TIMELINE 1700's - 1800's


  • First lighthouse built in America at Little Brewster Island, Boston, Massachusetts.


  • 7 August. An Act of Congress, the first to make any provisions for public works, created the Lighthouse Establishment, when it accepted title to, and joined jurisdiction over, the 12 lighthouses then in existence, and provided that "the necessary support, maintenance and repairs of all lighthouses, beacons, buoys and public piers erected, placed, or sunk before the passing of this act, at the entrance of, or within any bay, inlet, harbor, or port of the United States, for rendering the navigation thereof easy and safe, shall be defrayed out of the treasury of the United States." Prior to this time the lighthouses had been paid for, built and administered first by the colonies and then the states.


  • 4 August. Congress authorized Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton's proposal to build ten cutters to protect the new nation's revenue. Alternately known as the system of cutters, Revenue Service, and Revenue-Marine this service would officially be named the Revenue Cutter Service in 1863. The cutters were placed under the control of the Treasury Department. This date marks the officially recognized birthday of the Coast Guard.


  • The cutter, Massachusetts, was commissioned at Newburyport, Massachusetts. She is thought to be the first ship constructed by the Service.


  • First anti-piracy action. Cutter Diligence ran a pirate vessel ashore in the Chesapeake Bay. Revenue cutters were charged with suppressing piracy.


  • 5 June. The Third Congress authorized an additional ten revenue cutters and gave  the Treasury Department responsibility for lighthouses, beacons, buoys, and piers.


  • 27 May. Congress passed "An Act relative to Quarantine" and assigned   "officers…[of the] revenue cutters, to aid in the execution of quarantine, and also in the execution of the health laws of the states." This Act was repealed with the 1799 Act (1 Stat. L., 619) that stated: "That the quarantines and other restraints, which shall be required and established by the health laws of any state…respecting any vessels arriving in, or bound to, any port or district thereof, whether from a foreign port or place, or from another district of the United States, shall be duly observed by the masters and crews of the several revenue cutters…”


  • Hostilities began in the Quasi-War with France. The Revenue Cutters Pickering, Virginia, Scammel, South Carolina, Governor Jay, Eagle, General Greene, and Diligence were the first to be placed under Naval orders, comprising about one-third of the U.S. Fleet. Unaided revenue cutters took eighteen of the twenty-two prizes captured by the United States between 1798 and 1799.


  • 18 October. The cutter Pickering (70 men) captured the French privateer L’Egypte Conquiste (250 men).


  • February. Revenue Marine had a total of 38 commissioned officers in service: nine captains, ten first mates, nine second mates and ten third mates.


  • 18 April. The cutter Louisiana recaptured the merchant brig Felicity from privateers off the mouth of the Mississippi River.


  • President Thomas Jefferson hoped to assert American neutrality through economic pressure with the Embargo and Enforcement Acts. The Revenue Cutter Service was charged with enforcing the unpopular law. The Act was eventually repealed, but contributed to outbreak of war.


  • 1 January. Law making the slave trade from Africa illegal goes into effect. Revenue cutters were charged with enforcing this law


  • 18 June. The United States declares war on Great Britain.
  • 25 June. Cutter Thomas Jefferson, under Captain William Ham, captures British brig Patriot bound from Guadeloupe to Halifax with a cargo of sugar. This is considered the first maritime capture of the War of 1812.
  • 3 August. Boarding parties from the British vessels Maidstone, Spartan, and Plumper captured the cutter Commodore Barry and the U.S. privateer Madison, in Little River, Maine after what the New York Evening Post noted was a "severe contest, in which a number of the English were said to be killed." The crews of both the cutter and the privateer escaped. The British destroyed the Madison but apparently used Commodore Barry as a tender.


  • 28 May. Revenue Cutterman John Bearbere died of pneumonia while a Prisoner of War after the frigate HMS Barbadoes captured his cutter, James Madison, near Savannah, Georgia on 24 November 1812. He was one of five of those captured that died in captivity.
  • 12 June. The British frigate HMS Narcissus launched an attack on the cutter Surveyor while at anchor in the York River, Virginia. Outnumbered, the cuttermen wounded seven and killed three of the enemy before the cutter was captured. The British commanding officer of Narcissus, impressed by "the determined way in which her deck was disputed, inch by inch" in close combat, returned "the sword you had so nobly used" to Revenue Captain William Travis.
  • 4 October. Cutter Vigilant captured the British frigate Dart.


