In 1799, the New Jersey House of Assembly passed a new law entitled “An act concerning wrecks,” which would be revised and amended a number of times over subsequent years. The intent of the law was to establish that certain actions taken by people in the event of a shipwreck were unlawful, and set forth fines and punishment. All three of the accusations most commonly leveled (if unfairly) against coastal communities where “wreckers” responded to vessels in distress were declared unlawful: Putting up “false lights” or any other action to induce a ship to wreck or founder; failure to make reasonable efforts to save vessels, their inhabitants and cargo contents; and theft or unauthorized removal of goods or valuables from wrecks.
The law assigned responsibility to local authorities for responding to vessels in distress, and managing wrecks in their region. At first, this was assigned to the county sheriff, but subsequent versions created a new position called “commissioner of wrecks,” and each county bordering the sea or bays was required to appoint a commissioner for districts determined by the court of pleas. The sheriff/commissioner was empowered to employ as many people as needed to respond to wrecks and take all reasonable steps to preserve life and valuables. The sheriff/commissioner was entitled to compensation, as were those pressed into duty to render assistance. At first, this compensation was left to be determined by the commissioner and the ship’s owners or principals (i.e., anyone with a financial stake in the wreck, including, potentially, the captain, a “supercargo” [i.e., a supervisor of cargo aboard ship], insurance companies, cargo owners, passengers, crew members, etc.), with provisions for arbitration if agreement could not be reached.
Subsequent amendments removed this negotiation and set forth specific terms of compensation including daily stipends for the commissioner, for locals who rendered assistance, and for use of boats in salvage efforts. Procedures for coordinating salvage efforts with ship owners and/or principals evolved with subsequent versions of the bill; for example, the length of time that cargo from a wreck was to be held in storage in order for its owners to have a reasonable time to make a claim. If no claim emerged within the allowed time, the law set forth procedures for selling salvaged goods, and directed what the state was entitled to do with surplus funds from salvage efforts.
New Jersey’s Act concerning wrecks followed a law with a similar name passed in New York State in 1787. During the years when New Jersey’s legislation was evolving, similar laws were passed in other coastal states, as well as federal legislation covering wrecks on the Florida coast. As with New Jersey, these laws established unlawful activities involving wrecks, provided for local government-appointed residents to be responsible for responding to distressed vessels, and set forth procedures for handling salvage contents.
In 1848, the United States House of Representatives approved an appropriation of funds dedicated to purchasing equipment for life-saving volunteers. This appropriation, which eventually became known as the “Newell Act,” was named for its sponsor, William Augustus Newell, an American physician from Monmouth County who was a three-term member of Congress, and went on to serve as the 18th governor of New Jersey. However, it was only a one-time appropriation of funds, and not an actual act of legislation.
Newell succeeded in appropriating $10,000 for the construction of sheds along the New Jersey coast for housing of boats, equipment and supplies for responding to shipwrecks. This is often considered to be the start of the U.S. Life-Saving Service (USLSS), an entity which would later become a formative part of the U.S. Coast Guard. But, in fact, it was not until 1878 that the federal government finally assumed full responsibility for handling shipwrecks. In the interim, those stations were under the supervision of the county commissioners of wrecks, regulated under laws like these. Marine salvage regulation was handled on a state-by-state basis until the formal founding of the USLSS in 1878 finally rendered these state laws concerning wrecks largely obsolete.
Legislative History of “An act concerning wrecks” in New Jersey:
Friday, May 31, 1799: “An ACT concerning wrecks” (The Act) was passed by the New Jersey House of Assembly. We believe this is the first piece of New Jersey state legislation specifically dealing with shipwrecks and wreckers.
Summary: The Act established that persons aboard distressed ships were to be saved and all goods secured. Vessels and goods cast on shore (flotsam) were to be saved by the sheriff for the ship’s owners and principals, if they applied for a claim within one year plus a day, with reasonable costs charged. If no claim emerged, the goods were to be sold by the sheriff, with funds going to the state treasury.
