Seaman’s Protection Certificates – An Unusual Source

In an earlier post I compared Ancestry’s then new “U.S., Army Transport Service, Passenger Lists, 1910-1939” to draft registrations to answer the question of whether someone who registered for the draft actually went on to serve. I used as an example, the five Zimmerman brothers, who all registered for the draft but didn’t all end up serving. One of those brothers, Charles Stephen Zimmerman, was in training with the Merchant Marines in June 1918 and therefore exempt from military service. In the course of my research into Charles and his Merchant Marine service I came across an unusual and remarkable source. A source which not only gave a physical description of Charles, but also had his thumb print, his signature, date and place of birth and current age, and best of all, his photograph. The source was Charles’ application for a Seaman’s Protection Certificate made on 14 August 1918.1

Seaman Snip Photo

Seaman Snip thumb

What are Seaman’s Protection Certificates?

According to NARA (The National Archives and Records Administration) these documents were issued during the late 18th century through the early half of the 20th century, at all U.S. ocean and Great Lakes ports, and served as a seaman’s passport. Those applying had to be United States citizens and had to provide evidence of such in the form of a birth certificate, or an affidavit by a relative or friend, or a citation to naturalization proceedings. 2 Often those documents were appended to the application. In Charles’ case, no other documents are in his file but there is a note indicating he provided his birth certificate, from the parish priest at St. Mary’s church in Stockton, California.

Seaman Snip parish priest
“Affiant produced birth cert. from Parish Priest St. Mary’s Church Stockton showing place of birth as Stockton Cal.”

The history of the Seaman’s Protection Certificate

These certificates were first issued to American sailors to prevent them from being impressed into service by British warships in the period leading up to the War of 1812. Impressment was the forced recruitment of men, practiced most often by the British Navy, into service on their ships.

During the years of American slavery, free men of color who were sailors or seamen, were also issued these protection certificates to prove they were not slaves when stopped by officials or slave catchers. Frederick Douglass himself used the ‘protection papers’ of a free man of color, a sailor, to escape: 3

“It was the custom in the State of Maryland to require of the free colored people to have what were called free papers. This instrument they were required to renew very often, and by charging a fee for this writing, considerable sums from time to time were collected by the State. In these papers the name, age, color, height and form of the free man were described, together with any scars or other marks upon his person which could assist in his identification. This device of slaveholding ingenuity, like other devices of wickedness, in some measure defeated itself—since more than one man could be found to answer the same general description. Hence many slaves could escape by impersonating the owner of one set of papers; and this was often done as follows: A slave nearly or sufficiently answering the description set forth in the papers, would borrow or hire them till he could by their means escape to a free state, and then, by mail or otherwise, return them to the owner. The operation was a hazardous one for the lender as well as for the borrower. A failure on the part of the fugitive to send back the papers would imperil his benefactor, and the discovery of the papers in possession of the wrong man would imperil both the fugitive and his friend. It was therefore an act of supreme trust on the part of a freeman of color thus to put in jeopardy his own liberty that another might be free. It was, however, not infrequently bravely done, and was seldom discovered. I was not so fortunate as to sufficiently resemble any of my free acquaintances as to answer the description of their papers. But I had one friend—a sailor—who owned a sailor’s protection, which answered somewhat the purpose of free papers—describing his person and certifying to the fact that he was a free American sailor. The instrument had at its head the American eagle, which at once gave it the appearance of an authorized document. This protection did not, when in my hands, describe its bearer very accurately. Indeed, it called for a man much darker than myself, and close examination of it would have caused my arrest at the start.” 

douglass image
Example of Seaman’s Protection Certificate from 1854. Image credit: “Seaman’s Protection Certificate for Samuel Fox, August 12, 1854.” African American Odyssey: Free Blacks in the Antebellum Period, Documenting Freedom, Black History Collection, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

According to an article in Prologue, the magazine of the National Archives, almost a third of applications were for free men of color. 4 African American research can be difficult, these Seaman’s Protection certificates can be great value to those researchers. The Prologue article is excellent and worth reading to get further information on this unusual source.

The use of these certificates as a form of identification went on until just before the Civil War and then was reintroduced for a short period during the World War 1 time frame which is when Charles S. Zimmerman applied for one.