  • 18 October. Eagle battled the HMS Dispatch. Eagle ran ashore and the crew dragged her guns onto a bluff. They fought Dispatch until late in the afternoon, using their logbook for wadding and firing back the enemy’s shot. During the battle the cutter’s flag was shot away and replaced three times. The crew was captured the following day.


  • 18 February. Treaty of Ghent ends hostilities between the United States and Great Britain.


  • Catherine A. Moore becomes the first woman to oversee a lighthouse in service history.


  • 22 June. Boarding parties from the Revenue cutter Dallas seized the privateer Young Spartan, her crew, and the privateer's prize, the Pastora, off Savannah, Georgia. The crew of the Pastora had been set adrift and their fate remained unknown. The New York Evening Post noted that the crew of the privateer had committed offenses "that can only be expiated by making their exits on the gallows."
  • 18 July. The Revenue Cutter Active captured the pirate vessel India Libre in the Chesapeake Bay.


  • 31 August. Pirate Jean Le Farges’ vessel Bravo engaged cutters Louisiana and Alabama off the coast of Florida. The cutters’ crews boarded the enemy and took the ship in a hand-to-hand struggle. Le Farges, a lieutenant of Jean Lafitte, was later hanged from the Louisiana's yardarm.


  • 16 April. Landing parties from the cutters Louisiana and Alabama destroyed a pirate base on Breton Island
  • The first "light boat" was initially stationed off Willoughby Spit, Virginia, as an aid to Chesapeake Bay commerce. This position left the vessel too exposed to storms and heavy seas and it was shifted to a safer anchorage off Craney Island, near Norfolk, Virginia. Within a year, four more lightships marked dangerous shoals in the Chesapeake.
  • 29 June. Dallas captured the 10-gun brig General Ramirez carrying 280 African slaves off St. Augustine, Florida.


  • Augustin Jean Fresnel develops the Fresnel lens utilizing the refractive properties of glass to magnify light beams


  • 23 February. Timber Act. Congress created a ship timber reserve for the U.S. Navy and authorized the President to use whatever forces necessary to prevent the cutting of live-oak on public lands. This task suited the shallow-draft revenue cutters and they were used extensively. This marks the start of the Service’s environmental mission.
  • 25 March. Alabama captured three slave ships. By 1865, revenue cutters had captured numerous slavers and freed almost 500 slaves.


  • Juan Adreu, a light keeper of Minorcan ancestry, joins the Lighthouse Service from the St. Augustine Lighthouse, becoming the first known Hispanic member of the service


  • 25 February. Congress empowered the Revenue Marine to enforce state quarantine laws.


  • 7 December. President Andrew Jackson introduced a plan to add a large number of lighthouses to the federal system, with a total of 51 more lighthouse keepers. He supported the practice of offsetting the costs of keeping aids to navigation on the coasts, lakes and harbors "to render the navigation thereof safe and easy [since] whatever gives facility and security to navigation cheapens imports; and all who consume them are alike interested in whatever produces this effect. The consumer in the most inland State derives the same advantage . . . that he does who lives in a maritime State."


  • December. Treasury Secretary Louis McLane directed the revenue cutter Gallatin to cruise the coast in search of persons in distress. This was the first time a government agency is tasked specifically to search for those who might be in danger.


  • Nullification Crisis. President Andrew Jackson ordered five cutters to Charleston Harbor "to take possession of any vessels arriving from a foreign port, and defend her against any attempts to dispossess the Customs Officers of her custody."


  • Second Seminole War. Eight revenue cutters supported Army and Navy operations. Their duties included attacks on war parties, breaking up rendezvous points, picking up survivors of Seminole raids, carrying dispatches, transporting troops, and blocking rivers to the passage of Seminole forces. Revenue cutters also dispatched landing parties and artillery for the defense of settlements.
  • 2 July. Congress authorized pay increases for the officers in the Revenue Cutter Service. Captain's pay increased to $1200 per annum, First Lieutenant’s to $960, Second Lieutenant’s to $860, and Third Lieutenant's to $790


  • Congress authorized the President "to cause ... public vessels ... to cruise upon the coast, in the severe portion of the season ... to afford such aid to distressed navigators as their circumstance and necessities may require; and such public vessels shall go to sea prepared fully to render such assistance.”
  • 23 February. Congress called for an inspection of the coast from Chesapeake Bay to the Sabine River "with regard to the location of additional light-houses, beacons, and buoys." Captain Napoleon L. Coste, commanding the Revenue cutter Campbell, was dispatched. He reported that the first addition to aids to navigation on this entire coast should be at Egmont Key, Tampa Bay. A lighthouse was authorized immediately and built the next year.


