Admiralty Records, Key West
Records: 18,555 · Complete: 100%
The Southern District of Florida was created as part of the Territorial court system in Florida in 1828. When Florida became a state in 1845, the entire state was considered one Federal judicial district. Court continued to be held in Key West, even after the creation of the southern district in 1847.
An admiralty court is concerned with prize, ransom, salvage cases, ownership, maritime contracts and torts. Maritime contracts relate to charter, passenger transportation, baggage, loading and unloading, salvage, seaman’s wages and the care of injured seamen. Maritime torts relate to collisions, loss or damage of cargo, and claims of personal injury.
The southern district court, unlike other district courts, was open year-round. It was the major prize court during the Civil War. Prize cases for 1861-1865 appear in Volumes 6, 7, 8, and 9. Those from the Spanish-American War appear in Volumes 16 and 17.
More information is provided by NARA in a PDF descriptive pamphlet for this series: M1360.
Images in each Admiralty Final Record Book volume consist of copies of documents files in each case, in chronological order from the beginning libel to the final judgment. The records may include libels, answers, briefs, motions, declarations, transcripts of testimony and affidavits, bonds, orders, reports of special commissioners, juries, trustees, and judgments.
Edward Elwell, late master of the British brig Ben Cushing, filed a petition in the court to obtain a judgment to allow the sale of the cargo salvaged from the wreck of his vessel. The Ben Cushing was sailing from Havana to Portland, Maine, when it struck a Florida reef and foundered.
It was the judgment of the court that the parties responsible for the salvage of the material from the brig were entitled to a portion of the proceeds of the sale of the cargo. The court dismissed the suit of the US concerning smuggled cigars and the US Marshal was ordered to sell them at auction.
The third image shown at right is the accounting of the sale of materials and the eleven cases of cigars from the Ben Cushing, dated December 30, 1862.
Using the collection
The cases are normally arranged chronologically by the date they were completed, which is the date the final record was entered. Each volume is indexed in the Introduction section at the beginning of each volume in the browse menu. The browse menu within each volume is by initial letter of the first name of the plaintiff, and then by the first letter of the name of the ship or defendant.
For some cases in these files, court action would continue through the appeal process until the case appeared before the Supreme Court. These files are found in Record Group 267, Records of the Supreme Court of the United States. An index to the appellate case files is reproduced on National Archives microfilm publication M408, Index to Appellate Case Files of the Supreme Court, 1792-1909.
Records of other admiralty courts are found in Record Group 21, Records of the District Courts of the United States in the National Archives. Some of these records are located in the appropriate NARA Regional Archives.
These records are scanned from the National Archives microfilm publication, M1360, Admiralty Final Record Books, U.S. District Court, Southern District of Florida, Key West, 1829 – 1911. The original records are located in Record Group 21, Records of the District Courts of the United States in the National Archives Southeast Region (Atlanta).
About the contributor
A professional genealogical and historical researcher for more than twenty years, Craig R Scott is a Certified Genealogist who specializes in the records of the National Archives, especially those that relate to the military. He is a member of the Company of Military Historians, on the Board of Directors of the Association of Professional Genealogists, and has served in the past on the boards of the Virginia Genealogical Society and the Maryland Genealogical Society. He is the author of The 'Lost Pensions': Settled Accounts of the Act of 6 April 1838 and Records of the Accounting Officers of the Department of the Treasury, Inventory 14 (Revised).