Besides giving Charles’ physical description and date and place of birth, the certificate also indicated where Charles had trained and the ship he was expected to join. For those seamen who were not born in the United States, their certificates may contain information on where and when they were naturalized, including the names of their parents. Those who witnessed the application were sometimes related to the applicant, providing further clues to follow.

CharlesStephenZimmerman1897_military
Charles S. Zimmerman in uniform

Seaman’s Protection Certificates are definitely an unusual source for genealogists, with an interesting history. It’s worth your time to take a look and see if your ancestor may have applied for one.  Both Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.org have collections of Seaman’s Certificates, search their catalogs using the keyword ‘Seaman’ or ‘Seaman’s Protection’.

This post was written for the 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks challenge from Amy Johnson Crow. Week 38 prompt: Unusual Source

 


  1. “U.S., Applications for Seaman’s Protection Certificates, 1916-1940”, database with images, Ancestry.com, (www.ancestry.com : accessed 20 September 2018), application for Charles S. Zimmerman, number 9882; citing NARA; Application for Seaman´s Protection Certificates; NAI: 2788575; Record Group Title: Records of the Bureau of Marine Inspection and Navigation; Record Group Number: 41; Box Number: 112 – San Francisco. 
  2. “Applications for Seaman’s Protection Certificates, 1916-1940”, index, NARA (http://www.catalog.archives.gov : accessed 20 September 2018), Records of the Bureau of Marine Inspection and Navigation, 1774-1982, Record Group: 41. 
  3. Frederick Douglass, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (Hartford, Connecticut : Park Publishing Co., 1882), 223-224; digital images, Archive.org (https://archive.org/details/lifetimesoffrede1882doug : accessed 20 September 2018). 
  4. Ruth Priest Dixon, “Genealogical Fallout from the War of 1812”, Prologue. Spring 1992, Vol. 24, No. 1. National Archives (https://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/1992/spring/seamans-protection.html : accessed 20 September 2018). 

James Box – Artificial Limb Maker

Did a serious injury prompt the start of a family business?

In 1861, James Box was a young boy of about 14 years old. He lived with his parents, John and Ann Box, and several siblings, in Surrey, England.1 By 1871, James was on his own, having moved from Surrey to West Ham, Essex.  James was now 25 years old, unmarried and noted on the 1871 census was his occupation “Anatomical Mechanician”. In the last column of the census, under the heading, “Whether Deaf and Dumb, Blind, Imbecile or Idiot, Lunatic” is the comment, “Leg amputated”.2

Box snip 1871

What did an Anatomical Mechanician do and was James’ injury the impetus for a family business in which his wife, two sons, a daughter, his younger brother, and two nephews would all work?

In 1878, James and his younger brother, George, started their business in Manchester, Lancashire under the name, “J. Box and Co. Artificial Limb and Surgical Instrument Makers”.

leg
Artificial Leg, England, 1890-1950. Credits: Science Museum, London (broughttolife.sciencemuseum.org.uk)

The job of an anatomical mechanician or artificial limb maker was described in 1855 as, “When from accident or disease it has become advisable to have the whole or a part of the natural leg removed…the first thought invariably arising in a patient’s mind is how he can possibly walk and pursue his usual avocation when minus a limb. Difficult as the matter appears, it is by no means too much so for human ingenuity to accomplish…It is therefore, clearly the part of the “mechanician” to render himself acquainted with the anatomical details of the limb he has to imitate…and also ascertain any peculiar action by which the various joints are brought into motion or sustained at rest.”3

James Box’s inclusion in the 1883 Manchester and Salford Directory:4

JamesBox1847_1883Directory_arrow

 

Unfortunately, in the same year, James Box died at the age of 37. His brother, George, took over the running of the business. George seemed to be a busy man, heavily involved with the community, his church and trips to the United States.5

GeorgeBox1855_bio snip

George, his son, George Percival Box and his nephew, Henry A. Box were all part of the business in 1911.6

GeorgeBox1855_1911Directory arrow

The last mention of various members of the Box family working as Artificial Limb Makers and/or Surgical Instrument Makers are in 1939:7

Annie J. Box, aged 67, occupation: Surgical Appliance Maker (child of James Box who started the business).
James Joseph Box, aged 65, Artificial Limb Maker (child of James Box who started the business).
George Percival Box, age 56, son of George Box (who took over the business when brother, John died).

