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Tracing American

Merchant Vessels, Pre-20th Century

Anyone who attempts to trace the doc umentation of American merchant vessels of the J 700s and early 1800s will find the process frustrating,

if not impossible. During this period, the record keeping for licensing and enrollments was a spotty and haphazard affair.

Starting in 1868, the issuance date of the 1867 List of US Merchant Vessels (now entitled Merchant Vessels of the United States),

the federal government began a centrali zed system for inventorying merchant shipping.

This article describes the systems that were in place prior to 1867 and that were refined following that date.

By an Act of Congress of February 1793, vessels in foreign and coastwise trade were required to carry documents issued by the District Collector of Customs (Act of February 18, 1793, c. 8; l Stat. at L305).

Customs Districts were fo1med to encompass all the coast lines of the then United States, including ports bounding the Great Lakes and other navigable inland waters of the US.

These districts were subsequently organized by the Act of 1819 into five Great Districts (Act of March 2, 1819, c. 48, Section l , 3 Stat. 492).

This act required registry of vessels in foreign trade and enrollment by licensing of al 1 vessels of 20 tons and upward whose owners wished to become engaged in the coastwise trade.

“Coastwise,” in its original sense, was probably thought to encompass those trade routes between ports in different states, both in the coastal zones and upon major rivers,

but soon it became generally recognized as encompassing all navigable waters of the US.

This last meaning was made clear by the succeeding act of May 7, 1822, which defined the meaning of coastwise trade,

stating it “expressly included all the navigable rivers of the United States.”

To make the te1m even more definitive, we point to a court opinion of 1889:

“Coasting trade” means commercial intercourse carried on between diff erent districts [Customs Districts] in different states, between different districts in the same states,

and between d!fferent places in the same district, on the seacoast or on the navigable rivers.

( Raveriesv . US, cc Ala 1889, 37 F 447) The definition of “navigable waters” as used in that opinion has been since defined quite liberally.

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