Most people know the United States Coast Guard as a military branch that provides local maritime safety and law enforcement, with service men and women patrolling America’s shorelines and answering distress calls after boating accidents. However, the USCG has incorporated a number of functions throughout its more than 224-year career as the “oldest, continuously serving sea service.”
Today’s Coast Guard is actually an amalgamation of five former independent Federal agencies: the Revenue Cutter Service, the Lighthouse Service, the Steamboat Inspection Service, the Bureau of Navigation and the Lifesaving Service.
The Coast Guard’s official history began on Aug. 4, 1790, when President George Washington signed the Tariff Act that authorized the construction of 10 vessels. The United States Revenue Cutter Service, as it became known, used these vessels, or “cutters,” to enforce federal tariff and trade laws and to prevent smuggling.
First Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton actually proposed the “system of cutters” and urged Congress to establish this service as the new nation was struggling financially following the Revolutionary War.
“A few armed vessels, judiciously stationed at the entrances of our ports, might at a small expense be made useful sentinels of the laws,” he wrote in the essay “The Utility of the Union in Respect to Revenue,” part of The Federalist Papers.
The Library has a very significant collection of Hamilton’s papers. In fact, a few years ago, the institution received a gift of a letter written by Hamilton that concerns the per diem payments for rations issued to seamen on board the cutters.
“This is certainly not the most significant letter Alexander Hamilton ever wrote,” explained Julie Miller, early American specialist in the Library’s Manuscript Division. “It is important, however, because it shows Hamilton at work establishing the operating procedures of the Revenue Cutter Service very soon after it was founded.”
The Manuscript Division also holds the March 21,1791, certificate signed by President George Washington and countersigned by Thomas Jefferson as secretary of state commissioning Hopley Yeaton as the first officer of the Revenue Service.
The service expanded in size and responsibilities as the nation grew. Because the Continental Navy was disbanded in 1785, the Revenue Service was the only maritime force available to the new government. The cutters also served as warships protecting the coast. Since then, the Coast Guard has fought in almost every war since the Constitution became the law of the land in 1789.
Other responsibilities of the cutter service included protecting the country’s strategic natural resources with the Timber Act of 1822, cruising coastlines for those in distress and, after the Titanic sank in 1912, conducting international ice patrols.
The Coast Guard has helped to protect the environment for more than 180 years. With the purchase of Alaska in 1867, the ecological responsibilities of the Revenue Cutter Service were greatly increased. Sealing was a huge problem as fur seals were being hunted into extinction due to the value of their coats.
The Library’s Manuscript Division holds records from the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service, including a journal and letter book detailing voyages of several cutters. In entries dated 1889-1890, mentions are made of the cutter Bear and its Alaskan patrols looking for sealers and its efforts in tamping down the illegal seal trade.
The Library’s collection of papers of Naval officer Elliot Snow includes notebooks from Horatio D. Smith, who was an officer in the Revenue Cutter Service. Smith also documented voyages of various cutters, including the cutter Golden Gate doing “good service” during the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and transporting President Taft across the bay in 1909, and the cutter McCullough being the first to pass through the Suez Canal.
In 1848, Congress passed an appropriation for $10,000 to allow for “the better preservation of life and property from shipwrecks.” This system eventually grew into a federal agency called the United States Life-Saving Service. Operating from small stations throughout the nation, the service saved tens of thousands of people in distress between 1878 and 1915.
In 1915, an act of Congress merged the Revenue Cutter Service with the U. S. Life-Saving Service, and thus the U.S. Coast Guard was born. The nation now had a single maritime service dedicated to saving life at sea and enforcing the nation’s maritime laws.
Additional agencies were later merged into the Coast Guard.
While the cutter service was established in 1790, Congress had created the Lighthouse Establishment the year before – only the ninth law passed by the new government – and took federal jurisdiction over lighthouses then in existence. It continued to exist as a separate agency within the Treasury Department until 1939 when President Franklin Roosevelt ordered its transfer to the Coast Guard. With this executive order, the Coast Guard began to maintain the nation’s lighthouses and all maritime aids to navigation.
The Steamboat Inspection Service and the Bureau of Navigation existed separately before being combined in 1932 and reorganized and renamed in 1936 as the Bureau of Marine Inspection and Navigation. Essentially both provided for safety inspections and the safeguarding of life and property while at sea.
During World War II President Roosevelt transferred the bureau to the Coast Guard and in 1946 the shift was made permanent, thereby placing merchant marine licensing and merchant vessel safety under the service’s purview.
In 1967 President Lyndon B. Johnson ordered the Coast Guard transferred from the Department of Treasury, where it had been since the Revenue Cutter Service was founded, to the newly created Department of Transportation. Following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the Coast Guard was again transferred by executive authority when President George W. Bush moved the military branch to the newly established Department of Homeland Security.
Other Coast Guard-related resources at the Library include the USCG Historian’s Office Collection,; the papers of Charles Frederick Shoemaker, who was chief of the Revenue Cutter Service in the early 1900s; and the diary of William Cooke Pease, service officer, written while in command of the cutter Jefferson Davis on voyage from Charleston, S.C., to San Francisco, Calif.
In addition, searching the Prints and Photographs Online Catalog for “coast guard” will deliver a variety of photographs. As part of the Veterans History Project’s “Experiencing War” series, read and listen to first-person accounts of men and women who served in the USCG.