The Act established that the duty of the sheriff was “to give all possible and immediate assistance and relief to any vessel stranded or in danger of being stranded, or in distress, and to the people on board; to use his utmost efforts to save such vessel and people, and to secure and preserve…the cargo and goods.” The sheriff was authorized to employ such fit persons as needed to render assistance and preserve goods and lives.
The Act established that the sheriff was entitled to “a reasonable salvage” or reward, for their services, as negotiated with ship owners or principals. In the event of any discrepancy or disagreement, the reward was to be adjudged and ascertained by any two justices of the peace, one chosen by each side.
The Act established as unlawful the act of boarding a vessel without authorization, damaging a vessel or cargo, or hindering salvage efforts in any way, with a fine of $100 for each occurrence. Anyone taking goods from a distressed vessel who did not deliver same to the sheriff could be found guilty of a misdemeanor, and if convicted, subject to a fine of up to $300, or imprisonment for up to six months.
The law also established as unlawful the act of putting up “false lights,” or preventing the escape of a person trying to survive a wreck, or anything that “shall wound such person, with intent to kill him,” or cause damage to the vessel, with a fine of up to $1,000 and imprisonment at hard labor for up to three years if convicted.
Source: Paterson, William. (1800). Laws of the State of New Jersey: revised and published, under the authority of the Legislature. Printed by Matthew Day, Newark, N.J., 1800.
Saturday, March 8, 1806: This new law replaced that of 1799; it is significantly longer and more detailed. It was briefly amended during this session.
Summary: The Act established the new position of “commissioner of wrecks,” and transferred responsibility for handling marine salvage from the sheriff to this new appointed position. The Act required anyone to be appointed as a commissioner of wrecks to enter into a bond with the state, to provide “sureties” of $5,000 which amounted to a financial commitment to perform the responsibilities of the position. The bonds covered financial losses in the event of a failure on the part of the commissioner to perform his duties. The amount and timing of these sureties was increased to $20,000 in 1820.
The Act set forth procedures for appointing commissioners of wrecks, and established that their compensation was to be determined by direct negotiation with the ship’s owners or principals, along with arbitration procedures for determining compensation in the event of disagreement. The Act required the commissioners of wrecks to take no action on their own, but to be in service to the ship’s owners or principals. Commissioners were required to make a “true and perfect inventory” of all contents aboard a shipwreck, and record such in books to create an accounting of each act of marine salvage.
The Act established as unlawful the unauthorized boarding of a ship in distress, or interference in the efforts of a commissioner or assigned men in any way, with a penalty of $100 or up to six months in jail. Anyone who found goods from a wreck, including flotsam or jetsam, above ten dollars in value, was required to turn that over to the commissioner of wrecks, or face a fine of double the value of the goods involved.
This is an important aspect of the new law as it essentially decriminalized the standard practice of “finders keepers” with respect to flotsam and jetsam for minor things. That people could walk away from a wreck taking something of value, without violating the law, helped make enforcement of the Act easier, as virtually every resident along the coast would have picked up and kept something found along the shore at some point. But to observers at sea, it appeared as though locals took whatever they wanted, with impunity. The truth was likely on most occasions to be somewhere in the middle.
If a vessel could not be identified, or the owners or principals involved could not be determined, the Act required the commissioner to place advertisements in New York City and Philadelphia newspapers detailing the date, circumstances of the wreck, with a description of the cargo, for four weeks, so as to give the ship’s owners or principals the opportunity to make a claim.
If no claim arose during those four weeks, the contents of the wreck were to be transferred from the commissioner to the state treasurer, who was required to hold such goods for a year and one day, to provide further opportunities for claims. Perishable goods were to be sold immediately, with funds realized to be included with the durable cargo stored with the treasurer, to be returned to the rightful owners following a valid claim, and payment of reasonable costs.
Anyone stealing or embezzling goods from a wreck, or engaging in fraudulent activity, was to be prosecuted as for theft according to existing laws. Commissioners who failed in the execution of their duties were to be removed and prevented from acting in such capacity, and upon conviction, faced fines of “double damages” to the aggrieved party.
