American Offshore Whaling : About Crew Lists
Crew lists for whaling voyages recorded at the customs houses in New Bedford, Fall River, and Salem, Massachusetts, and in New London, Connecticut, have been compiled as part of various projects and from various sources over the years. We have gathered these crew lists in a single searchable, sortable database. (Revised 2 March 2020.)
The Act of 28 February 1803 contained the first legal mention and requirements for keeping a Crew List as part of the ship’s papers. Before a vessel could depart on a foreign voyage, the master had to deliver a list of the crew, verified by his oath, to the customs collector at that port. The collector then supplied the master with a certified copy of the list, copied in a uniform hand, along with a Clearance Certificate, at which time the master entered into a four-hundred-dollar bond to exhibit the Crew List to the first boarding officer he encountered upon his return to a U.S. port. There he was required to produce the persons named and described in the Crew List to give account for any crew members who were not present. Notes certifying sickness, discharge or desertion, usually signed by a consular official, were often included with the original list in order to prove that individuals not present were legally accounted for. (From Stein, Douglas L., American Maritime Documents 1776-1860, 1992.)
Through the efforts of 31 volunteers working with Advisory Curator Judith Lund the New Bedford Whaling Museum has been able to augment a project begun many years ago by New Bedford Free Public Library (NBFPL). Using records kept by the chaplains of the New Bedford Port Society and currently stored in the Museum’s Research Library, the volunteers entered the names and physical descriptions of men leaving the port of New Bedford on whaling voyages from 1840 to the end of whaling in 1927. These records were then combined with the earlier work completed at the Free Public Library. The database spans the years 1809 to 1927.
These records will be useful to family members wishing to learn about the whaling careers of their ancestors. They will also be useful to scholars of the arts of the whaling industry. They will provide raw data which can be studied by sociologists and anthropologists researching the whaling industry as well as immigration patterns of the residents of the city.
This list represents only men who left the port on whaling voyages. It does not include those who joined along the way. Occasionally there is added information about desertions or deaths, but these are hit or miss records the chaplain probably read in the newspaper and added to his files. It does not include men who signed on in the Azores or Cape Verde. Their names only appear if they later left New Bedford on another voyage. The list shows what Melville picturesquely noted, that persons from all around the world passed through New Bedford. In all, there were men from 33 states and two territories in the United States represented, as well as men from more than 100 nations or islands worldwide.
The original Customs documents were handwritten. The Port Society records were handwritten transcriptions of the Customs documents. The valiant volunteers who entered the data were reading and interpreting second-generation handwritten records. The original records were written down by Customs officers who were not particularly familiar with the spelling of names, and often the seamen themselves were not certain how to spell their names. The Customs agent wrote down what he heard. Therefore, the records present a need for creative interpretation in their use. Because of these difficulties in recording and writing names, a person’s name may appear with a spelling that is different from the family’s spelling today, or may appear with more than one spelling on successive voyages.
During whaling’s heyday the Port of Fall River sent out 87 whaling voyages. Crew lists for the majority of those voyages can be found at the NARA branch in Waltham, Massachusetts. The names of masters for voyages without crew lists, and a few other miscellaneous notes, have also been added. View source →
Between 1803 and 1879 over 2500 voyages to foreign ports sailed from New London, Connecticut. Prior to sailing the shipmaster or captain of each vessel was required to file a crew list containing information about the vessel’s destination and its crew. The original source provides an index to those crew lists, containing over 37,400 names. This Whaling History database only includes the 943 identified whaling voyages from New London and their 23, 400 crew entries . View source →
Between 1799 and 1879 over 7900 voyages to foreign ports sailed from Salem, Massachusetts. Prior to sailing the shipmaster, or captain of each vessel was required to file a crew list containing information about the vessel’s destination and its crew. The original source website provides an index to those crewlists, containing over 75,770 names. This Whaling History database only includes the 89 identified whaling voyages from Salem and their 2,100 crew entries. View source →
The voyage and crew list names entered in this database have been transcribed from copies of the originals held by the National Archives. The original records are in the possession of NARA, Northeast Region, in Waltham, Massachusetts. Any requests for information about the original documents should be referred to the National Archives, Boston Federal Records Center.