its measurements are of little value in the identification process.

Finally, this volume does not pretend to include examples of every document used by the American maritime industry during this period, but we have made an effort to provide a large selection of the most important and/or frequently found documents in collections of maritime manuscripts. Each piece is illustrated and described, so that the reader may easily and accurately identify a particular document, or perhaps better understand its significance as a research source. We trust that this volume will be a useful addition to maritime historiography, and prove of value to those who use it.

—Douglas L. Stein.