The United States Coast Guard on the Great Lakes
The personnel of the Ninth (Great Lakes) Coast Guard District continue to add glory to the Coast Guard motto,
“Semper Paratus, Always Ready.”
A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE U.S. COAST GUARD
(1790 to the Present)
THE HISTORY OF THE United States Coast Guard is the story of a multi-mission military service with
peacetime functions and civilian authority.
The maritime service has carried out its duties in times of peace and war at home and overseas. Coast Guard
missions and responsibilities are domestic and global. The Coast Guard performs search and rescue (SAR),
national security, port security, ship and boat inspection, aids to navigation (ATN), environmental protection,
law enforcement, drug and immigration interdiction, fisheries enforcement, and oceanographic research
The Coast Guard and its predecessors, the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service and U.S. Life-Saving Service, have
saved tens of thousands of human lives at a cost of hundreds of its own personnel in honoring the Coast Guard
motto, Semper Paratus (Always Ready).
The Coast Guard maritime domain has included international, coastal, and inland waters and rivers, including
the Great Lakes (the Inland Seas): Huron, Ontario, Erie, Michigan and Superior.Before we begin our survey of
the Coast Guard on the Great Lakes, a brief history of the service will provide context.
In 1789 the federal government established the U.S. Lighthouse Service. Aids to navigation, such as lighthouses
and channel and harbor marking buoys, facilitated the safe passage of boats and ships in coastal and inland
Navigation aids were used in British colonial America and the United States. Lightships (floating lighthouses)
were introduced in the early nineteenth century.
The first lighthouse was built by British colonists in Boston Harbor (1716). The light beacons were illuminated
by various kinds of wicks, oils, and complex glass lenses and prisms that magnified and concentrated light
beams to be visible on clear nights to ships at sea.
Men and women who contributed to vessel and crew safety with their diligence, courage, and skills manned the
lighthouses. They saved the lives of seafarers and passengers by venturing out in small boats to rescue victims
in storms and shipwrecks, risking and sometimes losing their own lives in the process.
Women have served in the Coast Guard since the earliest lighthouse days. In recent decades women have
commanded boats, cutters, aircraft, stations, districts and regional command areas.
The origin of the Coast Guard dates to 4 August, 1790. With the support of President George Washington and
Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, Congress authorized the creation of the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service.
Ten revenue cutters were constructed to enforce tariff laws. Customs duties on imports were the only source of
revenue for the new federal government.
The U.S. Lighthouse Service (USLHS), which became part of the Coast Guard in 1939, worked closely with the
Coast Guard’s predecessor, the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service (USRCS), sometimes referred to as the Revenue
The USRCS was the first federal navy. The U.S. Navy came into being in 1798, in time to join the USRCS in
the undeclared naval war with France and the War of 1812-1814 against Britain.
The USRCS was ordered to enforce tariff laws in the port of Charleston, South Carolina (1833) when
merchants, in actions that were precursors to the Civil War (1861-1865), refused to collect and pay import
duties which they perceived to threaten states’ rights and commercial prosperity.