History Bytes: Forgotten Stories

June 21, 2022

This is a guest blog post by Laura Bacon, BA, Salve Regina University. Laura is a 2022 John E. McGinty Fellow. 

An archive is a goldmine of historical artifacts, documents, and information that will tell the story of the city and state it is located in. The Newport Historical Society (NHS), where I am completing a summer fellowship, is an example of one of these goldmines. The collections at the NHS are filled with valuable pieces of the puzzle that is Newport’s history. However, some of the most useful items in the collection are the ones that are most often overlooked.

I have begun my work on one of my summer projects by sifting through and recording the names of the people in the Custom House records, an example of seldom examined documents within the NHS collections. The records were endorsed certificates of the birth of mariners in Rhode Island. They were meant to protect sailors mainly from being impressed, or forced into military service, by the British Navy in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The certificate served as proof of someone’s Rhode Island and United States citizenship, so the British could not say they were a citizen of the crown and force them into service. Now, this collection serves as one of the best ways to document the mariners of Newport during this period, providing information on their place and date of birth, and their identifying features.

The records are slips of paper that are normally double sided. The front would have someone testifying to the validity of the birth of the subject, with the signature of a legal or government official endorsing the document. The back usually includes a description of the subject of the document. This collection includes a broad range of personal descriptors; some are described as having a “light complexion” with “grey eyes,” while others state that the person had a “black complexion” and “black eyes,” as well as “wooly hair.” As researchers, we can use this information to deduce the race of the mariner, and to look elsewhere in the archives for more information about that person . You can learn more about why this research is important here: https://nemanet.org/nemn/fall-2021/know-your-history/.

I am only about a week into searching through these documents and pulling out the names and descriptions of the people attached to the records. However, I quickly realized something while working on this project: these documents may be among the few remaining records of these people. These certificates of birth may be the best starting point in determining the existence of these mariners. The records pre-date photography, so the descriptions of these mariners are likely the closest we will come to knowing what they looked like. This is what makes the Custom House Records invaluable in learning about the everyday citizens of Rhode Island.

One example is the Albro family. Throughout the first week of data mining, I discovered numerous men with the same last name: Albro. Upon further research, I was able to determine that these men were all related to and descended from John Albro, who arrived in Boston in 1634 on the Francis. John Albro (1620-1712) later relocated to Portsmouth, where he was elected Major in 1682. His legacy was continued through his five children: Samuel, Elizabeth, Mary, John, and Susanna, with the name Albro being passed down through his two sons.

Certificate of birth for Thomas L. Albro (July 27, 1806) with his description on the back, from the Custom House Records. Box B1, Folder 1, Collection of the Newport Historical Society.

Through genealogical research in the Newport Historical Society’s library, I identified that the Albros in the Custom House records could be traced back to John Albro’s sons Samuel and John. Through this further research, I was able to determine from whom all these men descended from. But I still do not know who these men were. Their beliefs, what they liked, what they hated, what role, if any, they played in wars on American soil. Also, as mariners, what roles could they have played in the slave trade in Newport? For stories about the lives of these men, and the people they were connected to, I will have to keep searching.

The Custom House Documents: a name, a date of birth, and a description, are only a fragment of the story of someone’s life, but they provide a solid foundation for creating connections amongst people and discovering families, like the Albros. When records like these are forgotten, people and history are forgotten as well. In the goldmine that is the NHS collections, the Custom House Documents glitter just as much as every other artifact there.