Tracking Shipwreck Survivors

I got a note the other day from the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society, directing me to a resource about tracking shipwreck survivors. It’s an online publication, titled The Shipwrecked Passenger Book: Sailing Westbound from Europe for the Americas, 1817-1875, by Frank A. Biebel. It’s available for free here, hosted by FamilySearch. It will also be available on the NYG&BS website soon, in the members area.

The publication tracks 339 identified shipwrecks, and, to the best of the author’s ability, includes as much information as can be found regarding the wrecks and the recovery and repatriation of those on board. Biebel provides citations for whatever he was able to find, in newspapers, books, and more.

He also provides a few fascinating stories. In the case of the William Nelson, sailing to New York in the summer of 1865, a violent fever passed through the immigrants on board, while off the coast of Newfoundland. The captain decided to fumigate the areas where the sick had been by dipping red-hot irons in tar, and then swinging them around the space. Somehow, this was supposed to clean the air. Near the completion of this project, an iron fell into a tar-pail, and it caught fire. The passenger overseeing this fumigation process tried to smother the blaze with a mattress, but it exploded (!) and with each roll of the ship flaming tar spread throughout the area belowdecks. In moments flames raced up the hatchway, “running up the mainmast and rigging like fiery serpents.”

The captain got a number of boats launched, but only about 87 passengers, from among 448 originally on board, survived. Survivors were picked up by the steamship Lafayette and a Russian bark, and eventually taken to New York.

While this story and others in the volume are fascinating, one of the most important contributions is in the discussion toward the very end of the book. The author, after looking through so many records and tracking down all kinds of data, provides the following very useful synthesis (p. 616):

Survivors were often picked up at sea or otherwise came aboard a vessel that reached a U.S. port; for that, they were likely deeply grateful. At port, the rescuing captain or master filed a manifest as required by law. But, the survivor’s ancestors, the family historians of today, may sometimes not be pleased.

The U.S. Passenger Act of 1819 which required the recording on an arriving ship manifest of those passengers who boarded at a foreign port made no provision for shipwrecks, including possible survivors. Nor, do I know of any (U.S.) legislation prior to 1875 which accounted for this gap. And, apparently, contemporary social norms did not touch upon the subject. Thus, adding survivor names to his manifest was solely at the whim of the rescuing captain.

The result is that in doing this work, I encountered the full range of possibilities. A rescuing master’s manifest may have nothing at all of the shipwreck and its passengers, the only confirmation of survivors aboard coming from newspaper accounts (strangely enough, sometimes from an interview with the rescuing master himself). At the more desirable extreme, a captain may have mentioned the shipwreck and recorded survivor information as ifthey were his own passengers.

It may be of little help, but even though there was ”nothing at all,” if the name of the rescuing ship was known, it is included in the shipwreck information found when accessing any of the 339 listed wrecks.

I added the ships mentioned in this book to the ShipIndex.org database yesterday, but I particularly wanted to point out the value that Biebel provides by offering some analysis of what happened, across many different situations, with regard to shipwrecked immigrants.

Giving ShipIndex.org as a Gift

Looking for a last-minute gift for a maritime historian or a genealogist?

Consider access to the nearly 3.4 million citations in ShipIndex.org!

You can give a genealogist three months of access to the premium database for just $22. Or give a historian access to the premium database for six months for $35. Or give a maritime history fanatic access for a year, for just $65! This is a one-time payment, via PayPal (and yes, you can use a credit card through the PayPal site).

To make it happen, send a note to gifts@shipindex.org. We’ll need the following information:

  • The recipient’s email address
  • When you’d like access to begin, and for how long

We’ll create a pdf certificate that you can print out or email to the recipient. It will include a username and a temporary password, plus information on how to access the database.

This can be a great gift, for any occasion — from a holiday or birthday gift to a retirement or ‘Thank You’ recognition.

A New Space for ShipIndex.org

As of today, ShipIndex.org has a new home. We are going to be working out of Rev Ithaca, a brand-new co-working/incubator startup supporter, funded by Ithaca’s three higher ed institutions: TC3, IC, and CU.

