I first came across one of these certificates when researching my adopted son’s biological ancestry for him. Through divorce records and public directory information, I was able to come up with the name of his grandfather, David Sykes. The directory listed him as having the occupation of seaman, so I decided to look in passenger and crew lists on Ancestry.com. I did not find a David Sykes at first, but instead found an Oneal Sykes. Further searching showed both David and Oneal working on the same ship. More research brought up a certificate with a picture of a very young David Sykes. There was no mistaking the family resemblance to my son and my grandson.
I still didn’t know much about Seaman Protection Certificates, but when I was trying to help my cousin, Ray Saunders, locate his father, I checked the same index on Ancestry.com since I had information that Ray’s father had worked on boats. I never found a Dave Saunders, but I did find a Samuel B Saunders who was issued a certificate in Mobile. The image on the certificate looks very much like Ray’s father Dave who it turns out was using an alias for most of his young adult life.
As my genealogy research continued, I thought I might find my GGGG-grandfather James Henry McGallagher in the same index, but had no luck with that search. That is when I decided to find out more about what a Seaman’s Protection Certificate was. I just assumed it was a type of liability or insurance policy. I was right in a way, but rather than it being a policy against death or injury, it is a policy designed to help US citizen sailors from being forcibly pressed into service on British warships. In the early 1800s, Great Britain was still trying to expand its empire. In order to help in this cause, they had gangs of soldiers snatching up any English speaking men in ports all over the world and then forced these men to serve on British warships. Having a certificate in hand did not guarantee that a US citizen would not be pressed into service but it was at least proof that could be offered up that the seaman was an American.
The certificates were authorized by Congress May 28, 1796. My ancestor, J H McGallagher was born in 1821 and died in 1851. He would not have obtained a certificate because they stopped being issued for a while after 1815. Just prior to the Civil War and again around the time of WWI, the certificates were used once more which would explain why the two seaman I researched had one.
There is a great article on the National Archives Website about Seaman Protection Certificates written by Ruth Priest Dixon . She is one of many people volunteering to index and digitize these records so that researchers such as myself can use them.
Here is a link to the index if you use ancestry.com – Indexes to Seamen’s Protection Certificate Applications and Proofs of Citizenship