Keepers generally did not write their superiors in Washington but confined their correspondence to the local superintendent of lighthouses (before 1852) and the district inspector (after 1852). This letter from Elizabeth Williams, keeper at Little Traverse Lighthouse, is an exception. She is thanking the U.S. Light-House Board for a recent commendation. (RG 26 Entry 48 File 8645)
I receive a number of queries about researching lighthouse keepers so I’d like to devote a post to some of the resources available in the National Archives. Since it’s still Women’s History Month, I will illustrate this piece with records used in creating Women Who Kept the Lights: An Illustrated History of Female Lighthouse Keepers. (Please note that you can click the images to enlarge them for easier reading.)
Unless noted, all of these records are located at the downtown Washington, D.C. facility.
Registers of Keepers
It is fairly easy to compile lists of keepers for lighthouses between 1848 to 1912 by using the Registers of Keepers available on microfilm. M1373 consists of 6 rolls, arranged geographically. All registers include an index; later registers are indexed by both the station and last name of the keeper, so if you know the keeper’s name it is fairly easy to find where he or she served.
Detail of microfilm showing Miss C.A. Hiern’s approintment as keeper of Pass Christian on 18 October 1844. (M1373)
Note Juliet Nichol’s marginal notation about the San Francisco earthquake in her log for April 1906. (RG 26 Entry 80 (NC-31) )
Finding keepers after 1912 is more challenging. I look first at any surviving logbooks. (Keepers were required to keep logs starting in 1872.) Logs generally indicate when a keeper reported for duty. Some logs are very detailed, others very cursory. After 1939, when the Coast Guard took over the administration of lighthouses, the log changed from a two-page format for every month to a two-page format for every day so finding personnel changes can be very time consuming. Some commanding officers provided a “crew list” at the front of the monthly log listing all personnel. The commanding officer signed each page so they are easy to spot. (Logs are found in RG 26 Entries 80, 330, P-65 and 159)
1928 Job Description
In 1928 keeper salaries were reclassified. To help facilitate this process, each keeper filled out a two-page form providing their job description. They also provided the date they entered the lighthouse service and the date they were appointed to that station. (RG 26 Entry 111 (A-1))
Most of the keeper letters in the field records are generally about routine matters–supplies, leaves of absences, requests for transfer, upkeep of station or machinery, etc . (RG 26 Entry 6 (NC-63))
Letters from keepers are rather rare. If your keeper served in the 5th, 7th, 9th, or 12th districts around the turn of the 19th century, there may be letters written by the keeper to his or her boss, the district inspector. These letters were bound into volumes by the district office. Some have an index at the back of the volume; others are indexed in a separate volume. Found in RG 26 Entries 3, 5, 8, and 9 (NC-63). See my RG 26 finding aid for more information on these entries.
USCG Retirement Cards
There are nine boxes of retirement cards organized by the employee’s name. These include all types of employees — keepers, depot workers, lightship and tender crew, and district office staff. Each card gives a summary of the employee’s service. The cards appear to cover the time period between the two world wars. (RG 26 Entry 7 (A-1))
Sample letter from RG 26 Entry 82
Nominations and Appointments
The National Archives staff put together a database of lighthouse keepers mentioned in correspondence found in RG 26 Entries 82, 85, 16, 17I and 259. It also includes ship crew, inspectors, and lifesaving service personnel. You can access the database with the help of a maritime archivist in the finding aids room or see a modified version as this searchable PDF.
You can also find letters regarding appointments and personnel changes during the U.S. Light-House Board (USLHB) period in the correspondence from district inspectors in RG 26 Entry 24 (NC-31). The original letters were bound into letterbooks, many of which burned in the 1922 fire. There is an index of these letters in RG 26 Entry 38 that provide summaries of each letter received.
Form letter from district inspector informing the USLHB of the transfer of Margaret Norvell from Head of Passes to Port Ponchartrain. (RG 26 Entry 24 (NC-31))
RG 26 Entry 32 (NC-31) “Letters Sent by Treasury Dept. & USLHB, 1851-1907” also include correspondence regarding nominations and appointments. Some volumes contain press copies of appointment letters. Note there is a gap between 1877 and 1905.
There are notices of appointment for the 1849-1873 time period in RG 26 Entry 99 (NC-31).
Keepers before 1848
For keeper appointments before 1848, I rely on RG 26 Entry 18 (NC-31) “Letters Sent Regarding the Light-House Service, 1792 – 1852.” These volumes record every outgoing letter sent by the administrator of lighthouses, starting with the Commissioner of the Revenue. He would correspond with the local collector of customs who served as superintendent of lighthouses for his region. The collector would be notified whenever a new keeper was appointed. The volumes are indexed.
Stephen Pleasonton notified the local Superintendent of Lighthouses that the appointment of Ann Davis as keeper of Point Lookout Lighthouse has been approved. (RG 26 Entry 18 (NC-31))
Conversely, the collector would send letters to the lighthouse establishment in Washington notifying them of the need for a keeper, suggesting keepers to be considered for appointment, or any other issues concerning the keepers under their employ. Occasionally the collector would forward a request or report from an individual keeper as attachments. The collector would also submit accounts for paying the keepers. These original letters are organized by the port at which the collector served in RG 26 Entry 17C (NC-31).
The local superintendent reported a fire at Point aux Barques Lighthouse where Catherine Shook was keeper. (RG 26 Entry 17C (NC-31))
You can also find keepers in the Federal Registers of Employees that were issued every two years for most of the 19th century. Look under the section for the Treasury Department. It also lists the collectors of customs and USLHB members, engineers, and inspectors. Those volumes belonging to the National Archives can be found in the library at the Archives II facility in College Park, Maryland. I understand that some of these volumes are available online.
Letters to the Secretary of the Treasury
Early on, appointments had to be approved by the Secretary of the Treasury. Gradually it appears that he was merely informed of changes in keepers. Entry 31 (NC-31) “Letters Sent to the Secretary of the Treasury, 1852-1908” confirm appointments made during most of the U.S. Light-House Board period, 1852-1908.
Oath of Office for Mary Reynolds, keeper at Pass Christian Lighthouse. (RG 217 Entry 282)
Oaths of Offices
Every keeper was required to sign an oath of office during the U.S. Light-House Board period. RG 217 Entry 282 includes oaths of offices for all types of Treasury Department personnel, including keepers from 1865 – 1894.