By: Carolyn L. Barkley
It may have been the seasonal singing of I Saw Three Ships Come Sailing In (whose second line should be “but I can’t prove my ancestor was on it”) or it may have been that I have actually started scheduling a few hours every day to work on my own genealogy (what a concept!). Whatever the case may be, I have been thinking about ships and thought it would be a perfect time to take an in-depth look at a useful online resource – ShipIndex.org.
My previous experience with ship and passenger arrival records has largely been a duel with the incredibly ugly to look at and often indecipherable National Archives microfilm, or with printed multi-volume indices that are not available in many libraries due to cost, shelf space, or collection parameters. Even the various Lloyds of London publications (such as casualty reports, etc.) have posed problems, with a series often starting just a year or two after the date I have in my files. When I discovered ShipIndex.org, however, I felt I could see light at the end of the research tunnel.
This source is self-described as “a site created to make researching a vessel easier and more effective than it has ever been. We find valuable resources that serve as quality reference material for ships and put every mention of a vessel in that resource into our database.” These resources include citations in books, journals, websites and other resources, and access is provided through a single search on a specific ship’s name. (Yes, you do need to know the name of a ship, but this information can often be identified through other research – obituaries, pension records, family letters, etc.)
My third great-granduncle was Aaron Stephen Lanfare (27 September 1824-19 August 1875) of Branford and, later, New Haven, Connecticut. A Medal of Honor recipient during the Civil War, he went on to captain a spice merchant ship for the Trowbridge Brothers of New Haven – the bark May Flower which, according to Aaron’s widow’s Civil War pension application, was lost at sea in 1875 somewhere between the Bahamas and New York. I have identified the ship in Lloyd’s Register and in the “Shipping News” columns of the New York Mercury (the latter now much more easily accessed through Genealogy Bank or the Historical Newspapers collection at newspapers.com). I decided to see what additional information might be available at ShipIndex.org.
First, however, a bit of background information. There are several ways to conduct research at this site. There are 142,804 entries that are accessible at no cost, derived from books such as Robert G. Albion’s Square-Riggers on Schedule: the New York Sailing Packets to England, France, and the Cotton Ports (Princeton University Press, 1938); Howard I. Chapelle’s The American Fishing Schooners, 1825-1935 (W.W. Norton, 1973); Jim Gibbs’ Disaster Log of Ships (Superior Publishing Co., 1971); Basil Lubbock’s The Colonial Clippers (Brown, Son & Ferguson, 1948); and Greg H. Williams’ Civil and Merchant Vessel Encounters with United States Navy Ships, 1800-2000 (McFarland & Co., 2002). The vast majority of entries, however, (2,403,716 to be exact) are available only with “premium access.” A full list of resources is available online, with premium database titles clearly marked with a gold star. The premium database cost is quite reasonable, however. You can subscribe for a monthly recurring fee of $8.00, or there are four fixed-term subscriptions (two weeks, three months, six months, or one year) with costs ranging from $6.00 to $65.00. These subscriptions provide affordable access for a time-period tailored to the intensity of your specific research.
When I completed a preliminary search for the May Flower, the results included fifteen resources (four books, one journal and one online resource) available as part of a free search. Each entry provided me with author and title (if the resource was a printed volume) as well as a link to World Cat to identify a library with the title in its collection, and a link to a bookseller, such as AbeBooks, with a copy for sale. None, however, seemed to meet my search criteria (bark out of New Haven). Also contained in the results were 247 citations from twenty-one resources, including eight books, six journals, and seven online resources from the premium database. Given the large number of citations, I eliminated those which identified geographic locals such as Alaska, Virginia, or Louisiana, and selected for further review only those that identified a bark named May Flower (others were identified as brigs, schooners, sloops, etc.) as I knew from previous research that this rigging was correct. There were six specific entries for May Flower (bark), dating from 1871 to 1877, a perfect span of time for my research. These citations, as they were from the premium database, required a subscription, and I easily updated my free access account to a two-week account via PayPal. Be careful, however, as even though I updated to a fixed-term subscription, my receipt still included a notice that it would renew automatically via PayPal until I cancelled the recurring payment. I will be sure to check on this in two weeks’ time.
The six entries for the bark May Flower in the premium database are all references to the Record of American and Foreign Shipping which has digital images available on the Mystic Seaport Digital Initiative site. While I have accessed this information previously in print format at the Mariner’s Museum Library in Newport News, Virginia, the ability to locate information quickly and print quality copies of the Record from my home computer is convenient. All of these entries were for the correct ship. The last entry is dated 1877, two years after the reported loss of the ship, but no ship’s master is listed for 1876 and 1877, so I will need to determine the meaning of a series of abbreviations in the remarks column to see what they might add to the information. I will continue my work with this list of citations as there are some entries that do not include the type of rigging. In addition, there is an option at the head of the list of citations to “Notify me when this page is updated,” that may prove helpful in the future. I will also duplicate the search using the “Mayflower” variant, and will search Genealogy Bank for further information about the ship. While I did not discover any new information during this initial brief search, I was impressed by the ease with which I could locate information.
A blog is also available at ShipIndex.org that posts articles about books, conferences, website improvements and database use, lectures, maritime history, new content, and more. You can also “like” the ShipIndex.org page on Facebook.
Librarians can request a free trial, with subscriptions available based on projected use. These include IP-based access for unlimited simultaneous users, with plans for academic institutions and public libraries. This database allows even the smaller library to provide access to a wide range of information about ships that will be useful to both its genealogy clients and those with an interest in maritime history.
Your core home or library shipping collections will benefit from ownership of the following titles:
American Passenger Arrival Records by Michael Tepper, updated and enlarged, (Genealogical Publishing Co., 1993, reprinted 2001).
Immigrant and Passenger Arrivals: a Select Catalog of National Archives Microfilm Publications revised ed. (National Archives Trust Fund Board, 1991).
Morton Allan Directory of European Passenger Steamship Arrivals For the Years 1890 to 1930 at the Port of New York, and for the Years 1904 to 1926 at the Ports of New York, Philadelphia, Boston and Baltimore (Genealogical Publishing Co., 1931, reprinted 2001).
Ships of Our Ancestors by Michael J. Anuta (Genealogical Publishing Co., 1983, reprinted 2006).