Rev had a grand opening this morning at 8:30, and the presidents of the three institutions were all present, and each shared a few words about Rev and its expected impact on their institutions and the Ithaca area. Rev will provide some great services to local startups, from seminars and connections with entrepreneurs-in-residence, to 3-D printers, laser cutters, and tools for creating prototypes of physical objects. Connections with other entrepreneurs will be vital; we had already created a number of useful connections while working out of the downstairs space before the grand opening.

After that, four companies that will be working out of Rev were highlighted, and we spent some time talking with folks from local and national news outlets. Here are a few stories I’ve seen so far; I’ll add more as I learn about them:

During the question session, a correspondent for Entrepreneur magazine asked a question about the “maker space” lab that is in Rev, and Tom Schryver, Executive Director of the Center for Regional Economic Advancement at Cornell, had an excellent response. He pointed out that Rev is not a “maker space”; Ithaca has a great maker space in the form of Ithaca Generator. Rev is different; it’s designed to help people who are prototyping products to produce and sell. President Skorton of Cornell followed up on that to emphasize that the space is not meant to compete with other services in the region.

I spoke with folks from Time Warner Cable news, Ithaca Journal, Ithaca Times, The Ithacan (from Ithaca College), American Entrepreneurship Today, Entrepreneur magazine, and got photographed by the Cornell Daily Sun (Cornell’s newspaper). We’ll see what comes from all that!

Then, after everyone left, we all got down to work. It was a true Grand Opening; no one could have worked in the space before 8:30 this morning, and lots of people were at work after the media left at 10:30!

New feature: Introducing stopwords

One of the neat things about having an online database is that one can study data to figure out how to make the system work better. This wouldn’t be the case if this were, say, a CD-ROM product.

I can look at all the searches that have been done on the site in the past year or so. In doing this, it’s clear that a lot of people include terms like “USS”, “HMS”, “USCGC” and other descriptive terms in front of the ship name. Others include vessel descriptors, such as “schooner” or “steamer”. For a long time, I’ve wanted to have a way of ignoring those terms, because it will get users to the content they really want more quickly. However, as with most things, it’s not as easy as it seems.

It’s easy to have a list of stopwords — words that are ignored in searches. Many search tools do this, so when you include “the” or “an” in a book title, Amazon doesn’t bother to search for these words. Of course, they still need to make exceptions to deal with searches for the band “The The”, and the like. And in the case of ShipIndex.org, one still needs to be able to search for “HMS” in a name, since some ships do have that as a legitimate part of their name – though none of them are part of the British Royal Navy.

So anyway, I reviewed the list of search terms, and came up with specific words or phrases that need to be ignored. Then we (and by “we” I don’t mean me – I mean the excellent development team that turns these ideas into reality) created the tools to ignore these words, and also show a results message that says, basically, “We ignored this term, but you can repeat the search without ignoring it if you like.”

The result will be a significant improvement in the results that people see when doing their searches. Let me know if you like it or if you don’t.

Most popular ships in libraries, from OCLC

Not long ago I analyzed information about vessels registered in the US and found a list of the 100 most common ship names in America. Folks at OCLC, the online library cooperative, did something somewhat similar lately – and found the 10 most common ships in library collections.

Thom Hickey, Chief Scientist at OCLC, had put together a list of about 50,000 authority records for ships, for me – which went in to the free part of the ShipIndex.org database. To be clear, an ‘authority record for a ship’ is a record that defines a ship as an entity, not unlike a record that defines a person. Ships can be subjects of books, of course, but they can also be authors of books. As an example, the logbook of a vessel is “by” the ship, in addition to being by the person or people who recorded the information – though often their names may not be known.

This new set of 50,000 authority records was a great enhancement to ShipIndex.org (see my blog post about these records, and see an earlier post about how best to use them). It updated a set of about 40,000 records that had been put together for me five years ago, and also gave me a chance to correct, improve, and update this information in the ShipIndex.org database. Again, all of this information is in the free portion of the database. These authority records make a great way of finding books about, say, the Titanic or the Lusitania, and are particularly valuable when one is searching for a whole book about a particular ship.

The folks at OCLC then went one step further, and decided to see what ships were most popular in libraries around the world. They took the list of ships they’d generated, then looked at how many library holdings were noted for each ship. This is a great way of measuring popularity: you’re not looking just at how many books (or movies or other works) have been created about a particular ship, you’re also looking at how many libraries own each of these works.

