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Using U.S. Sources To Trace Your Irish Ancestors Who Worked At Sea
Posted by IRISH ROOTS on Monday 23 November 2015

Using U.S. Sources To Trace Your Irish Ancestors Who Worked At Sea

Occupation Sources: U. S. Merchant Seamen by Judith Eccles Wight, AG

When I was first approached about writing quarterly articles for Irish Roots, I immediately thought about occupation sources.  It has taken me a couple of years to actually address this subject.  This is the first article in a series that will be written for future issues of Irish Roots.

In genealogical research we are often faced with the difficulty of documenting family members.  There are many resources one could search--vital and church records, probate records, published biographies, newspapers, and the list goes on.  However, not always do these records survive, are not easily accessed, or do not contain the information which is being sought.  To add to the problem, secondary sources such as biographies and newspapers are often undocumented and inaccurate.  

A significant number of men residing in the United States as well as foreign countries worked on merchant ships.  These ships were responsible for transporting goods and sometimes passengers.  During wartime the ships were utilized in delivering troops and war supplies.

Ship crew lists

In 1803 the U. S. Congress passed an act that required every master of a U. S. ship embarking on a foreign voyage to supply a crew list to the customs collector of the port from which the ship sailed.  A certified copy of the list was returned to the master.  Upon returning to the U.S. the master had to surrender the certified copy to the first officer who boarded the ship.  In addition, the master also had to give an account of crew members who were not present due to illness, discharge or desertion.

Information that may be found in the crew lists includes the name of each seaman, his age, nationality (country of birth), literacy, race, height, weight, the name of the ship, position he held, how long he worked as a seaman, and whether he was to be discharged at the port of arrival.

Ancestry has a database of ship registers that include crew lists for various places in the United States.  However, name searches that were conducted with Ireland as a place of birth or crew lists or deckhand as keywords did not separate out U. S. crew lists from the regular passenger list entries.  The only targeted crew list entry is for Liverpool, England.  

1930 U.S. Census of Crews of Vessels

1930 U.S. census is the first one that enumerated seamen on merchant ships. It does not include officers who had a regular or fixed abode on land. Among the information listed at the top of the form is the name of the vessel; its home port, the port where the enumeration was made, or the port from which it sailed prior to the census date; and the date of the enumeration. In addition to the usual information found in this census, it also includes the occupation on the ship of each man, whether he was a service veteran in a war or expedition, and the address of the wife or next of kin.

John Riordan, a 39 year old deckhand, was enumerated on the ship J. D. Peters that was docked at San Francisco, California.  He was born in Cork, Ireland, and his wife or next of kin lived in Cork. In most cases only a country of birth is listed for seamen of foreign birth who are listed in this census.

Merchant Seamen Protection Papers or Certificates

Seamen Protection Papers or Certificates were issued to American seamen, including those of foreign birth, from the late 1700s until the first half of the 19th century.  These records provided information about the seaman including his place of birth, physical description, and other details.  

The format varies by time period and location. 

Patrick Corrigan, age 49, was born in Tullamore, Ireland.  He resided in the United States for the past 21 years and was a citizen.  He was 5’ 9“, had blue eyes and sandy hair, a mole on his breast, and a scar over his left eye. This record dated April 27, 1804 was signed by Israel E. Trask, a Notary Public in New Orleans, Louisiana.

Daniel Dougherty appeared before a Notary Public in Philadelphia on Aug. 22, 1822.  His age was 24 and he was 5’ 8 ¼“, had a light complexion, sandy hair, grey eyes, and a long scar on his left forefinger. Daniel was the son of a naturalized citizen who arrived at the port of Philadelphia with his wife and nine month old child (Daniel). The witness was William Dougherty, an uncle. 

For further information about this resource including where to find records see

New England Seamen's Identification Cards, 1918-1940

FamilySearch  has a database of New England states seamen’s identification cards. The card list the person’s name, age, place of birth and that of his parents, naturalization information, and a physical description.  A photograph of the person and his signature is also on the card.  The original records are found in the National Archives in Washington, D. C.

Sailors’ Snug Harbor

Captain Robert Richard Randall, a Revolutionary War soldier and ship master, bequeathed property in Manhattan, New York to be used for the building of an institution to care for aged, decrepit and worn-out merchant seamen. Heirs challenged the will which resulted in the home eventually being built on Staten Island.  It opened in 1833. In 1976 the few residents that still resided there were moved to a new facility located at Sealevel, North Carolina.

Snug Harbor records include details about the inmates or residents such as citizenship certificates, medical records, photographs, admission papers, and letters. These records are housed at the Stephen B. Luce Library at the SUNY Maritime College in Throggs Neck, NY

A second Snug Harbor residence was established in Boston, Massachusetts in 1852.  Extant records for this facility are housed at the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston.  A description of the collection is found at  Please note that the records are stored offsite and must be requested prior to visiting this repository.

Find a Grave has information for over 1,100 people buried at the Sailors Snug Harbor Cemetery in New York.  A database of names found in the 18934-1922 Steers Funeral Home records of people buried in Snug Harbor Cemetery is found at  Also check the list of people buried at this cemetery listed in the July 28, 1887 - July 25, 1903 entry book at the website

Details for 113 people buried at the Sailors Snug Harbor Cemetery in Quincy, Massachusetts can also be found at Find a Grave. 

British Isles merchant seamen

Men who worked as merchant seamen in the United States may have previously been employed in this  occupation in Great Britain and Ireland.  A very useful and comprehensive article about merchant seamen records in England is found at

Also see the guide produced by the Louth County Archives Service that highlights specific County Louth records as well as other resources.

Information about Scottish merchant seamen can be found at

This article featured in issue 93 (spring quarter 2015) of Irish Roots magazine.  Subscribe to Irish Roots magazine today from only $12.99

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