Monthly Archives: December 2014

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 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 as a Gift

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