AMERICAN SEAMAN’S PROTECTION CERTIFICATE

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Seamen’s Protection Certificates were usually printed documents, varying in size and style, that were carried by American seamen as proof of citizenship.

The certificate was obtained by the individual through the customhouse, public notary, or U.S. Consul when required in a foreign port. It contained the person’s name, birthplace, approximate age, height, skin color, eye and hair color, and other distinctive descriptive information, such as the location of scars or tattoos. “United States of America” was often printed prominently across the top, and the word “protection” might also appear. Small engravings of the American eagle often served to decorate and establish the nationality of the document. A serial number was included on every Customs Protection Certificate for record keeping purposes. The wording of the document was standardized, having been transcribed on many examples, verbatim from the Act of 1796.

The Act of 28 May 1796, entitled “An Act for the Protection and Relief of American Seamen, provided certificates for the protection of American seamen from the threat of impressment by the Royal Navy. Prior to this act, a mariner could obtain a similar document from a public notary. An individual desiring protection was required to bring some authenticated proof of citizenship to the customs collector, who, for a service fee of 25 cents, would issue him a certificate. Most seamen of the day, however, were so transient that they were unable to produce the required proof, and so the condition was altered to allow him to bring a notarized affidavit, instead, in which the seamen and a witness swore to his citizenship. Because it was easy to abuse this system, the Royal Navy did not always honor the Protection Certificates as valid. Collectors were required to keep a record book of the names of individuals receiving protections and send quarterly lists to the State Department. As the threast to American freedom on the high seas began to disappear, Protection Certificates became more valuable as identification, and they were used as such until 1940, when the Seamen’s Continuous Discharge Book replaced them. These documents are common items in maritime collections and are important research souces for an study of American seamen.

Notary Protection Certificate issued to Andrew Boteler, mariner, 11 May 1796. Dated seventeen days before the passage of the Act that prescribed use of Seamen's Protections, it served the same purpose. A document such as this would later often be required by the collector in order for a seaman to obtain a certificate from the Custom House
Notary Protection Certificate issued to Andrew Boteler, mariner, 11 May 1796. Dated seventeen days before the passage of the Act that prescribed use of Seamen’s Protections, it served the same purpose. A document such as this would later often be required by the collector in order for a seaman to obtain a certificate from the Custom House
New Bedford:. July 7, 1845. Broadside, 8" x 12 3/4". Printed document, with the number ' 634' and the information about Coffinger completed in manuscript. Signed and dated by Adams as Collector. Printed on pale blue paper, cut of the American Screaming Eagle, and the motto, 'E Pluribus Unum.' Minor wear, small light blindstamp at top corner
New Bedford:. July 7, 1845. Broadside, 8″ x 12 3/4″. Printed document, with the number ‘ 634’ and the information about Coffinger completed in manuscript. Signed and dated by Adams as Collector. Printed on pale blue paper, cut of the American Screaming Eagle, and the motto, ‘E Pluribus Unum.’ Minor wear, small light blindstamp at top corner

Source: library.mysticseaport.org and lesserbooks.com

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1. What are the earliest known examples of passports, and how have they evolved?

The word "passport" came up only in the mid 15th Century. Before that, such documents were safe conducts, recommendations or protection letters. On a practical aspect, the earliest passport I have seen was from the mid 16th Century. Read more...

2. Are there any notable historical figures or personalities whose passports are highly sought after by collectors?

Every collector is doing well to define his collection focus, and yes, there are collectors looking for Celebrity passports and travel documents of historical figures like Winston Churchill, Brothers Grimm, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Read more...

3. How did passport designs and security features change throughout different periods in history, and what impact did these changes have on forgery prevention?

"Passports" before the 18th Century had a pure functional character. Security features were, in the best case, a watermark and a wax seal. Forgery, back then, was not an issue like it is nowadays. Only from the 1980s on, security features became a thing. A state-of-the-art passport nowadays has dozens of security features - visible and invisible. Some are known only by the security document printer itself. Read more...

4. What are some of the rarest and most valuable historical passports that have ever been sold or auctioned?

Lou Gehrig, Victor Tsoi, Marilyn Monroe, James Joyce, and Albert Einstein when it comes to the most expensive ones. Read more...

5. How do diplomatic passports differ from regular passports, and what makes them significant to collectors?

Such documents were often held by officials in high ranks, like ambassadors, consuls or special envoys. Furthermore, these travel documents are often frequently traveled. Hence, they hold a tapestry of stamps or visas. Partly from unusual places.

6. Can you provide insights into the stories behind specific historical passports that offer unique insights into past travel and migration trends?

A passport tells the story of its bearer and these stories can be everything - surprising, sad, vivid. Isabella Bird and her travels (1831-1904) or Mary Kingsley, a fearless Lady explorer.

7. What role did passports play during significant historical events, such as wartime travel restrictions or international treaties?

During war, a passport could have been a matter of life or death. Especially, when we are looking into WWII and the Holocaust. And yes, during that time, passports and similar documents were often forged to escape and save lives. Example...

8. How has the emergence of digital passports and biometric identification impacted the world of passport collecting?

Current modern passports having now often a sparkling, flashy design. This has mainly two reasons. 1. Improved security and 2. Displaying a countries' heritage, icons, and important figures or achievements. I can fully understand that those modern documents are wanted, especially by younger collectors.

9. Are there any specialized collections of passports, such as those from a specific country, era, or distinguished individuals?

Yes, the University of Western Sidney Library has e.g. a passport collection of the former prime minister Hon Edward Gough Whitlam and his wife Margaret. They are all diplomatic passports and I had the pleasure to apprise them. I hold e.g. a collection of almost all types of the German Empire passports (only 2 types are still missing). Also, my East German passport collection is quite extensive with pretty rare passport types.

10. Where can passport collectors find reliable resources and reputable sellers to expand their collection and learn more about passport history?

A good start is eBay, Delcampe, flea markets, garage or estate sales. The more significant travel documents you probably find at the classic auction houses. Sometimes I also offer documents from my archive/collection. See offers... As you are already here, you surely found a great source on the topic 😉

Other great sources are: Scottish Passports, The Nansen passport, The secret lives of diplomatic couriers

11. Is vintage passport collecting legal? What are the regulations and considerations collectors should know when acquiring historical passports?

First, it's important to stress that each country has its own laws when it comes to passports. Collecting old vintage passports for historical or educational reasons is safe and legal, or at least tolerated. More details on the legal aspects are here...

Does this article spark your curiosity about passport collecting and the history of passports? With this valuable information, you have a good basis to start your own passport collection.

Question? Contact me...