On Aug. 4, 1790, President George Washington signed the Tariff Act establishing the Revenue Cutter Service, the forerunner of what, since 1915, is known as the U.S. Coast Guard (and hereafter so referenced throughout the article). Today, thanks to the Coast Guard Historian’s Office (CGHO) that original document can be viewed online and downloaded. It is just one of more than 500,000 images in the CGHO collections, many of them available online to scholars, amateur historians, retirees, or anyone else interested in stories about the Coast Guard. The CGHO is also responsible for running the Coast Guard Museum, managing the service’s vast artifact collection, and maintaining a constantly updated online source guide to aid researchers in locating primary source documents related to Coast Guard and maritime history. And, since history is made by people, the CGHO is also dedicated to preserving the experiences of Coast Guard personnel through its Oral History Program.
The Coast Guard Historian’s Office does not reside in a singular location. Robert Browning, Ph.D., is chief historian of the Coast Guard and oversees a small but mighty staff across the country in a variety of locations. Support staff are distributed across the nation, from the headquarters building in Washington, D.C., to a warehouse facility of artifacts in Forestville, Md., as well as historians in each of the Coast Guard’s area offices in Alameda, Calif., and Portsmouth, Va. The CGHO is assisted in its efforts by the Foundation for Coast Guard History, which, as its name suggests, was created to provide direct assistance to the CGHO, Coast Guard Auxiliary, and the Coast Guard Reserve.
“The Coast Guard Auxiliary provides our office with volunteers that are talented in many ways,” Browning said.
Auxiliary volunteers work on the archives, collect oral histories, give presentations, write Coast Guard histories, and assemble displays. The CGHO is looking to expand its participation by having Auxiliary members work with the Coast Guard Museum. Reservists have performed many of the same duties as well.
“The Coast Guard Historian’s Office is charged with collecting, preserving and promoting all aspects of the history and material culture of the nation’s oldest continuously-serving federal maritime service.” – U.S. Coast Guard Historian’s Office (CGHO) Mission Statement
“Their greatest value is during responses to surge operations,” Browning noted. “They have been called up after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, 9/11, and Deepwater Horizon, to mention a few. We have also deployed them to the Middle East to collect documents and oral histories of the men and women serving in that theater.”
This article first appeared in Coast Guard Outlook 2013 Edition.