From the early 1870s to approximately 1939, various members of the Box family worked in the Artificial Limb and Surgical Implement business started by James Box. Did the amputation of James’ leg prompt the start of a family business? It certainly seems possible.

This post was written for the 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks challenge from Amy Johnson Crow. Week 36 prompt: Work

 


  1. 1861 census of England, Surrey, Leatherhead, p. 42 (stamped), James Box; image, Ancestry.com (www.ancestry.com : accessed 22 February 2016); citing The National Archives, RG9, piece 420, folio 24; Epsom registration district, ED 1, household 293. 
  2. 1871 census of England, Essex, West Ham, p. 2 (stamped), James Box; image, Ancestry.com (www.ancestry.com : accessed 22 February 2016); citing The National Archives, RG10, piece 1629, folio 114; West Ham registration district, ED 10, household 9. 
  3. Henry Heather Bigg, On Artificial Limbs Their Construction and Application (London: John Churchill, New Burlington Street, 1855), chapter 1, part 1, B; digital images, Internet Archive (http://archive.org : accessed 6 September 2018). 
  4. Isaac Slater, ed., Slater’s Royal National Commercial Directory of Manchester and Salford (Manchester, England: Royal National Directory Offices, 1883), 44; digital images, University of Leicestershire (http://specialcollections.le.ac.uk/digital/collection/p16445coll4/id/149008 : accessed 9 September 2018). 
  5. Manchester Archives, digital images, Mr. G. Box (https://www.flickr.com/photos/manchesterarchiveplus/sets/ : accessed 9 September 2018). 
  6. Isaac Slater, ed., Slater’s Manchester, Salford & Suburban Directory (Manchester, England: Slater’s Directory Limited, 1911), 32; digital images, University of Leicestershire (http://specialcollections.le.ac.uk/digital/collection : accessed 8 September 2018). 
  7. 1939 Register, Lancashire, England, Manchester, RG 101/4469J Letter Code: NJKC, Schedule 49, George Percival Box; digital image, Ancestry (http://ancestry.com : accessed 9 September 2018), citing The National Archives, Kew, London, England. Also 1939 Register, Lancashire, England, Manchester, RG 101/4469J Letter Code: MJNT, Schedule 71-1, Annie J. Box and James Joseph Box; digital image, Ancestry(http://ancestry.com : accessed 9 September 2018), citing The National Archives, Kew, London, England. 

The Youngest Among Us

“I will lend you, for a little time,
A child of mine, He said.
For you to love the while he lives,
And mourn for when he’s dead
.”

Edgar Guest (1881-1959)

It is always difficult to comprehend the deaths of the youngest among us. All of us have come across sad family stories. When they involve the death of a baby or young child, we mourn a little with our ancestors. Such is the story of Isabel Bowes Bruce, my second great-grandmother. Isabel married John Bruce in 1864 in County Durham, England.  Isabel was 19 and John was 21. They began their married life in the small mining village of Tudhoe where a new coal mine (Tudhoe Colliery) had opened in 1864. John began work there as a miner.

On 4 May 1866, Isabel gave birth to their first child, a baby girl they named Margaret. Between 1866 and 1876, Isabel and John had six children. Sadly, within that same time period, they buried four of their children, three of them were less than a year old. Isabel was often heavily pregnant at the time she was burying one of her babies.

  • Margaret Bruce, born 4 May 1866. She died 13 months later, aged 1 in 1867. Isabel was about 8 months pregnant with their second child.
  • Thomas Bruce, born 23 July 1867. He died 7 months later in February 1868.
  • Margaret Bruce, born 14 May 1869. (My great-grandmother, she died aged 80.)
  • John Thomas Bruce, born 3 Jan 1873. He died at 2 months old in March 1873. Isabel was pregnant again within a month or so of burying John.
  • William Bruce, born Oct. 1873. (My great grand-uncle, he died aged 85.)
  • John Bruce, born 1876. Died, aged 11 in 1887.