  • 7 July. Congress passed the first legislation "to provide better security of the lives of passengers on board of vessels propelled in whole or in part by steam." The Act specified that the program would be administered by the Justice Department whereby U.S. District court judges were to appoint engineers to inspect merchant steamboats. This Act laid the groundwork for what later became the Steamboat Inspection Service.
  • 7 July. With the authority of Congress, the President divided the Atlantic coast into six, and the Great Lakes coast into two, lighthouse districts. A naval officer was detailed to each lighthouse district, a revenue cutter or a hired vessel was placed at his disposal, and he was instructed to inspect all aids to navigation, report on their condition, and recommend future courses of action.


  • 234 lighthouses, 900 lesser lights, and 30 lightships were in operation.


  • The Navesink Lighthouse in New Jersey is the first American light to use a Fresnel lens.


  • Captain Alexander V. Fraser, Revenue Cutter Service, was appointed Chief of newly created Revenue Marine Bureau of Treasury and became the Service's first "Commandant.”


  • 1 December. Captain Alexander Fraser of Revenue Marine Bureau reported to Congress on the failure of the service's first steam cutters Spencer and Legare.


  • Congress authorizes the first Revenue Cutter Service Engineering Corps in response to needs generated by steam engine technology.


  • Metal buoys were first put into service. The riveted iron barrels replaced the older wooden stave construction.


  • 16 May. Eleven cutters were assigned to cooperate with Army and Navy in the Mexican War. Cutters McLane, Legare, Woodbury, Ewing, Forward, and Van Buren were assigned to the Army. Cutters Wolcott, Bibb, Morris, and Polk were assigned to the Navy.


  • Joseph Francis developed the “Lifecar.”

8 October.

  • To cut expenditures, Secretary of the Treasury Robert J. Walker ordered a reduction of the complements on revenue cutters.


  • William H. Newell successfully lobbied Congress for funds to purchase “surfboats, rockets, carronades [line-throwing guns], and other necessary apparatus for the better preservation of life and property from shipwrecks…” The appropriation was limited to the coast of New Jersey from Sandy Hook to Little Egg Harbor.


  • October. Captain Douglas Ottinger, USRCS, was appointed to supervise the construction of the first Life-Saving Stations and the equipment and boats to be placed there.


  • Cutter C.W. Lawrence arrived in California. She was the first cutter in service on the West Coast and the first to sail “around the Horn” in what was a historic journey for the Service.


  • A crew from Squan Beach, New Jersey used a Lifecar purchased by Newell’s funds to rescue 201 of the 202 people aboard the Ayrshire. This was the first use of the invention in a rescue operation. Systematic marking standards for buoys was first established


  • 17 April. Minot's Ledge Lighthouse, the first built in the United States exposed to the full force of the ocean, was swept away during a storm with the loss of two men. Assistant Keepers Joseph Wilson and Joseph Antoine apparently maintained their station, ringing the lighthouse's bell, until waves swept the tower away.


  • 30 August. Congress passed the Steamboat Act establishing the Steamboat Inspection Service under the control of the Treasury Department. The Act provided for the appointment of nine supervising inspectors, experts in the construction and operation of commercial craft. It authorized local inspectors, acting under the supervising inspectors, to issue licenses to engineers and pilots of passenger vessels.
  • 31 August. Congress created the Lighthouse Board charged with administering the Lighthouse Service. The board was comprised of Army and Navy officers and civilian scientists. At this time, channel marking and light operation acquired scientific precision and engineering and introduced classical lenses and lateral buoy systems.


  • 4 August. Congress appropriated $12,500 for purchase of boats for life-saving purposes at a number of designated ports on the Great Lakes.


  • Construction begins on the Harriet Lane. The cutter is equipped with a steam engine and side paddle wheels and was considered the height of technology.


  • Fresnel lenses in use at all U.S. Lighthouses.
  • 15 November. The new Minots Ledge Lighthouse, built on the site of the one lost in 1851, begins operations. "It ranks, by the engineering difficulties surrounding its erection and by the skill and science shown in the details of its construction, among the chief of the great sea-rock lighthouses of the world."