The results are here; I think it’s no surprise that Titanic tops the list. I will admit I was quite surprised about the rest of the top five: Mayflower, Bounty, Amistad, and Endurance.

Ship name Number of holdings*
  Titanic 260,693
  Mayflower 48,657
  Bounty 35,382
  Amistad 32,464
  Endurance 27,877
*as of 11 July 2014

The OCLC Blog entry has great examples of resources about each ship (check out the image of a Titanic made from dried apples!), findable through WorldCat, and is very much worth a close read. Take a look at the next five most popular ships, too – you might be surprised at what is most popular in libraries.

Maritime history is everywhere – Mark Twain as an example

One of my biggest challenges comes in making clear the role of maritime history in American history and life, and in world history and life. In a way, I think vessels are so ubiquitous that they’re not even noticed. But for most of recorded history, news and information (and with it, human connections) used ships to travel long distances. If you look, everywhere you turn you will see a maritime impact.

I noticed that again today, when I went visited the many Mark Twain sites in Elmira, NY. Elmira is not far from where I live, but I don’t go there often. I knew there were connections with Mark Twain, but I did not realize how many. As it turns out, Twain’s wife and family lived in Elmira for many years, and Twain (well, Sam Clemens) regularly spent summers there.

Sam Clemens’ sister-in-law owned an estate about two miles outside of town (and Twain’s father-in-law was the richest man in town and owned the largest house in town), and she built a small rectangular study for Twain in 1874, which he loved and used extensively, writing much of many titles there in the summertime. The study was moved to Elmira College in the 1950s (Twain’s wife attended the college, and the family had many other connections there as well), and is now open for visits in the summertime, and by appointment other times of the year.

Where’s the maritime connection – other than water weaving its way through all of Twain’s work? Sam Clemens met Olivia Langdon through her younger brother, Charles. Many signs told me that Charles and Clemens met on board the steamship Quaker City, in 1867 in the Mediterranean, where they struck up a conversation, and eventually Charles showed Sam a picture of his sister, and Clemens was immediately taken with Charles’ sister. It took some time before they actually met, and then before Olivia accepted Clemens’ marriage proposal, but it all went back to the Quaker City.

Of course, ShipIndex.org has entries on Quaker City – more than 80 of them – and not all are about the ship that Clemens and Langdon sailed together on, but if you want to know more about that ship, I can’t think of a better place to start.

After visiting the sites at Elmira College I stopped at Twain’s gravesite in Woodlawn Cemetery, where he’s buried with his wife’s ashes (she died in Florence, in 1904), those of his children, and his only known grandchild.

In the end, water matters. Whether you’re studying the life of Sam Clemens or the writings of Mark Twain, water had a huge impact on his life. I’d argue it has that impact on the lives of many, many people, and I will keep trying to convince the world of that.

New content, through early June 2014

I’ve been writing a lot about the 38th Voyage, but in fact I’ve also been working on new content for the database. Here’s a list of content added since the last time I posted such a list:

New content:

Updated content:

So, we’re still plugging away at getting new content into the database, even while preparing for the sail. The free database grew by over 20,000 citations. And right now, the subscription database is at 3.36 Million citations.

Practical points about my 38th Voyage

I head to Connecticut this Friday, to start my brief experience on the 38th Voyage. It is true that it will start on Friday the 13th, but I’m not the least bit worried about that, since I was born on a Friday the 13th — in fact, a Friday the 13th in June, too: this Friday, in addition to starting my Voyage, is my 45th birthday. Sounds like a pretty great birthday present for me, I think!

The Voyagers consist of 8-10 people on each of the nine legs of the complete voyage. Each Voyager submitted a proposal and application, and then were selected by staff at Mystic Seaport. I believe there will be nine Voyagers on our leg (one seems to get added and dropped from message to message…); we’re all listed here, under the first leg from New London to Newport.

We will board the Morgan on Friday night, and will spend the night in the bunks of the fo’c’sle. On Saturday morning, because of tides in New London, we plan to depart at 4:30 am. Some guests, who won’t be sleeping on board, will need to arrive an hour earlier — yikes.

