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Washington D.C. Genealogy Trails
Washington Navy Yard
An Introduction for Researchers
Prepared by John Sharp
(Data Table Below intro)


The Washington Navy Yard is the former shipyard and ordnance plant of the United States Navy in Southeast Washington, D.C. Established in 1799 it is the oldest shore establishment of the U.S. Navy. During the War of 1812, the Washington Navy Yard was important not only as a support facility, but was a vital strategic link in the defense of the capital city. As the British marched into Washington, holding the Yard became impossible. Tingey, seeing the smoke from the burning Capitol, ordered the Yard burned to prevent its capture by the enemy. Following the War of 1812, the Washington Navy Yard never regained its prominence as a shipbuilding facility. The waters of the Anacostia River were too shallow to accommodate larger vessels, and the Yard was deemed too inaccessible to the open sea. As a consequence the character of the Yard changed toward the manufacture of ordnance and technology.

During the American Civil War, the Yard once again became an integral part of the defense of Washington Following the war, the Yard continued to be the scene of technological advances. In 1886, the Yard was designated the manufacturing center for all ordnance in the Navy. By World War II, the Yard was the largest naval ordnance plant in the world. At its peak, the Yard consisted of 188 buildings on 126 acres (0.5 km²) of land and employed nearly 25,000 people. In December 1945, the Yard was renamed the U.S. Naval Gun Factory. Ordnance work continued for some years after World War II until finally phased out in 1961. Three years later, on July 1, 1964, the activity was renamed the Washington Navy Yard. The deserted factory buildings were converted to office use.

The Yard still employees large numbers of civilian and military employees and currently serves as a ceremonial and administrative center for the U.S. Navy, home to the Chief of Naval Operations, and is headquarters for the Naval Historical Center, the Department of Naval History, the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, the U.S. Navy Judge Advocate General's Corps, Naval Reactors, Marine Corps Institute, and numerous other naval commands.

WNY Water Front 1866

WNY Water Front Circa 1866


Ships in the stream at right include three monitors and a former Confederate torpedo boat of the "large David" type. Monitor to the left in that group is either Chimo or Casco. The other two are Mahopac (center of group) and Saugus (to right). The ex-CSS Stonewall is anchored in the river, in the center of the view.


Documents Available to Historians and Genealogists:

The Washington Navy Yard became the largest employer in the District of Columbia. To ensure order and to track employees for pay and employment purposes the Yard created its own system of records. Many of these documents are now located in the National Archives and Records Administration and Archives of the District of Columbia. At this location you will find a large selection of transcribed naval documents pertaining to civilian and military employees of the Navy Yard, Typically on these documents researchers will find the names, occupation and wages or salary for civilians. Documents listing military employee usually list only rank and name. Many early WNY muster and employee listings are crucial to undemanding African American history as they notate the names of both free and enslaved blacks and list the names of slave owners.

Payroll and Muster Documents:

{These are WNY earliest surviving listings of civilian employees. }


4 March 1805  mechanics and laborers to President Thomas Jefferson
This letter celebrates the occasion of Jefferson’s second inauguration.
This transcribed letter contains the names and signatures of 118 mechanics and laborers

May 23 1806 the earliest list of WNY civilian employees


May 5, 1808 lists WNY civilian employees

This same document, has two valuable appendixes listing African Americans both free and enslaved dated 16 April and 12 May 1808 respectively

May 19, 1808 Muster Roll of the Ordinary, Officers, Seamen, Servants, & Boys (including 15 African Americans)


Payroll of WNY civilian employees dated July 1811


May 1819 List of WNY Salaried Employees


Payroll of Mechanics and Laborers circa 1819 -1820


1824 Commodore Thomas Tingey, Commandant, WNY, to the Board of Navy Commissioners re: List of Employees for Reduction in Force


List of WNY employees dated April 1829



Apprentice Indentures and Related Documents:

The Yard was for many years the District’s largest employer and as such employed a considerable number of young men and boys who were indentured employees in training to WNY Master Mechanics. Today apprentice indentures and related legal documents are genealogical gold mines. These important employment credentials provide family historians and genealogists considerable detail about the lives of ordinary people. For an explanation of those records: 

Index to transcribed apprentice contracts and indentures

Official Letters:

Letters were utilized even within Washington D.C., to transmit important information they often contain valuable data on the lives of military and civilians employed at the Yard. A selection of them is transcribed at this site as:

Letters from the Secretary of the Navy to Commodore Thomas Tingey and Others 1808 -1814.

In addition employees often petitioned the Secretary of the Navy or the President. These documents contain praise, grievances and concerns regarding their pay and working conditions. Historians and genealogists will find attached the signatures and X of Yard employees. Some examples: An 1804 letter of congratulations to President-Elect Thomas Jefferson. and the Blacksmith Petition to the Secretary of the Navy circa October 1808

The May 1845 petition

signed by forty five employees complains of political influence and patronage in determining the names of employees for a reduction in force.

