The U.S. Consul of Singapore A.G. Studer tended to seaman Thomas Dixon’s bedside at Singapore Colonial Hospital as he suffered his last days from consumption. Dixon spoke to the consulate of Captain J.H. Snow’s ill treatment of him while sailing on the ship Tabor of Bath, Maine. Captain Snow’s decision to finally grant Dixon admission into a hospital when arriving at the port of Penang was all too late. In a voice masked by deep coughing, Dixon made his will. He would pass away 3 June 1881. The will, an account of the personal effects belonging to Thomas Dixon, the 10 page affidavit of the consul, and correspondence all survive. They survive because federal courts in the United States handled the wages and effects for merchant seamen dying overseas. For that reason, they are in the custody of the National Archives. A small, but impressive collection of these are with the National Archives in Records of The District Courts of The United States, RG 21, in a series called “Deceased Seamen’s Case Files.”
Under federal law, the U.S. Circuit Court was appointed to handle the claims for deceased or deserted seamen. Within these case files, you will find at least the seamen’s date and cause of death along an account of the seaman’s wages and effects. A case file could include a lot more, such as affidavits and correspondence from various parties, claims of the next-of-kin, financial records, funeral records, and personal papers belonging to the seaman. In the file of Francis Von Burlow, who died while cruising the Kennebec River, survives a letter from his father Carl Von Burlow, living in Hamburg, Germany, stating he wishes the effects to be given away.
Why were U.S. Federal Courts handling these claims? It’s not a coincidence that these series date back to the 1870s, because before then, no law was in place for the protection of seamen’s effects and wages if they died during a voyage. A Congressional Act of 7 Jun 1872 changed all of that, which put in place the procedures various officials should take when a seamen was to die during a voyage. The law required that master, owner, or consul in a foreign port, pay the local U.S. Shipping Commissioner any unpaid wages and the effects of the deceased seaman, which was then delivered to the Circuit Court. The master had the ability to choose whether the effects could be sold by auction, since they were usually just articles of clothing, but any money raised would be delivered with the outstanding wages to the Circuit Court “of the circuit in which he [the seaman] resides.” According to the act, eligible claimants for a deceased seaman’s wages and effects could be “his widow or children, or [anyone] to be entitled to the effects of the deceased under his will (if any), or under the statute for the distribution of the effects of intestates.”
To find a person in these case files, a researcher must know the seamen’s name, residence, and approximate date of death. NARA does have a name index for these and a look-up can be requested by contacting that branch. There also the original docket books for these case files, which include abstracted information and additional notes. The good news for researchers is that the exact files I’ve mentioned, along with others for deceased seamen of Maine and Massachusetts, have been digitized by Family Search and are now available for browsing. Other branches of the National Archives, hold similar series, which can be located in NARA’s online catalog. There are only several hundred in New England federal court records, but if you have a deceased mariner in your family tree, you might be in for it to strike genealogy gold.
In Consul A.G. Studer’s affidavit, researchers are able to examine a primary account of Thomas Dixon’s personal history and procure many genealogical clues. Dixon was 40 years old at the time of his death and was born in Ireland. He emigrated with his parents to Savannah, Georgia when he was four years old. His parents died while he was still a boy and ever since made the sea his home. Dixon mentioned he had no relatives, except perhaps a sister Ann, whose last known whereabouts was St. Louis, Missouri with an unnamed husband and at the time did not know what happened to either of them. Dixon willed his effects to another patient and mariner named John Nelson, citing that it was an award “for kindly looking after me and nursing me during my illness.” The overall impression of the affidavit from consul A.G. Studer is that here survives an example of tender humanity towards a man who suffered in his last dying days without any family to comfort him.
 Affidavit of U.S. Consul A.G. Studer, 28 June 1881; case no. 52; Case Files of Deceased and Deserted Seamen, U.S. Circuit Court, District of Maine, 1873-1911; Record Group 21: Records of the District Courts of the United States; National Archives – Northeast Region, Waltham, Massachusetts.
 Letter from Carl Von Burlow to Edward W. Larrabee, U.S. Shipping Commissioner, 12 Feb 1887; case no. 74; Case Files of Deceased and Deserted Seamen, U.S. Circuit Court, District of Maine, 1873-1911; Record Group 21: Records of the District Courts of the United States; National Archives – Northeast Region, Waltham, Massachusetts.
 Act of June 7, 1872, ch. 322, 17 Stat. 271-273.
 Act of June 7, 1872, ch. 322, 17 Stat. 272.
 Act of June 7, 1872, ch. 322, 17 Stat. 272-273.
 Will of Thomas Dixon, 28 May 1881; case no. 52; Case Files of Deceased and Deserted Seamen, U.S. Circuit Court, District of Maine, 1873-1911; Record Group 21: Records of the District Courts of the United States; National Archives – Northeast Region, Waltham, Massachusetts.
Copyright (c) 2016 Jake Fletcher.
Jake Fletcher. ” Lost at Sea, Found In Records: A Look At Deceased Seamen’s Case Files,” Jake Fletcher, posted 11 Aug 2016. https://travelyourgenealogy.com/2016/08/11/lost-at-sea-found-in-records-a-look-at-naras-deceased-seamen-case-files