  • 15 January. Confiscation of Federal assets in seceding states prompt the Treasury Secretary to send a dispatch warning, "If any one attempts to haul down the American flag, shoot him on the spot.“ The dispatch concerned the cutter Robert McClelland, then in the port of New Orleans, Louisiana. Despite orders, the vessel was turned over to the Confederacy.


  • April. The Revenue cutter Harriet Lane fired the first shot from a naval vessel in the Civil War when she fired across the bow of the merchant vessel Nashville when the latter attempted to enter Charleston Harbor without displaying the national flag.


  • 19 February. Congress authorized cutters to enforce the law forbidding importation of Chinese labor.
  • 9 May. USRC Miami landed President Abraham Lincoln on Confederate-held soil the day before the fall of Norfolk. The President had decided "to ascertain by personal observation whether some further vigilance and vigor might not be infused into the operations of the Army and Navy" during General George McClellan's Peninsula campaign.
  • 15 May. The cutter Naugatuck participated in bombardment of Drewry's Bluff (James River) after accompanying USS Monitor in its engagement with CSS Virginia and engaging in an attack on Sewell’s Point.


  • Congress passed an Act allowing the President to appoint commissioned officers of the Revenue Cutter Service with advice and consent of the Senate. This act contained the first statutory use of term "Revenue Cutter Service." Previous laws referred only to "revenue cutters.”
  • 17 March. The cutter Agassiz defended the Union-held Fort Anderson at New Bern, North Carolina, from a Confederate attack.


  • 21 April. Cutters ordered to search all outbound vessels for the assassins of President Lincoln.
  • 27 April. The boilers on the wooden-hulled steamboat Sultana exploded while the vessel was traveling on the Mississippi River near Memphis. Sultana, although designed to hold a maximum of 376 passengers, carried over 2,400, most of whom were Union prisoners of war recently released from captivity. The explosion and consequent fire killed over 1,800 and ranks to this day as the worst commercial maritime disaster in U.S. history


  • 30 March. United States purchases Alaska. Revenue cutters Lincoln and Wayanda begin surveying the region.


  • 2 March. By Act of Congress, the Lighthouse Board was "authorized, when in their judgment, it is deemed necessary, to place a light-vessel, or other suitable warning of danger, on or over any wreck or temporary obstruction to the entrance of any harbor, or in the channel or fairway of any bay or sound."
  • 26 July. Revenue Marine directed to enforce laws prohibiting unauthorized killing of fur seals in Alaska and to regulate traffic in firearms, ammunition and spirituous liquors in Alaska.


  • 15 July. Congress directed revenue cutters on the northern and northwestern lakes to aid vessels in distress.


  • 20 April. In response to public demand, Congress appropriated $200,000 for a life-saving service under the Treasury Department, authorizing the employment of crews of paid surfmen and the construction of new stations where needed. The department assigned Captain John Faunce to review the state of life-saving in the U.S. His report found the system in deplorable disrepair and in a state of near-complete unreadiness.
  • Sumner Increase Kimball appointed to lead Revenue Marine Bureau.


  • The Metis, after being struck by a coastal schooner off the coast of Watch Hill, Rhode Island, sank with a heavy loss of life. But Life-Saving Service and lighthouse personnel, along with the cutter Moccasin, rescued the survivors. The rescue signified the growing interaction among the three services, which played a factor in their later mergers.


  • 3 March. The Army Signal Corps established a storm signal service for benefit of seafaring men at several life-saving stations and constructed telegraph lines as a means of communication between the stations.


  • Cutter Rush joined the Bering Sea Patrol and was responsible for protecting the seal herds on the Pribiloff islands. Due to the success of these patrols, seal poachers had to conduct their illegal hunts before the cutter arrived. They coined the phrase “Get there early to avoid the Rush!”
  • Seven naturalists, including John Muir, sail on board Corwin during her Alaskan patrol in order to study Arctic flora and fauna.


  • Revenue Cutter School of Instruction (predecessor of the Coast Guard Academy) founded.
  • 1 March. Nuova Ottavia, an Italian vessel, grounded near the Jones Hill North Carolina Life-Saving Station. The rescue attempt by the crew of that station resulted in the loss of seven surfmen, the first deaths in the line of duty since the service began using paid crews in 1870. Among the dead was Jeremiah Munden, the first African-American surfman to die in the line of duty.


  • Training of first class of Revenue Cutter cadets began on the school-ship Dobbin, with nine cadets, three officers, one surgeon, six warrant officers and 17 crewmen on board.
  • A crew of Native Americans from the local Makah Reservation manned the Neah Bay, Washington, Life-saving Station with a white station keeper. They are among the first known Native Americans in the service.