Isabel herself died before she was 40 years old, by 1884. Her husband John remarried in March 1884. The marriage certificate states he was a widower. I am quite sure that burying so many of her babies must have taken a toll on Isabel.

In what seems a sad coincidence, Margaret Bruce (born 1869), my great-grandmother, would have the same experience her mother had. She would bear 6 children between 1889 and 1899, four of which she would bury before their second birthdays.

MargaretBruce1869_photo-croMargaret Bruce Thomas (1869-1949)

 

This post was written for the 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks challenge from Amy Johnson Crow. Week 32 prompt: Youngest

Music and Miners

In the coal mining districts of County Durham, England, in the 19th and 20th centuries, almost every colliery (coal mine) had a colliery band. Bands were sponsored by the local mining communities and were a source of great pride for the working men who played in the band and the community who attended their performances. These were brass bands with brass and percussion instruments. My father was about 15 years old when he joined the New Herrington Colliery Band in Houghton-le-Spring, County Durham in 1950.

Dadwithtrumpet
My father, James, on the left with a friend and fellow band member.

Formed in the 1900s, the New Herrington Colliery Band became a military style band after the First World War.1 Financial support for the colliery bands came from the coal miners themselves. In 1934, the New Herrington Colliery Band was supported by subscription and a levy of a penny per fortnight from the Herrington Colliery miners.2

Band
New Herrington Colliery Band, 1953. Photo courtesy of The Internet Bandsmen Everything Within (www.ibew.org.uk). Used with permission of site owner. Copyright unknown.

Although most of the pits in County Durham have now closed, there are some colliery bands in County Durham and other parts of England which still play on today. One of the most well-known is the Grimethorpe Colliery Band in South Yorkshire. Formed in 1917, the band is one of the most successful and long-lived brass bands. They were the focus of the 1996 British film, “Brassed Off”, which showcased the bands’ struggle to survive after the closure of their pit.

And if you feel like getting your toes tapping, just click below and hear the Grimethorpe Colliery Band playing the William Tell Overture.

 

This post was written for the 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks challenge from Amy Johnson Crow. Week 29 prompt: Music.

  1. Gavin Holman, Brass Bands of the British Isles, a Historical Directory (N.p.:n.p., March 2018), digital images, Google Books (http://books.Google.com : accessed 5 July 2018). 
  2. “New Herrington Band,” Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette, County Durham, 13 March 1934, page 4, col. 1. 

Let’s Call him James or maybe … James?

name-tag-3

My father is James Thomas

My grandfather is James Thomas

My great grandfather is James Thomas

My great great grandfather is William Thomas

My great great great grandfather is James Thomas

My great great great great grandfather is John Thomas

My great great great great great grandfather is James Thomas

With the exception of William born in 1834 and John born in 1769 there has been a James Thomas in every generation of my direct line since 1731.  And if we look at all the children of my direct line ancestors, there has been a James Thomas in EVERY generation since 1731.

They did live in different places so that should make it easier to distinguish them, right?

My father is James Thomas, b. 1935 in County Durham

My grandfather is James Thomas, b. 1894 in County Durham

My great grandfather is James Thomas, b. 1864 in County Durham

My great great grandfather is William Thomas, b. 1834 in Cornwall

My great great great grandfather is James Thomas, b. 1808 in Cornwall

My great great great great grandfather is John Thomas, b. 1769 in Cornwall

My great great great great great grandfather is James Thomas, b. 1731 in Cornwall

Not so much.

They had different occupations by which to distinguish one James from another…

With the exception of my father and grandfather, all were coal miners.

That didn’t help.

And Thomas is a rare surname in Cornwall, right?

An article from Who Do You Think You Are? magazine cites a study commissioned by the Cornish Mining World Heritage Site (CMWHS) and done by genealogist Stephen Colwill into the spread of Cornish surnames around the UK.1 Stephen Colwill concluded that, “The three most common Cornish surnames are Williams, Richards and Thomas.”

It’s certainly an interesting experience researching my Thomas roots in Cornwall and County Durham. I have to admit I kind of love that there is a James Thomas in every generation. And I am not one to buck tradition. So I named one of my sons…James.

 

This post was written for the 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks challenge from Amy Johnson Crow. Week 25 prompt: Same Name.