Friday, November 28, 1806: A Supplement to the Act established conflicts of interest preventing certain persons from participating in arbitration in matters of compensation for commissioners of wrecks. For example, family members, anyone who received a reward for salvage efforts, etc., was ineligible to be chosen as an arbitrator.
Acts of the Thirtieth General Assembly, of the State of New-Jersey, at a Session Begun at Trenton, on the Fifth day of February, One Thousand Eight Hundred and Six, and Continued by Adjournments: Being the Second Sitting. Printed by James J. Wilson, printer to the state, Trenton, N.J., 1806, P. 662.
Acts of the Thirty-first General Assembly of the State of New Jersey at a Session Begun at Trenton, on the Twenty-eighth Day of October, One Thousand Eight Hundred and Six: Being the First Sitting. Printed by W. Tuttle & Co., printers to the state, Newark, N.J., 1806, P. 756.
Votes and Proceedings of the General Assembly of the State of New Jersey. Printed by James J. Wilson, printer to the state, 1806.
Saturday, February 28, 1811: A Supplement to the bill entitled “An act concerning wreckers” passed and amended in 1806 was passed. The Supplement revised the terms of the sureties required for commissioners of wrecks.
Source: Bloomfield, Joseph. (1811). Laws of the State of New Jersey Compiled and Published Under the Authority of the Legislature. Printed by James J. Wilson, Trenton, N.J., 1811.
February 17, 1819: A Supplement to the Act was passed by the Council and General Assembly that empowered the courts of common pleas to revise the districts assigned to commissioners of wrecks, so that each county bordering on the sea and/or bays would have a minimum of two districts, but not more than needed.
February 18, 1819: “An act for the appropriation of monies which may be paid into the treasury, from the proceeds of unclaimed wrecks” was passed by the Council and General Assembly. The Act directed that those surplus funds in the state treasury from marine salvage were to be invested in “public six percent stock of the United States,” and that all monies realized through these investments were to be “for the benefit of the fund for the support of free schools…”
Votes and Proceedings of the Forty-Third Assembly, of the State of New-Jersey, at a Session Begun on the Twenty-Seventh Day of October, A.D., One Thousand Eight Hundred and Eighteen, and Continued by Adjournments. Printed by James J. Wilson, Trenton, N.J., 1819.
Acts of the forty-third General Assembly of the State of New Jersey, Being the First Sitting, published in 1819, Printed by Joseph Justice, Trenton, N.J., 1819.
March 3, 1820: A new “Act concerning wrecks” was passed by the General Assembly entailing primarily minor revisions and clarifications while repeating most of the key provisions from the previous version. Under the new Act, commissioners received reasonable compensation from salvage as ascertained by court of pleas rather than by negotiation with ship owners or principals. The fine for false lights continued to be up to $1,000, but punishment was changed to imprisonment in solitary confinement for up to one year. Repealed all previous acts, amendments and supplements concerning wrecks.
Source: Laws of the State of New-Jersey [sic]. (1821). Printed for the state by Joseph Justice, Trenton, N.J., 1821.
March 9, 1836: An Amendment to the 1820 law, “An act concerning wrecks,” was passed by the Assembly. Its primary change was to compensation of commissioners of wrecks and those called to aid in salvage efforts. Compensation was now to be in the form of a daily cash stipend for services rendered. Any person assisting in preserving vessel or cargo was eligible to have arbitrators chosen to “adjust and ascertain” the amount of compensation for such services, with the compensation to be paid in money rather any part of the cargo or vessel. The Amendment clarified that commissioners of wrecks were barred from saving vessels for private benefit or interest, and could receive no other compensation, interest or reward other than the stipend. Commissioners were not permitted to purchase unclaimed goods from wrecks when placed for sale. Goods to be sold were to be “openly exposed to public view, in such parcels as shall be deemed most likely to cause the articles thus sold, to bring the best price.
