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U.S. Coast Guard History

The U. S. Coast Guard is simultaneously and at all times a military force and federal law enforcement agency dedicated to safety, security, and stewardship missions. We save lives. We protect the environment. We defend the homeland. We enforce Federal laws on the high seas, the nation's coastal waters and its inland waterways.  We are unique in the Nation and the world.

The Coast Guard's official history began on 4 August 1790 when President George Washington signed the Tariff Act that authorized the construction of ten vessels, referred to as "cutters," to enforce federal tariff and trade laws and to prevent smuggling.  Known variously through the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as the "revenue cutters," the "system of cutters," and finally the Revenue Cutter Service, it expanded in size and responsibilities as the nation grew.  

The service received its present name in 1915 under an act of Congress that merged the Revenue Cutter Service with the U. S. Life-Saving Service, thereby providing the nation with a single maritime service dedicated to saving life at sea and enforcing the nation's maritime laws.  The Coast Guard began maintaining the country's aids to maritime navigation, including lighthouses, when President Franklin Roosevelt ordered the transfer of the Lighthouse Service to the Coast Guard in 1939.  In 1946 Congress permanently transferred the Commerce Department's Bureau of Marine Inspection and Navigation to the Coast Guard, thereby placing merchant marine licensing and merchant vessel safety under its purview.

The Coast Guard is one of the oldest organizations of the federal government and until Congress established the Navy Department in 1798 it served as the nation's only armed force afloat.  The Coast Guard protected the nation throughout its long history and served proudly in every one of the nation's conflicts.  The Coast Guard's national defense responsibilities remain one of its most important functions even today.  In times of peace it operates as part of the Department of Homeland Security, serving as the nation's front-line agency for enforcing the nation's laws at sea, protecting the marine environment and the nation's vast coastline and ports, and saving life.  In times of war, or at the direction of the President, the Coast Guard serves as part of the Navy Department. 

Revenue Cutter Bear on a Bering Sea patrol.

U.S. Revenue Cutter Bear, circa 1890 on Patrol Off Alaska.
Painting by James A. Mitchell, III.


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Last Modified 3/10/2014