 

 


  1. Rosemary Collins, Who Do You Think You Are? (http://www.whodoyouthinkyouaremagazine.com/news/your-surname-cornish : accessed 23 June 2018), “Is Your Surname Cornish?” 

St. Mary’s Changing Churchyard

Towards the end of 1945, Jean Mary Davis (my second cousin twice removed) married John Clement Rix at St. Mary’s, the parish church at Norton Cuckney in Nottinghamshire1. I recently came across this wonderful photograph of them stepping out of the front doors of the church just after they had been married2.

JeanDavis

The war had ended in September of 1945 and perhaps feeling hope for the first time in many years, couples flocked to their local parish churches or registration offices to get married. The Office for National Statistics notes the uptick in marriages in England in 1945. Although the number of marriages dropped during World War 2, by 1945, with the end of the war in sight, the number of marriages began to rise.3

I wondered if the church John and Jean married in was still standing. I was pleased to see that it was. However, what struck me was the change visible in the later photograph I found. A September 2011 photograph (photo credit to Andrew Jackson, user contributed content on Google Maps) shows that the headstones visible in background of the 1945 wedding photograph no longer appear. The actual building itself has not changed but the churchyard definitely has. The blue box outlines the area which appears in the background of the photo of John and Jean.

Rixcombo

The only reference I could find as to why the headstones no longer show on the 2011 photograph was from the Southwell and Nottingham Church History Project which stated that, “In 1948 a Faculty was granted to lay down the gravestones in the churchyard.”4 It is possible that the stones were laid flat and that in the intervening 70 years, they have sunk into the ground and grass has grown over them. This is just speculation at this point. If you have any insight into what may have happened, I’d love to hear it!

John Clement Rix and Jean Mary Davis had a very interesting life together. They traveled the world from Hong Kong to South Africa and Northern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). I’m still digging into their story so stop back soon for an update.

This post was written for the 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks challenge from Amy Johnson Crow. Week 23 prompt: Going to the Chapel.

 


  1. “England & Wales, Marriage Index: 1916-2005,” database, Ancestry (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 4 March 2015), entry for John C. Rix to Davis; citing Worksop district, December [quarter] 1945, vol. 7b: 134. 
  2. John C. Rix and Jean M. Davis wedding photograph, 1945; digital copy in Sue McNelly collection, Phoenix, Arizona. 
  3. The Office for National Statistics (https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/articles/victoryineuropedayhowworldwariichangedtheuk/2015-05-08 : accessed 17 June 2018), “Victory in Europe Day: How World War II changed the UK”, 8 May 2015. 
  4. Southwell & Nottingham Church History Project (http://southwellchurches.nottingham.ac.uk/nottingham-st-mary/hchyard.php : accessed 18 June 2018), “Nottingham St Mary” 

Four Generations in Close Up

4Generation

Four generations of women in my family in South Africa. There is something about taking these close up photographs and placing them next to each other that reinforces for me the familial bonds that tie generations together. Not to mention, seeing how much they resemble each other!

Christina Elizabeth McIntosh was of Scottish descent, born in Knysna, South Africa in 1857. Her parents, William McIntosh and Elizabeth Shoolbread (Shoolbraid/Shulbred) had left Inverkeithing, Fife, Scotland in 1849. Christina married a German immigrant, George Eberhard, in 1880 in Port Elizabeth, South Africa and they had eight children together. One of which was my great-grandmother, Christina Elizabeth Eberhard, born in 1883 in Kimberley, South Africa.

Christina Elizabeth Eberhard died at the very young age of 35. The 1918 flu pandemic had hit South Africa and Christina succumbed to it on 15 October 1918. She had married John Keown, an immigrant from the Isle of Man, in November of 1913 and they had two children. Their oldest child, Edward, was four years old when his mother died, and my grandmother, Hazel Jane, was only four months old.

Hazel Jane Keown married Harold James Davis on 19 June 1937 in Johannesburg. They had only one child, my Mom. I wrote about my grandparents here. My grandmother, Hazel, made some sad decisions in her life, with the result being that my Mom grew up without her and never saw her again until Hazel was in her early 80s.

Four generations upon whose shoulders I stand.

This post was written for the 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks challenge from Amy Johnson Crow. Week 18 prompt: Close Up