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Sailors' Snug Harbor Records, 1757-2008

Identifier: SC-0016

Contents of Collection

The collection contains records generated by the administrators of the Staten Island facility, the Board of Trustees, the business office on Greene St. in Manhattan, and the administrators of the Sea Level, NC facility. The records include documents by and about the residents, administrative records and meeting minutes, account books and other financials, real-estate and property records, legal documents, publicity materials, and photographs.


  • 1757 - 2008


Language of Materials

Materials are entirely in English.

Conditions Governing Access

Appointments to examine materials must be made in advance. Please e-mail for more information or to schedule an appointment.

Files containing personal information about residents are restricted for 50 years from the date of death of the individual. If the decease death is unknown, the files are closed for 72 years from the date the record was created.

Conditions Governing Use

Reproductions may be provided to users to support research and scholarship. However, collection use is subject to all copyright laws. The responsibility to secure copyright permission rests with the patron.

Historical Note

When Sailors’ Snug Harbor opened its doors in 1833 it became America’s first home for retired seaman. It also became one of the country’s oldest secular philanthropic institutions. Dedicated to the welfare of “aged, decrepit, and worn out” mariners, Sailors’ Snug Harbor was established in 1801 from the will of Robert Richard Randall. The fortune for such an endeavor had been left to Randall by his father Thomas Randall, a Revolutionary War patriot who greeted George Washington on his entrance into New York City in 1783. Thomas Randall accumulated his vast wealth as a privateer during the French and Indian War and helped create the Marine Society of the City of New York in 1770. Thomas Randall became an influential “merchant captain” and entrepreneur and helped found the city’s Chamber of Commerce. He also bought farmland in lower Manhattan that would eventually become the economic backbone of Sailors’ Snug Harbor.

Robert Richard Randall’s will was rumored to have been written by Alexander Hamilton, a friend of the family; legend has it that Hamilton advised Randall that his family fortune had come from the sea and thus it should return to the sea in the formation of the Sailors’ Snug Harbor. Randall’s will named prominent New York City officeholders as its executors including the Mayor, the President of the Marine Society, and the Rector of Trinity Church. The original plan was to have the Snug Harbor built in Manhattan on the Randall farm but the executors bought 140 acres of land in New Brighton on Staten Island overlooking the Kill Van Kull and used monies from leasing the Manhattan real estate to create one of the wealthiest charitable institutions in the world. The Manhattan property today is what we would call Greenwich Village including Washington Square Park.

Legal battles kept Sailors’ Snug Harbor from opening for over 30 years but when it did the Trustees were quick to create a unique site that integrated beautifully designed buildings and grounds with culture, entertainment, and onsite health care. The Trustees hired renowned architect Minard Lafever to design the main houses on the property and he produced a group of Greek Revival buildings that have been called the most important on the East Coast. The institution eventually evolved into its own mini-township and included a working farm with livestock; a church; a hospital; a power plant; and a graveyard. There is no firm number but estimates conclude that over ten thousand retired mariners spent their final years there and were buried at Sailors’ Snug Harbor.

Residents of the institution were called “inmates” and by the end of the nineteenth-century they came from every facet of the merchant marine world and included veterans of the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, the War of 1812, and the Spanish American War. Requirements for admission to Sailors’ Snug Harbor were firm: ten years or more as a crew member of ocean-going ships and at least five years of them under the flag of the United States. The head administrator was called “Governor” and the position was an important one in New York City. Sailors’ Snug Harbor’s third Governor was Thomas Melville, youngest brother of the author of Moby-Dick, Herman Melville. Thomas Melville has been called one of the most important leaders of Snug Harbor for modernizing the recordkeeping and expanding the population. Herman Melville and the Melville family spent many holidays at Sailors’ Snug Harbor during Thomas Melville’s tenure as Governor from 1867-1884.

Sailors’ Snug Harbor remained one of the most important charitable institutions in the United States until the years after WW II when the residential population began to decline. In 1965 the Snug Harbor site on Staten Island was declared a National Historic Landmark. The home for retired sailors moved to Sea Level, North Carolina in 1976. The work of the Sailors’ Snug Harbor Board of Trustees continues to this day helping retired mariners in need and keeping faith with the original Latin motto of Snug Harbor: Portum Petimus Fesse (“Wearily, we seek a haven.”).

[History by Dr. John Rocco, Professor of Humanities and MNST Coordinator, SUNY Maritime College]


375 Linear Feet (267 standard document boxes; 89 half sized document boxes; 127 flat boxes; 150 volumes; metal card catalogs; miscellaneous objects)


The Sailors' Snug Harbor Records encapsulate the history of one of the first secular philanthropic organizations and home for retired mariners in the United States. The collection spans the institution's history beginning at the turn of the 19th century through the institution's move to a new facility in Sea Level, NC in 1976 and eventual closure in 2005. The records document the operations and management of the institution and shed light on the lives of the residents before and during their stay. Overall, these records tell overlapping stories of maritime history, New York City history, 19th literature and art, and medical and social history.

Arrangement of Materials

The collection has been arranged in seven series:

I. Inmates (Residents)

II. Board of Trustees

III. Staten Island Operations

IV. Manhattan Office Business Records

V. Publicity and History

VI. North Carolina Facility

VII. Photographs

Physical Location

Stephen B. Luce Library, SUNY Maritime College 6 Pennyfield Avenue Bronx, NY 10465 (718) 409-7231

Immediate Source of Acquisition

The Board of Trustees of the Sailors' Snug Harbor (which continues to operate as a charitable organization) deposited the collection at the Stephen B. Luce Library on permanent loan in two transfers, the first on June 24, 1976 and the second on October 9, 2008.

Processing Information

Provenance and original order has been retained to a large degree, with materials from various sources processed separately, including those from the Staten Island facility (accessioned in 1976), the Manhattan business office (accessioned in 1976), and the North Carolina facility (accessioned in 2008). Records from multiple locations have occassionally been integrated for ease of access (see series and subseries description for details.)

In Progress
Annie Tummino
February 2017
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Code for undetermined script
Language of description note
Edition statement
Several editions of this finding aid have been produced. In 1978 Library Director Richard H. Corson and Archivist Carol Finerman published a finding aid for the original set of Sailors' Snug Harbor records deposited at the Luce Library in 1976. In 2009 Project Archivist Greg Murphy prepared a guide for a 2008 accrual; later, in 2012, he merged the 1978 and 2009 finding aids. In 2017 Archivist Annie Tummino migrated the finding aid to ArchivesSpace, revising the arrangement and bringing the description in line with Describing Archives: A Content Standard. Tummino was assisted by Intern Margaret Hammitt-McDonald. The historical note was written by By Dr. John Rocco, Professor of Humanities and MNST Coordinator, SUNY Maritime College.

Repository Details

Part of the Stephen B. Luce Library Repository

6 Pennyfield Avenue
Bronx NY 10465 United States
(718) 409-7231