Anyway, my initial thought, when I heard we’d leave at 4:30, was “dang, that’ll be early.” Then I immediately thought “Whoa. We’ll see the sunrise.” and “That just means lots more sailing!” and “It’s only 24 hours; I want as much of it as possible to be at sea.” So now I’m pleased. I just hope I can sleep a bit, the night before.

We will be towed out from New London, by a tugboat that a family has donated (including the fuel!) to the Seaport for use throughout the voyage. Roann, another Seaport vessel, will be accompanying us the whole way, as well. We’ll get towed some distance toward Newport, and then the tow line will be dropped, and we’ll spend the day sailing. At some point, the tug will reattach the tow line, and we’ll be towed into port in Newport, at Fort Adams State Park.

Except we won’t! For some reason, we’ll be anchoring offshore, and taking small boats in to the pier. That sounds amazing to me. I hope we get to help drop those anchors. I also thought it’d be great if we could drop a whaleboat from the davits, as we used to do in Demo Squad, to head in. Who knows; maybe I can suggest it.

As to how much one will be allowed to do, I think each Voyager will pretty much be allowed to do as much as they want, as long as they’re not in the way. I hope to take a pen and paper (and camera) and hang out aloft for a while. And go out on the bowsprit, perhaps. And take a turn at the wheel. And furl a sail. And so much more…

Anyway, that’s what the day looks like. I doubt I’ll be able to post much while I’m on board, though I don’t know. If I can, I’ll post it to the ShipIndex.org Facebook page. I will spend time over the next week or so sharing images and experiences through the blog, and perhaps through some other photo sharing service, too.

38th Voyage Training: Climbing the Rigging

Back in April, when I went to the Seaport for training for the 38th Voyage, one big part of the day was to try climbing the rigging, in preparation for doing so while underway. I have climbed the Morgan’s rigging many, many times, but most often it was 20 years ago, when I worked on the Demo Squad at the Seaport. I’ve been aloft occasionally since then, but wasn’t sure how I’d do this time.

My main concern was my shoulder – I’ve got this annoying “frozen shoulder” that limits my range of mobility, and can occasionally be anywhere from painful to excruciating if it gets bumped in just the wrong way.

So, after spending the day in the Seaport library, I met up with a friend who has worked at the Seaport, and been in charge of the Demonstration Squad, for many years. She had some other friends who wanted to give a try at climbing before the full training day. She has the authority to let us try this when the grounds are closed – or, I imagine, whenever she feels like it.

We went over to the Joseph Conrad, because the rigging on Morgan wasn’t done yet, and it wouldn’t have been advisable to try climbing that rigging yet. I had been dressed for the library, but I gave climbing a try, anyway. We started heading up the foremast rigging, and I was very pleased to see that I did just fine. My lack of range in my shoulder isn’t that big a deal; you mostly keep your arms close in to you when you’re climbing. I didn’t climb over the top, but I felt like that was more because I was cold than because I couldn’t do it.

And the next day, with the other Voyagers, I did climb over the top on Conrad’s mainmast. Here are some photos I took from there.

IMG_3243   IMG_3245 IMG_3246These are all looking forward, from the mainmast to the foremast, where another Voyager (in yellow) was going over the top with the assistance of Seaport demo guy extraordinaire Tim (in orange).

IMG_3249

Here’s a view from the main top toward the whaleboats that other Voyagers were in. We’d done some whaleboat rowing before going aloft. Whaleboats are a blast to row (and sail) and the Seaport received a set of ten new whaleboats for the voyage from a variety of schools and museums.

IMG_3254 Here’s a bit of a selfie from the main top. It was hard to take any good pictures of myself from up there, unfortunately.

The 100 Most Popular Vessel Names in the US

The US Coast Guard publishes something called “Merchant Vessels of the United States”, searchable through their Maritime Information Exchange. It’s a directory of merchant ships over about 5 tons in size. (Smaller vessels that aren’t included in MVUS may be registered by states, rather than by the federal government.) Originally, it was in print, and many copies are still available in libraries or through online sources (here’s one from 1897). Then it was published as a CD-ROM, and then USCG made a database out of it, and put it online.

