What About the Ships? Beyond Passenger Arrival Records

By Carolyn L. Barkley

I think that genealogical minds sometimes work together in a type of mystical synergy. As I was working on background research for this article, I found the latest issue (December 2009) of the National Genealogical Society Quarterly in my mailbox. Scanning the table of contents, I noted an article by Willis H. White, Ph.D., CG, entitled Using Vessel Documentation to Identify Nineteenth-Century Captains: The Mott Coastal Captains of Long Island Sound. Mr. White’s article is a case study in identifying the ships of a group of captains in a specific locality, but I discovered that several of the sources he cited were already on my growing list of resources for this article. I read his article appreciatively as a part of my preparation.

In our research, most of us probably have focused on information that may be gleaned from passenger arrival records and ship manifests. Unfortunately, the microfilm copies of these records can be some of the ugliest looking records known to man. Compounding the problem is that fact that we often have to know the very information we are seeking (date of arrival, port, and ship’s name) before we have any success, thus making the process very frustrating.

I would like to suggest that in addition to these conventional records, you consider adding to your understanding of your immigrant ancestor’s experience by learning something about the ship itself. In addition, if you have an ancestor who was a captain of a vessel or a member of a ship’s crew, such information is even more important in telling the full story of your ancestor’s life. (For the purposes of this article, I will be talking about resources for nineteenth and twentieth century ships.)

When you have determined the name of a specific ship, you may be able to locate an illustration in Michael J. Anuta’s Ships of Our Ancestors (Genealogical Publishing Co., 2006). For example, this book includes an 1870 photograph of the S. S. Caspian (Allan line). A list of all the ships included in Anuta’s Ships of Our Ancestors can be found at http://germanroots.hom.att.net/ships.html.

By Googling this ship’s name, you will find a Wikipedia entry on the Allan Line Royal Mail Steamers that lists the Caspian and its sister ships (although a note indicates that original information in the entry needs further research and documentation). In addition, you will find a Rootsweb page that reproduces the Anuta photograph and includes the information that “The CASPIAN was a 2,728 gross ton steam ship owned by the Allan Line of Liverpool. She was built by the London & Glasgow Co., Glasgow and was launched on 1 February 1870. Her details were – length 349.6 ft x beam 38 ft, clipper stem, one funnel, three masts (rigged for sail), iron construction, single screw and a speed of 11 knots. There was capacity for 80-1st and 600-3rd class passengers. She started her maiden voyage on 5 November 1870 when she sailed from Liverpool for Quebec and Montreal. On 8 December 1870 she made her first Liverpool – Baltimore sailing and in 1882 was fitted with compound engines by Laird Bros, Birkenhead. In 1882 she was used as a troopship for the Egyptian Expedition and then returned to the North Atlantic trade. She started her last Liverpool – Baltimore voyage on 27 September 1892 and was then laid up until 1896 when she made a single round voyage between Glasgow and Boston (commencing on 11 December 1896). On 20 March 1897 she commenced a single round voyage between Glasgow and Portland and was scrapped later the same year.”

The Caspian’s descriptive information was taken from the website, The Ships List. This important source provides a wealth of information about ships, along with information about passenger lists. In addition to the detailed description of the Caspian, The Ships List includes a photograph (also dated 1870). This site also includes fleet lists and ship wreck information. This latter category provides detailed information about ships lost at sea. If your ancestor sailed on the City of Boston, for example, there are newspaper and telegram transcriptions detailing her presumed loss at sea in March 1870, as well as the ship’s passenger list. The Ship’s List provides free access to over 140,000 entries, but for a subscription of $9.95, “it is possible to access over a million citations from books, magazines, CDs, websites, online databases and more.”

As you continue your search for ship information, you will want to investigate the following resources:

1. The Mariner’s Museum Library in Newport News, Virginia, makes some information accessible online, but it is well worth visiting the library in person. It is located on the campus of Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Virginia. Their collections include books, periodicals, over 10,000 vessel plans and drawings, maps, manuscripts and registers, steamship ephemera, and more. During a visit I was able to locate descriptive information on the May Flower (no, not that one!), a spice merchant ship from New Haven, Connecticut, captained by Aaron Lanfair, the recently discovered brother of my maternal third great-grandmother. I had learned from his wife’s Civil War pension application fie that Aaron had been lost at sea along with his ship in the late 1870s. Using the information from the pension application, during my visit to the museum library, I discovered a notice of his ship’s departure from New York in the “Shipping News” section of a contemporary New York newspaper. By scanning successive day’s newspapers, I was able to trace his vessel from its departure from New York City to its arrival in Nassau and then its departure from Nassau bound for New York (or perhaps New Haven).  It was on the trip homeward, then, that the ship was lost.

Other collections include the Elwin M. Eldredge Collection of “images, artifacts, and archival material about the rise of steamship transportation [and] extensive documentation of the history of American steamship companies. With thousands of photographs, extensive notes, ephemera, and clippings from nautical publications, newspapers, and other media, this collection chronicles an important era in our maritime and economic history.” The steamship ephemera collection includes baggage tags, ships plans, menus, advertisements, etc. for a large number of ships.

2.  G. W. Blunt White Library at Mystic Seaport in Mystic, Connecticut, provides online access to the “Ship Register (1857-1900)” database. By searching for the bark May Flower, I was able to obtain digitized images of the 1871, 1872, 1873, 1875, 1876 and 1877 Record of Foreign and American Shipping indicating that the ship was owned by H. Trowbridge’s Sons of New Haven, Connecticut, and was built in 1852 in Scarboro, Maine. Although the ship’s master was listed in the first three listings, no name was provided for 1875-1877. As there are many ships by the same name, it is important to know the type of vessel (bark, for example) in order to find the correct entry.

3.  The National Archives Record Group 41 contains a collection of vessel documents. One of the most important sections of this record group includes certificates of enrollment or registration for coastal vessels over twenty-tons. These documents usually include the certificate number; the vessel’s official number and call letters; the name and address of the owners; name of the vessel and its home port; name of the master on the date the certificate was issued; the date and place of constructions; name of builder; number, place,  and date of issue of any previous certificate; number of decks and masts; dimensions and tonnage; type of  stern, gallery, figurehead, and rig; and place and date of issue of certificate. The finding aid notes that the reverse side of the certificate included “an endorsement giving the place, date, and reason for surrender of certificate. Sometimes, endorsements of changes of master, renewal of license, or other information.” By researching these registers, it is possible to document a vessel’s service history.

4.  Cyndi’s List includes 743 links to sites in the category of “Ships and Passenger Lists.” While numerous sites contain passenger list information, many others include historical information about specific ships or shipping lines, photographs and images. Links to libraries and archives include the Guildhall Library Manuscripts Collection in London that houses Indexes to Lloyd’s Captains Registers. The Maritime History Virtual Archives includes many informative listings of ships, rigging, etc.

It is well worth your time to work through all the various links to see what might be pertinent to your research. Finally, you may wish to subscribe to US-SHIPSLISTS-POST1820, a mailing list for the “posting of information and queries regarding all aspects of the ships that carried our ancestors from place to place after 1820, including ship descriptions, ports of arrival and departure, passenger lists, fleet lists, shipping schedules, and wreck data.”

I hope this brief overview of ship information resources will prompt you to move beyond passenger lists and add detail to your ancestor’s story by researching the interesting world of transatlantic vessels.

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