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War of 1812 Prize Cases, 1812 - 1816
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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.
Images in each file may include court opinions, private and official correspondence, bills of sale for prize property, and letters of marque from President James Madison. Also included are British letters of marque, orders to sail, port of clearances, ship manifests, bills of lading, receipts, correspondence, indentures, bills of health, British licenses, logs, and other papers.
Letters of Marque
Rather than an original letter of marque, usually an endorsed copy is found in the file. However, in the files of John Cazeaux (Expedition) v. Adeline a blank Letter of Marque form is found for letters issued by the Port of Baltimore. (Image 1)
Manifests and Freight Lists
Image 2 is one of several freight lists of the ship Susannah captured by the USS Constitution on 16 February 1815, after the close of the war.
The USS United States, under the command of Captain Stephen Decatur, captured the British frigate HMS Macedonian on 25 October 1812. It was the first salvageable British frigate to surrender to an American in the War of 1812. When the ship was brought to the port of New York, it was taken into the custody of the court on 03 November 1812 in order that all parties concerned could prepare for a court that would convene on 20 January 1813. (Image 3)
On 20 January 1813, Captain Stephen Decatur and members of the crew of the USS United States, and the prize crew of the captured HMS Macedonian, appeared in court to present their cases. (Image 4)
The court relied on referees appointed to represent the Navy Department (in this case Jacob Lewis) and to represent the captors (in this case John Bullus) in order to affix the value of the prize. Using general naval calculations, the HMS Macedonian was determined to be of equal force to the frigate United States and was valued by the referees at $200,000. (Image 5)
Findings of the Court
The court found that the HMS Macedonian was a good and lawful prize, and ordered that the captain and crew of the USS United States be paid $200,000, the value of the vessel as determined by the court, at the time the ship was turned over by the court to the United States. (Image 6)
The HMS Macedonian was immediately brought into the US Naval service as the USS Macedonian. The USS Macedonian was decommissioned in 1828. A new USS Macedonian, built to almost the same specifications and rebuilt from the keel of the first Macedonian was placed in service in 1836. She was sold at auction in 1871 to Wiggin and Robinson. Eventually, she became the City Island Casino in the Bronx and burned to the ground on 9 June 1922. Today, the Alexander the Great figurehead and four of the 18-pounders from the original HMS Macedonian are on the grounds of the US Naval Academy.
Using the collection
Locate a prize case by year, then by plaintiff v. defendant. The year is that in which the claim was filed, not the year the ship was taken as a prize. The files are alphabetical by first name of plaintiff in the browse menu.
Many of the documents are in the case files chronologically, but in some cases they are filed as numbered exhibits. Some files do not contain anything other than the exhibits. In two cases, the Hero and the Willemina, there is insufficient information in the file to identify the plaintiffs. These files are located in the last section of the browse menu.
Explore this title
Search or browse the Prize and Related Records for the War of 1812 of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, 1812-1816 here.