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A different kind of notarial records

The Legal Genealogist has been talking about notaries this week and, most particularly, notarial acts and records in what are called civil law jurisdictions.

Those are places where the legal tradition comes out of the civil law and not out of the British common law.

Places like Louisiana, Quebec, Puerto Rico, and much of the European continent.

But civil notaries weren’t and aren’t the only people who used the title notary public. That’s a role played in common law jurisdictions as well and often the most intriguing genealogical records will be those created by, or sworn before, a notary public.

Case in point: the proofs of citizenship for seamen’s protection certificates.

seamen.certFor example, on the 10th day of April 1815, a free man of color named Abednego Murray stood before Nicholas Diehl, Junior, a notary public for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and swore that he was born in Philadelphia and was a citizen of the United States. He was 23 years old, 5 feet 5 inches tall, with black wooly hair, a black complexion and black eyes.1

On the third of November of that year, it was 21-year-old Thomas Glenton who stood before that notary and swore that he was born in Burlington County, New Jersey, was 5 feet 9 inches tall, brown hair, light complexion, blue eyes, a scar on his right foot, a scar on his left fore finger and one on his right fore finger.2

On the second of December that year, it was a 14-year-old boy — William Peck — who stood before that notary and swore that he was born in Philadelphia. He was just five feet tall, dark hair, dark complexion and dark eyes, with a scar on each elbow.3

Now the reason for these records is spelled out in the descriptive pamphlet that was produced by the National Archives when it microfilmed these certificates for the Port of Philadelphia for the years 1792-1861:

On May 28, 1796, An Act For The Relief and Protection of American Seamen (1 Stat. 477), which includes instructions for the issuance of certificates of citizenship to seamen, was signed into law. These documents later became commonly known as seamen’s protection certificates. These certificates were issued by the collector of customs at individual ports of entry to merchant seamen and masters of merchant vessels engaged in foreign trade. The object was to prevent the detention and impressment of American seamen lawfully engaged in the service of a U.S. merchant vessel. It is apparent from the first section of the Act that this was a direct response to the detention and impressment of American seamen by officials of the government of Great Britain. Application for a certificate was strictly voluntary; seamen were not required to have them when serving on U.S. merchant vessels. Certificates were issued only after the seaman produced a proof of citizenship, and applicants were required to pay 25 cents for each certificate issued.

The format of the certificate was spelled out in section 4 of the Act. The collector normally did not retain a copy of the certificate issued but did maintain the proofs and a record of issuance of the certificate. The collector was to forward quarterly to the Department of State a list of seamen registered under the Act. These abstracts are now part of RG 36.

As the threat to the safety of the seamen declined, and the diplomatic strength of the U.S. Government increased, the need for such certificates lessened. Indeed, there appears to be no record of applications for the certificates after 1875, until 1917.4

Now, even though these weren’t required, and they cost the applicants money, there are so many of these records. In the Port of Philadelphia alone, the microfilmed records take up 61 reels. Move over to the Port of New Orleans, and there are another 12 rolls for the years 1800, 1802, 1804-1812, 1814-1816, 1818-1819, 1821, 1850-1851, and 1855-1857.5 And there are three more rolls of microfilm –digitized like those from Philadelphia — for the ports of Bath, Maine, and Portsmouth, New Hampshire, for a smaller number of years.6

These aren’t always the easiest records to use since they’re not all indexed. The ones from Bath and Portsmouth are indexed on FamilySearch; the more numerous ones from Philadelphia are not.

But just think about what these records do: for an entire group of thousands of seagoing ancestors, they give us birthplaces and at least a clue to the birth year at a time when many jurisdictions weren’t recording births at all. And, as icing on the genealogical cake, we get physical descriptions as well:

• On the 20th of October 1820, 17-year-old Alfred Galbrath Hindman, “an American seaman,” came before Peter Lohra of Philadelphia, Notary Public, and swore he was born in the “Northern Liberties of Philadelphia.” He was 5 feet 6.5 inches tall, light complexion, light brown hair and light blue eyes.7

• On the fourth day of August 1826, Edwin Bois stood before Henry G. Freeman, notary public of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and swore he was born in Boston, Massachusetts. He was 17 years old, 5 feet 1.5 inches tall, yellow complexion, black hair, black eyes, a cut upon his upper lip and a scar upon his left hand.8

• On the second day of August in 1845, a 16-year-old boy named Edward Crosdill stood before Henry M. Vallette, notary public for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and swore that he was born in Philadelphia and was a citizen of the United States. He was described then as 5 feet 11 inches tall, light complexion, light hair, blue eyes, with a scar on the palm of his right hand and part of the fore finger of the left hand cut off.9

Now, just because these certificates could be executed before a notary public doesn’t mean they had to be executed before a notary public. Some were done in the presence of a customs collector, and some in the presence of a city alderman. But enough used a notary that — like the ones listed above — there were preprinted forms that the notary used.

Cool records, and worth the effort to work through them.

Just one more thing the notaries did that we as genealogists can use.


SOURCES

  1. Proof of Citizenship, Abednego Murray, Certificate No. 22593 (1815); Proofs of Citizenship Used to Apply for Seamen’s Protection Certificates for the Port of Philadelphia, compiled 1792-1861, microfilm publication M1880, 61 rolls (Washington, D.C. : National Archives and Records Administration, 2003); digital images, FamilySearch.org (https://familysearch.org/ : accessed 27 July 2016).
  2. Ibid., Thomas Glenton, Certificate no. 23324(1815).
  3. Ibid., William Peck, Certificate No. 23392 (1815).
  4. Descriptive Pamphlet, Publication Number M1880, PDF online, National Archives (https://www.archives.gov/ : accessed 27 July 2016).
  5. Proofs of Citizenship Used To Apply For Seamen’s Protection Certificates for the Port of New Orleans, Louisiana, 1800, 1802, 1804-1812, 1814-1816, 1818-1819, 1821, 1850-1851, 1855-1857, microfilm publication M1826, 12 rolls (Washington, D.C. : National Archives and Records Administration, 1999).
  6. Proofs of Citizenship Used to Apply for Seamen’s Protection Certificates at the Ports of Bath, Maine, 1833, 1836, 1839-50, 1853-65, 1867-68; and at Portsmouth, New Hampshire, 1857-58, microfilm publication M1825, 3 rolls (Washington, D.C. : National Archives and Records Administration, 1999); digital images, FamilySearch.org (https://familysearch.org/ : accessed 27 July 2016).
  7. Proof of Citizenship, Edwin Bois, Certificate No. 21825 (1826); Proofs of Citizenship Used to Apply for Seamen’s Protection Certificates for the Port of Philadelphia, compiled 1792-1861, microfilm publication M1880, 61 rolls (Washington, D.C. : National Archives and Records Administration, 2003); digital images, FamilySearch.org (https://familysearch.org/ : accessed 27 July 2016).
  8. Ibid., Proof of Citizenship, Edwin Bois, Certificate No. 21825 (1826).
  9. Ibid., Proof of Citizenship, Edward Crosdill, Certificate No. 38517 (1845).
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