Prize law is that part of international admiralty law concerning the capture of enemy property at sea during war. Prize courts determine the legality of the capture and the disposition of the ship and its cargo as lawful prizes, usually distributed as shares to the captors. In 1794, the Supreme Court determined that all the powers of a court of admiralty, "both instance and prize," rested in the district courts. In 1812, there were 13 judicial districts, which had been established by the Judiciary Act of 1789.
The state of New York was one of these judicial districts and New York City was the seat of this district court. The Act of April 9, 1814, divided the state into two districts, a northern and a southern district, with a court in each. The seat of the Southern District was New York City, the country’s leading port and commercial center during this period. This court was primarily an admiralty court.
Most of the prize cases in this series of images concern British vessels taken during the War of 1812 by American privateers and US Navy vessels. A privateer is a privately owned ship in the service of the government operating under a letter of marque.
A NARA descriptive pamphlet for this series is available here as a PDF file. However, Fold3 has reordered the material for ease of use and the roll lists in the descriptive pamphlet no longer apply to these files.