  • Posse Comitatus Act. This act limited military involvement in civil law enforcement, leaving the Revenue Cutter Service as the only force consistently charged with federal law enforcement on the high seas and U.S. waters.
  • June. Congress unanimously passed a bill to permanently establish the Life-Saving Service and appoints Sumner Increase Kimball as Superintendent.
  • The Revenue Cutter School of Instruction transfers to Salmon P. Chase.


  • Loss of the USS Jeannette initiates the Bering Sea Patrol; USRC Corwin charged with locating the lost vessel.


  • Lime Rock Lighthouse Keeper Ida Lewis becomes the first woman to be awarded a Gold Lifesaving Medal.


  • Bureau of Navigation formed under the Department of the Treasury.


  • 1,248 major lights, 1,745 minor lights and an estimated 5,000 buoys in service as aids to navigation in American waters.
  • The British built the first oil tanker, Gluckauf. Previously, petroleum had been transported in small containers loaded on conventional merchant ships. With the Gluckauf, the vessel hull itself became the oil container.


  • November. Point Allerton, Massachusetts Life-Saving Station keeper Joshua James and his crew rescue thirteen people from the schooners Gertrude Abbott and H.C. Higginson. They are awarded the Gold Lifesaving Medal the following year.


  • First incandescent light used in American lighthouses was installed at the Sandy Hook, New Jersey.
  • 2 March. Congress authorized the Secretary of Treasury to keep rivers clear to allow marine species access to their spawning grounds.
  • September. From 10-12 September 1889 the lifesaving crews at Lewes, Henlopen and Rehoboth Beach stations assisted 22 vessels and saved 39 persons by surfboat and 155 by breeches buoy without the loss of a single life.


  • 31 August. Cutter Wolcott confiscated undeclared opium on board the steamer George E. Starr off San Francisco, California. It is the first recorded narcotics seizure, though only because the opium had not been declared, not because of anti-narcotic laws.
  • The cutter Bear, captained by Michael Healy, transported the first reindeer from Siberia to Alaska. The domesticated reindeer were part of an experiment to improve the living conditions of the native population.


  • Gluckauf, the world’s first oil tanker, ran aground on Water Island, New York.
  • 23 August. "This was the first instance in the history of the United States Light-House Establishment in which a light-ship has foundered at her moorings," reported the Lighthouse Board, when Lightship No. 37 was lost in rough seas at her station at Five Fathom Bank off the entrance to Delaware Bay. Four of her six crew were lost in the tragedy


  • 11 October. The African-American crew of the Pea Island, North Carolina Life-Saving Station rescued nine people, including the captain, from the wrecked schooner E.S. Newman. The Gold Lifesaving Medal was posthumously awarded to the Pea Island crew on 5 March 1996.


  • November. President William McKinley tasked the Revenue Cutter Service with rescuing 265 men from eight whaling vessels trapped in ice north of Point Barrow, Alaska. The USRC Bear sailed from Port Townsend, Washington to begin the search.
  • 17 December. Unable to proceed through the ice, Bear set a party ashore. First Lieutenant David H. Jarvis, Second Lieutenant Ellsworth P. Bertholf, ship’s surgeon Samuel J. Call along with three local men herd over 400 reindeer 1500 miles overland to Point Barrow.


  • 29 March. Jarvis, Bertholf, Dr. Call, and their team reached Point Barrow, Alaska to find 97 surviving whalers. The press heralded the Overland Expedition and at the request of the President, Congress issued special gold medals in their honor.
  • 11 May. USRC Hudson towed the crippled USS Winslow from certain destruction under the Spanish forts at Cardenas, Cuba during the Spanish-American War. Congress later conferred a Congressional Gold Medal on her commanding officer, First Lieutenant F. H. Newcomb. His officers and crew were awarded Silver and Bronze Medals.
  • Manning, Gresham, McCulloch, Algonquin, and Onondaga are the first cutters to carry electric generators as part of the cutter modernization program.


  • A wireless radio experiment is conducted on board Lightship 70 stationed off San Francisco, California.
  • Life-Saving Service phases out use of life-car in favor of the lighter, faster breeches buoy.
  • 18 August. Surfman Rasmus S. Midgett of the Gull Shoal Life-Saving Station in North Carolina single-handedly rescued 10 people from the grounded barkentine Priscilla. Midgett was awarded the Gold Life-Saving Medal for his heroic actions.