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Great records from the War of 1812

Reader Pam McDonald sent in a great question to The Legal Genealogist:

While researching a family line on, I came across an entry for one ancestor in the Marshals’ Returns of Enemy Aliens and POWs 1812-1815. I don’t know much about the activities surrounding the creation of this list but I’m assuming for the 1812 war, immigrants of Britain were asked to identify themselves. Would you consider this as a blog topic?

Would I ever

It’s a topic in which I have a deep and abiding interest.

Grafton enemy alienNow I suspect that most of us have an appreciation that German nationals living in the United States during World War II would have been considered as enemy aliens. They were in fact subject to special restrictions and even, in some cases, to internment, along with Japanese and Italian nationals and others.1

But it turns out that the law governing enemy aliens began long before the war clouds began gathering in the 20th century.

The very first law governing enemy aliens was enacted back in 1798. It provided, in part, that “whenever there shall be a … war …, all natives, citizens, denizens, or subjects of the hostile nation or government, being males of the age of fourteen years and upwards, who shall be within the United States, and not actually naturalized, shall be liable to be apprehended, restrained, secured and removed, as alien enemies.”2 It was aimed, at the time, at the French, with whom we expected to go to war.

And in the entire history of the United States, that law — enacted on 6 July 1798 — has only been amended twice:

• Fourteen years to the day later, on 6 July 1812, it was amended because of the little dust-up we were having at the time with the British, who weren’t following the provisions of treaties ending the Revolutionary War, to make it clear that the British were included in its provisions.3

• And in 1918, it was amended to delete the word “males” and bring women under its provisions.4

With only a couple of minor editorial changes, it’s still the law today.5

So… how did this work during the War of 1812?

That was the first time the law was ever used, when Secretary of State James Monroe ordered British subjects to register with marshals, settle away from tidewater if they were new arrivals or move away from coastal areas if engaged in trade (others could stay with permission from marshals).6

As a result, the U.S. marshals around the country produced records. Wonderful records, where they still exist. And some of those are the records Pam found on Ancestry: all seven rolls of NARA Microfilm Publication 588, the “War of 1812 Papers” of the Department of State, 1789-1815, have been digitized and are online both at and at

These are records that include “for each alien his name, age, and occupation; the length and places of his residence in the United States; the names of members of his family; and the date of his application for naturalization.”7 In some cases, the marshals included marginal notes, with more information about the families, and even mentioning the relationships between fathers and their adult sons.

They’re a real joy.

And, of course, they’re not all in one place.

Some of the marshals’ records never got to the National Archives. That’s why, for example, you’ll find some records from Peter Curtenius, U.S. marshal for New York, in the keeping of the New York Historical Society.8 And the records from the Mississippi Territory are held by the Mississippi Department of Archives and History.9

So you may need to do some research here to find out if the records still exist from an area you’re interested in. Start with Ancestry or FamilySearch for sure — but branch out beyond that to other resources.

Now you may be wondering why this is a topic I’m so interested in. It’s because my own grandfather’s sister was considered an enemy alien during World War II. But that’s a story for another day… and I actually have a whole webinar about that… Martha Benschura: Enemy Alien.10

The marshals’ returns… Enemy alien records… Great records from the War of 1812… and beyond.


Image: Report, John Grafton (native of Ireland), as alien enemy; Mississippi Department of Archives and History.

  1. See generally U.S. National Archives, “Research Our Records: Brief Overview of the World War II Enemy Alien Control Program,” ( : accessed 9 Apr 2018). Note that this isn’t the same thing as the widespread internment of Japanese-Americans. As to that, see Judy G. Russell, “Remembering the internees,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 20 Feb 2017 ( : accessed 9 Apr 2018).
  2. “An Act respecting Alien Enemies,” 1 Stat. 577 (6 July 1798).
  3. “An Act supplementary to the act entitled ‘An Act respecting alien enemies’,” 2 Stat. 781 (6 July 1812).
  4. “An Act To amend (§4067) of the Revised Statutes … to include women,” 40 Stat. 531 (16 April 1918).
  5. 50 U.S.C. §21.
  6. See “Circular, Jas. (James) Monroe, Department of State, Washington (D.C.), to the secretary of the Mississippi Territory, transmitting “enemy aliens” acts”; digital image, “Series 499: Alien Enemies Documents (War of 1812), 1812-1815,” Mississippi Department of Archives and History ( : accessed 9 Apr 2018).
  7. U.S. National Archives, Pamphlet Accompanying Microcopy No. 588, PDF (National Archives & Records Service : Washington, D.C., 1965); PDF online, ( : accessed 9 Apr 2018).
  8. See “‘Aliens’ in America: British Citizens during the War of 1812,” New York Historical Society, From the Stacks blog, posted 3 April 2012 ( : accessed 9 Apr 2018).
  9. Series 499: Alien Enemies Documents (War of 1812), 1812-1815,” digital images, Mississippi Department of Archives and History ( : accessed 9 Apr 2018).
  10. Judy G. Russell, Martha Benschura: Enemy Alien, recorded 20 May 2015, Legacy Family Tree Webinars, available by subscription. Note that, as a presenter, I do get a financial benefit if people buy access to one of my webinars or to the whole webinar series from Legacy Family Tree Webinars.
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