Have you found a seafaring person in your tree? Then you should definitely check out what I consider one of the best records out there and one of my personal favorites! They are just so very fascinating.
The Citizenship Affidavits of US-born Seaman at Select Ports, or Seaman’s Protection Papers as they’re sometimes known, were issued starting in the early 1800’s as a way to protect US sailors from being “pressed” into service on British ships. Think of it like a passport type of identification… applicants would go to a local official and have their identity verified. This usually included either bringing an person with you who knew you or providing signed affidavits from witnesses who attested to your identity and proof of citizenship or a notarized affidavit of such.
They were extraordinarily detailed because generic papers could be easily given to someone else, or in some cases, seen as so generic that the British would just toss them and take you forcefully anyways. It was much harder with descriptive papers because you were more memorable and identifiable. How many people have brown hair, brown eyes? LOTS. So, in order to add an extra layer of protection, they included nearly every mark, mole, or scar on the body. The idea was, the more detailed they were, the harder it would be for you to be taken and impressed into British service. (Or if you were taken, hopefully your family kept a copy so they could hound the government to demand your return.)
But protection papers also served another purpose – they are sometimes referred to “free papers” because they were issued to blacks to show their “non-slave” or freemen status. Frederick Douglass used generic protection papers borrowed from a friend who was a sailor to escape slavery, though he did so at great peril. Had someone really read his paper, they’d have realized that the person described was of “a much darker color.” 1 During this early era, these protection papers were often the only proof of US citizenship for African Americans – something they wouldn’t be afforded until much later with the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868. 2
The 1806 example above is of my grandfather John Peters who brought his father with him to verify his identity. And it’s actually the second one he purchased within 6 months time, leading me to suspect that he gave one to his family to keep. It’s nearly identical to the first and was done by the same notary. Both are really quite vivid! Of course, you get his height, brown hair and hazel eyes but also into really weird, unique markings like a speck of white in his right eye, and an Indian Ink tattoo on his right arm with the name of Rachel Peters with a tree and a fish. It also talk about a scar on the inside of his hip and right thigh. His later one says right groin. That’s very, very specific and the fact his mom’s name is on his arm, leads me to think this was for identification purposes. Of course, there are specific meanings to the symbolism behind this era of tattoos, usually to do with industry or trait, so the fish tattoo didn’t surprise me. 3 The tree? I’m baffled though.
FYI- I apologize that I haven’t posted in forever. I’ve been working on this post for 3 weeks but I’m busy with a heavy school load and there have been switches at work that added more to my plate. Forgive me! I’m just a working girl! Sadly, I’ve even had to turn down taking on clients for the short term until things die down. Hopefully, I can keep my posts up here better in the future.
1. Douglass, Frederick. Life and Time of Frederick Douglass, Written by Himself. Boston. 1892. Electronic edition.
2. Library of Congress. Elections…the American Way
3. McNeur, Catherine. The Ink of History. 2011