J. Welles Henderson Research Center

Due to health and safety precautions regarding COVID-19, the J. Welles Henderson Archives & Library is temporarily closed. We are not accepting research requests or appointments until further notice.

Welcome to the J. Welles Henderson Research Center at the Independence Seaport Museum! 

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Our collection is one of the largest holdings of regional maritime research material in the nation and provide an opportunity for a deeper understanding, appreciation, and experience of the Philadelphia region's waterways.

The Museum and its collections have been built through the dedication of our community and their generous donations since 1960. Our goal is to make this resource available to the public as broadly as possible through our in-house and online exhibits, educational and community programming, in addition to scheduled visits to the J. Welles Henderson Research Center.


Geographically, this includes the Delaware River watershed, including the major commercial ports of Philadelphia, Camden, and Wilmington. Other areas include the New Jersey and Delaware coastal regions that have, and continue to do so, leave their imprint on the maritime culture of the area. 

Archival and Artifact Collections

Our extensive collections contain a complementary combination of material culture (tangible objects) and archival material from the eighteenth century to the present. 
Records range from business transactions and correspondence, personal and institutional photographs to ship plans, and measured drawings with associated objects such as ship relics and fittings, models and folk art, clothing from the diverse local maritime communities, tools, mementos, and small craft native to the Delaware River and New Jersey shore.

Some of the unique and historically significant collections that the Independence Seaport Museum include:

  • John Green Collection – Captain of the ship Empress of China, the first American ship to start trade with China in 1784.
  • Japan Collection – Featuring documentation of the first diplomatic meetings between Japan and America, 1854-1860
  • John Barry Collection – The first captain of rank selected by President George Washington for the United States Navy in 1794.
  • Philadelphia Maritime Exchange and Joint Executive Committee Collections – documenting the restructuring of the River and management of its commercial potential, 1870-1998 through the present.
  • Figurehead by William Rush – One of only a few surviving from hundreds of figureheads carved by this master for Philadelphia ships working largest port in the new republic. 1820s.
  • Enslavement Collection – Featuring a 1763 ledger and Philadelphia-associated manilla (West African money) documenting the region’s complicity in the transatlantic slave trade.
  • Louise Currie Wilmot Collection – When Rear Admiral Wilmot retired as commander of the Philadelphia Naval Base in 1994, she was the highest-ranking female in the United States Navy.

Historic Ships

Other highlights include extensive records and artifacts relating to our two National Historic Landmark ships Cruiser Olympia and Submarine Becuna. As the stewards of these vessels, Independence Seaport Museum strives to preserve the historic record and material culture of these historic ships and bring into focus the experiences of the crews who served aboard.

Note: For genealogical research, our archives rarely contain personnel records except for the Becuna and Olympia collections. For other research, Please visit the National Archives Genealogy Page. For passenger arrivals at the Port of Philadelphia, please get in touch with the National Archives Mid-Atlantic branch.

Information for Researchers

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