Source: The National Gazette: Deferred Articles. (1836). The National Gazette, Philadelphia, Penn., April 14, 1835, P. 1.
March 14, 1856: A Supplement to “An act concerning wrecks” as amended 1820 and 1836, was passed by the Assembly.
“Mr. Brown, of Ocean, has introduced Joint Resolutions requesting our Senators to use all the means in their power to procure from the Federal Government an annual appropriation of $23,000 for the security of life and property from shipwreck on our coast. It is contemplated to employ a Coastal Superintendent, at a salary of $2,000 per annum, who is to devote his whole time to the service – visiting and inspecting the different stations, and seeing that the apparatus and every thing pertaining to the service is in an efficient state. Keepers of the apparatus and boatmen are to be paid for their services – the boats, guns, mortars, &c., are to be maintained in the highest state of efficiency, and part of the money is to be appropriated to the care of the shipwrecked persons, for the burial of the dead, and for special rewards for those showing particular valor in rescue situations.
This appropriation notwithstanding – it never materialized – the Supplement required that commissioners were to be paid $5 per day while engaged in salvage efforts, and boatmen $3 per day, plus $4 per day for use of a boat, to be paid by owners or principals of the vessel or cargo.
The Act also required commissioners of wrecks to make a report in writing annually to the secretary of state summarizing salvage efforts and containing a full statement of the number of lives lost, and of the names of the master and vessel wrecked, and in what manner the cargo was disposed of.
Acts of the Eightieth Legislature of the State of New Jersey and Twelfth Under the New Constitution. Printed by A. R. Speer, New Brunswick, N.J., 1856, pp. 36-40.
Correspondence of the Democrat. (1856). Monmouth Democrat, Freehold, N.J., March 13, 1856, P. 2.
Other Legislation Concerning Wrecks
March 3, 1825: Federal legislation entitled “An act concerning wrecks on the Florida Coast was passed and signed into law by President James Monroe. We believe this is the first federal law focusing on shipwrecks and wreckers.
Summary: This three-paragraph law established that any ship or vessel carrying or transporting any property whatsoever, taken from any wreck, from the sea, or from any of the keys or shoals within the jurisdiction of the United States on the Coast of Florida, to any foreign port of place, “every such ship or vessel together with tackle apparel and furniture shall be wholly forfeited and may be seized and condemned in any court of the US.”
All property taken from any wreck within US jurisdiction shall be brought to “some port of entry” within the U.S. This action was taken in recognition of the significant amount of money that was being realized by the British colony of The Bahamas during colonial times through the efforts of their vaunted fleet of wreckers, who operated throughout the Caribbean, but especially along the Florida Keys. Prior to this Act, American ships that wrecked in American waters were being taken to a British port where the cargo was then disposed of with that government receiving a portion of the salvage. This Act effectively ended this practice and ensured that the U.S. would realize any financial benefits from marine salvage in American waters.
Eighteenth Congress, Second Session, February 25, 1825. The Charleston Mercury, Charleston, S.C., March 7, 1825, P. 2.
National Government Journal, and Register of Official Papers, Washington, D.C., Volume II, No. 13, March 28, 1825.
February 19, 1678: Sir George Carteret, one of the “lords proprietor” of the colony of Carolina, appointed Robert Houlden “to looke after Receive and Recover all Wrecks Ambergrice or any other Ejections of the Sea.” Prohibited anyone from interfering with salvage efforts.
November 17, 1800: “An act concerning wrecks” was passed by the General Assembly. It was briefly amended in 1828 to establish a new district.
The Act required the governor to appoint three persons from each coastal county to take actions in the event of a distressed or wrecked vessel. These commissioners were to summon a sheriff or constable and summon as many people as necessary to effect rescue and salvage efforts, with compensation to be provided by ships’ owners or principals. The Act set forth arbitration procedures for compensation disputes and established penalties for failure to turn over flotsam/jetsam, and for dereliction of duty by commissioners. Commissioners were entitled to received five percent of the value of goods saved from vessels.