Diary of Michael Shiner:

This valuable diary of Michael Shiner (1805-1880) provides a unique African American perspective. Shiner worked at the WNY for over fifty years; first as a slave, and later as freeman. His outlook and recollections provide an exceptional reflection of public events at the Yard. The Shiner diary lists the names of hundreds of Yard employees both military and civilian and dozens of other residents of the District of Columbia. For more on Michael Shiner, see his complete diary, at the Naval Historical Center


General Orders for the Regulation of the Navy Yard Washington, DC

[circa 1833 -- 1850] These WNY orders provide a glimpse of the rules and regulations that governed the lives military and civilian employees

Bibliography for the History of the Washington Navy Yard:

Brown, Gordon S., The Captain Who Burned His Ships Captain Thomas Tingey, USN, 1750 -1829 Naval Institute Press: Annapolis,  2011. This  is a superb biography of the first Commandant and provides valuable information (with source citations) regarding the culture and politics of the early District of Columbia, the navy yard work environment, as well as its labor and racial relations.  

Coletta, Paolo E. ed. United States Navy and Marine Corps Bases, Domestic. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1985. [See pp. 181-88 for a brief history.]

Hibben, Henry B. Navy-Yard, Washington, History from Organization, 1799 to Present Day. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1890.

Leahy, W.D. "Early History of the Washington Navy Yard." United States Naval Institute Proceedings 54 (Oct. 1928): 869-74.

Marolda, Edward. The Washington Navy Yard: An Illustrated History. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1999.

Morgan, William James and Joye E. Leonhart. A History of the Dudley Knox Center for Naval History. Washington, DC: Dudley Knox Center for Naval History, 1981.

Peck, Taylor. Round Shot to Rockets: A History of the Washington Navy Yard and the Naval Gun Factory. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1949. [The most useful single-volume history of the Washington Navy Yard.]

Reilly, John C. Jr. The Bronze Guns of Leutze Park, Washington Navy Yard. Washington, DC: Naval Historical Center, 1980.

_____. The Iron Guns of Willard Park, Washington Navy Yard. Washington, DC: Naval Historical Center, 1991.

Schneller, Robert A., Jr. A Quest for Glory: A Biography of Rear Admiral John A. Dahlgren. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1996.

Sharp, John G. History of the Washington Navy Yard Civilian Workforce, 1799-1962. Stockton, CA: Vindolanda Press, 2005.

Washington Navy Yard: History of the Naval Gun Factory, 1883-1939 Naval Historical Center 2007

Washington Navy Yard Photographs:

A large selection of photographs is available at the superb Naval Historical Center web site:

Appreciation and thanks to Wikipedia and the Naval Historical Center, for generously providing some of the information used in the above Introduction.

John G. Sharp January 12, 2010

Concord, California


1804 Letter of Appointment Dept. Heads WNY 1857 Parade for President Buchanan
Breech Mechanism Shop Photo 1935 Forge Shop Photo 1935
WNY Payroll of Mechanics and Laborers July 1811 Fuse Shop Photo 1935
1827 Great Fire of Alexandria and the WNY WNY Blacksmiths Petition March 11, 1807
1808 WNY Muster Lists WNY Gun and Carriage Shop
(postcards and stereographs)
Navy Day 1936 1937 1938 Pins & Programs WNY Workers Left For Higher Wages in 1821
(Letter to Thomas Tingey)
Naval Gun Factory Band 1906 Naval Gun Factory Gun Shop Photos 1935 & 1943
Payroll of Mechanics and Laborers 1819-1820 WNY Payroll May 1862
Female Employees of the Ordnance Department, Laboratory
Muster Book of the U.S. Navy in Ordinary at the Navy Yard Washington City, from 18 May 1815 to 1 November 1817 WNY Station Log Selected Extracts 1822-1830
Muster Book of the U.S. Navy in Ordinary at the Navy Yard Washington City, ending 31 December, 1819 WNY Workers Petition 1844
Muster Book of the U.S. Navy in Ordinary at the Navy Yard Washington City, from 1 January 1819 to 31 December, 1820 WNY Fire Department
Muster Book of the U.S. Navy in Ordinary at the Navy Yard Washington City, from 1 January to 31 December, 1826 WNY 1808 Reduction in Force
Muster Book of the U.S. Navy in Ordinary at the Navy Yard Washington City, from 1 January to 31 December, 1828 Secretary of the Navy Letters 1808-1814
WNY Horse Cart Drivers Payroll Nov. 1867 WNY Beneficial Society
WNY 1829 Investigative Inquiry WNY 1909 Navy Guns
WNY 1815 Wage Letters WNY John Rose Letter 1817
WNY Watchmen Payroll October 1867 WNY Ordinary 1809 Seamen
WNY Loyalty Oath for Civilian Employees WNY 1823 Boat Builders
WNY 1809 Committee of Shipwrights WNY McCoy Petition 1809
WNY 1808 Muster List of Ordinary Officers, Seamen, Servants, and Boys WNY 1854 Painters Department Payroll
WNY Red Cross Auxiliary 1917-1919 WNY Pay Wagon
WNY Football Team 1919-20 WNY Battle Bladensberg  Casualties at Naval Hospital 1814
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