USCG used to have static, ship-specific links to the database, so you could follow a link that would take you right to the entry about the ship. I discovered some time ago that those weren’t working, and eventually I contacted USCG, and got a reply from them that, yes, static links were no longer available.

I had to decide what to do, and I realize I’d made a bit of a mistake in being too caught up on the static links. If you know that a database mentions a vessel, and you still need to search for it once you get to the database, that’s still far better than not knowing at all. Then, while preparing the updated file for import, I discovered that the Office of Science and Technology, of NOAA Fisheries, publishes its own version of the same database, but with vessel-specific links! So I changed what I was doing, and modified the links so they’d point to NOAA’s version of the database.

I will soon remove the old links to the USCG database, and I haven’t yet decided if I should add an updated version of that database, even though one must still do a search for the ship there. If the information is exactly the same as what appears in the NOAA version, I might not add those links. Thoughts?

Anyway, as part of this work, I noticed that many ship names are used over and over in this database. I thought I’d take this opportunity to determine the most popular vessel names in the US.

Here are some caveats: This data is based on information compiled from the USCG MVUS database. It’s not perfect. Some people put “MV” or “SS” or other terms in front of their ship names, which they really shouldn’t do. Others (many others) start their ship name with “The ”, which I also think they shouldn’t do. (That said, my brother built a rowboat for our father, and I carved a name plate for it, and we called it “The Prelude” – with the article – because it was a reference to, among other things, Wordsworth’s poem of that name [pdf]. So clearly at least some people specifically intend to include an article. Most, however, don’t.)

Also, I didn’t combine different spellings of the same name, like “Meant II Be”, “Meant 2 Be”, and “Meant To Be”. Ship names are obviously very popular places for puns, like “Naut On Call”, and they should be left as such. I also did not combine “Nauti Boy”, “Nauti Buoy”, “Nauti Boys”, “Nauti Boyz”, “Nauti Bouys”, etc., into one name…

With all that said, here are the 100 most popular vessel names, including the number of vessels with that name, from the 365,846 named vessels in the US Coast Guard’s Merchant Vessels of the United States database:

Vessel Name Occurrences
  Serenity 417
  Freedom 382
  Liberty 329
  Osprey 306
  Second Wind 289
  Destiny 285
  Andiamo 262
  Dream Catcher 247
  Spirit 245
  Odyssey 243
  Carpe Diem 232
  Island Time 232
  Escape 231
  Pegasus 231
  Blue Moon 230
  Morning Star 226
  Obsession 216
  Orion 216
  Island Girl 209
  Voyager 195
  Grace 193
  Serendipity 191
  Legacy 189
  Time Out 188
  Escapade 185
  Tranquility 185
  Happy Ours 183
  Summer Wind 183
  Aurora 174
  Phoenix 171
  Free Spirit 169
  Double Trouble 168
  Harmony 167
  At Last 164
  Patriot 164
  Magic 163
  Sandpiper 163
  Relentless 162
  Southern Cross 162
  Halcyon 159
  Mariah 159
  Amazing Grace 157
  Pelican 154
  Endless Summer 153
  Calypso 152
  Whisper 151
  Encore 148
  Imagine 148
  Pura Vida 148
  Seas the Day 148
  Impulse 147
  Eagle 146
  North Star 144
  Zephyr 144
  Wanderer 143
  Ariel 142
  Great Escape 142
  Quest 141
  Raven 141
  Cool Change 140
  Prime Time 140
  Second Chance 138
  Camelot 136
  Hakuna Matata 136
  Mirage 136
  My Way 136
  Panacea 134
  Windsong 134
  About Time 133
  Valkyrie 133
  Perseverance 132
  Journey 131
  Valhalla 131
  Puffin 129
  Patience 128
  Dream Weaver 126
  Restless 125
  Gypsy 124
  Renegade 124
  Black Pearl 123
  First Light 123
  Sanctuary 122
  Sundance 122
  Independence 121
  Resolute 121
  Dulcinea 120
  La Dolce Vita 120
  Sea Hawk 120
  Islander 119
  Moondance 119
  Sea Breeze 119
  Sea Ya 119
  Dragonfly 118
  Liquid Asset 118
  Aquaholic 117
  Dolphin 117
  Oasis 117
  Shearwater 117
  Adagio 115
  Sea Horse 115