It is interesting that this law did not establish as unlawful the act of putting up false lights, as North Carolina is considered by legend to be a prime area where this occurred, although there is no evidence this ever happened. The town of Nags Head on the Outer Banks is thought to have come by that name because local wreckers hung lanterns from the necks of horses on the beach, to create the appearance of ships at anchor in a harbor, luring unsuspecting vessel to founder on the shoals. Either way, 18 months after New Jersey established fines and penalties for putting up false lights, the North Carolina legislature chose to look the other way.
Commission to appoint Robert Holden as Commissioner of Wrecks for Carolina. Lords Proprietors, February 19, 1679, Volume 01, P. 240.
Colonial and State Records of North Carolina. Available: https://docsouth.unc.edu/csr/index.php/document/csr01-0100
The Laws of the State of North-Carolina for 1800. North Carolina General Assembly, November 17, 1800, Raleigh, N.C.
State Legislature: Captions of the Laws. (1826). North Carolina Spectator and Western Advertiser, Rutherfordton, N.C., January 22, 1831, P. 1.
New York State
February 14, 1787: The Assembly passed “An Act to prevent Encroachment of the Court of Admiralty.” The Act restricted the Admiralty Court to “things done upon the sea” and not to engage in anything affecting matters on shore or inland. The Act directed that any legal matters arising from a “wreck of the sea” were to be a matter for “the laws of the land,” but clarified that Admiralty Courts retained jurisdiction over deaths aboard ships.
February 16, 1787: The Assembly passed “An Act concerning Wrecks of the Sea, and giving Remedy to Merchants and Others, who be robbed, or whose Goods shall be lost on the Sea.”
The Act required “the sheriff or coroner, or other person appointed” for the purpose of handling wrecks, to protect cargo and goods from wrecks on behalf of ship owners and principals. The Act entitled the appointees summon persons as necessary to assist in salvage, and provided for compensation and dispute arbitration. The Act established “double damages” penalties for failure to hand over flotsam/jetsam to appointees, and set forth penalties for dereliction of duty relative to the Act.
Source: Laws of the State of New-York, Comprising the Constitution, and the Acts of the Legislature, Since the Revolution, from the First to the Fifteenth Session, Inclusive, Volume 1. Tenth Session. Printed by Thomas Greenleaf, New York, N.Y., 1792, P. 345-346, & P. 345-346.
May 6, 1782: The Virginia Assembly passed “An act concerning wrecks.” The Act required the governor to appoint two persons for each county bordering the sea or bay shores to summon the constable and as many men as necessary to preserve vessels and cargo. The Act established compensation for commissioners of wrecks and dispute arbitration procedures. The Act set forth penalties for unauthorized boarding of vessels or interfering with salvage efforts of ten pounds or ten lashes. The Act permitted ship officers “to repel by force” any unauthorized attempts to board vessels. “If any person shall make, or be assisting in making a hole in any vessel in distress, or stealing any pump, materials or goods, or shall be aiding in stealing such pump, materials or goods from any vessel, or shall wilfully do any thing tending to the immediate loss of such vessel, such person shall be guilty of felony, and suffer death without benefit of clergy.” This is by far the harshest penalty enacted with respect to wrecks, but mirrors similar legislation from England.
Source: The Statutes at Large; Being a Collection of All the Laws of Virginia from the First Session of the Legislature, in the Year 1619. Published Pursuant to an Act of the General Assembly of Virginia, Passed on the Fifth Day of February, One Thousand Eight Hundred and Eight. Volume XI. By William Waller Hening, Printed by George Cochran, Richmond, Va., 1823, P. 51-54.
1782: The Assembly passed “An Act concerning wrecks of Sea” which provided for local authorities to “impress” people as needed to render assistance to wrecks. Salvage was to be seized by the sheriff and held for one year and one day for claims. If no claims were made, the goods were to be sold, with proceeds going to the treasury.
Source: The Public Records of the State of Connecticut for the year 1782. By Leonard Woods Labaree, Published by the State, Hartford, Ct., 1942.