Category Archives: Maritime History

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.

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.

A New Book on the Maritime History of the World

I’ve long felt that all I need to do to make ShipIndex.org a smashing success is to change how the world views maritime history. Maritime history is a mostly-neglected area of study, perhaps because it is, in many senses, the history of the space between places. While parts of maritime history are focused on an individual country (think expansion of the US interior, through and along the Mississippi River), most of maritime history looks at connections between, rather than within, a given country’s borders.

And even if you’re studying regional history, some of the most important aspects of maritime history are in the movement of people and ideas between regions — even, or especially, regions as large as continents.

So, while my primary goal with ShipIndex.org is to “simplify maritime history research”, there’s also a need to make maritime history more relevant, and perhaps more visible.

I’m thrilled to see announcements of Lincoln Paine’s new book of maritime history, titled The Sea & Civilization: A Maritime History of the World, to be published in the US on October 29, and in the UK on February 6, 2014. I very much look forward to reading this book. Peter Neill, author of Great Maritime Museums of the World and a past President of South Street Seaport (and lots more; those are how I know of him), wrote in a pre-publication review, “‘I want to change the way you see the world.’ This brave ambition is brilliantly realized by Lincoln Paine in this single volume. Thoroughly researched, clearly argued, eminently accessible — we have at last a responsible and persuasive explanation of the inextricable connection between the ocean and world civilization.” I love that point.

I can’t wait to see the book itself.

Guest Post, from Cathryn Prince, Author of “Death in the Baltic”

I’m pleased to offer the following guest blog post, by Cathryn J. Prince, author of Death in the Baltic: The WWII Sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff. The story of this ship is a remarkable one — and one that, until now, was not well-known. I expect this book will change that, however. I’m enjoying reading it, and I hope you will, as well. Ms. Prince has done a great job of telling people about her book, from C-SPAN discussions to bookstore readings (she’s headed to my hometown of Ithaca, NY, November 9 & 10).

I also think this blog post, describing how an author does maritime history research with modern technology, is particularly valuable and insightful. Thanks very much, to Ms. Prince, for sharing these views with us.

Peter McC

 

In the past several years the Internet and then various social media outlets have become invaluable research tools, the former I welcomed straight away, the latter – not so much. However, since I opened both my Twitter account and Facebook account I have to confess that social media has won me over. In fact, I couldn’t do the job I do without social media. As an author, reporter and researcher I find that Twitter, Facebook, tumblr and yes, even Pinterest, essential. This became especially apparent during the research, writing and launch of my most recent book, Death in the Baltic: The WWII Sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff.

At its core “Death in the Baltic” is an oral history about the lives of several survivors of history’s worst maritime disaster. More than 9,000 perished on January 30, 1945 when the Soviet submarine, the S-13 torpedoed the Gustloff as it tried to cross from Gotenhafen (present day Gdynia, Poland) to Kiel, Germany. However, to tell the story of the Gustloff and its survivors I needed to do some maritime history research.

Through Jill Swenson of Swenson Book Development, I learned about shipindex.org. Whether you’re just discovering this site, or are already a follower, you’ll see that it is an essential tool for a researcher. Not only was I able to get the names of ships, I was able to find a vast list of books, online articles, and magazines that mentioned a specific ship.

Through Twitter I’ve connected with Polish historians, poets, and those who endured the last days of World War Two. Indeed social media is an essential arrow in a writer’s quiver because it offers a way to connect with others who may have expertise in your field, potential readers and those with shared interests.

It was through Twitter that I discovered @PolandWW2, which also has a Facebook site. Because of Google alerts I learned about Mike Boring, a deep-sea diver who visited the site of the Wilhelm Gustloff wreck. Through Twitter I’ve connected with World War Two enthusiasts like @ww2resource and @WWII_experts and @shipwreckology.

Nothing replaces traditional face-to-face interviews, and that’s why this book had me traveling from north of Toronto to Las Vegas to Tecumseh, Ontario and on to Ascona, Switzerland. It’s why traveled back and forth to Washington, DC to the National Archives and the US Holocaust Memorial Museum.

In addition, several publications, from the Journal for Maritime Research, a fully online, peer-reviewed journal is key for historical maritime research. There is also the International Journal of Maritime History, IJMH, which is the journal of the International Maritime Economic History Association. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is an excellent source to find out past weather. Likewise The Old Farmer’s Almanac can be helpful.

Museums and libraries are another source for anyone researching maritime history.  I contacted the US Submarine Force Library and Museum in Groton, CT. Home to the USS Nautilus, the museum houses a well-managed and extensive archive. Museums such as the NJ Maritime Museum, the Mariners’ Museum of Virginia, the Hampton Roads Naval Museum, the National Museum of the US Navy, and the Maine Maritime Museum all have collections – large and small.  Now I didn’t avail myself of the collections each museum had to offer; but I did find that staff at each institution more than willing to point me in the right direction.

I’ve begun work on my next project (which I will keep close to the vest right now) and again find myself tracking down information about old weather reports, ancient sea routes, shipyards and construction. Like “Death in the Baltic” maritime history is a big piece of the story. Again I am again finding the maritime community generous with time and explanation. Each connection yields another connection.

More on US Navy ship naming

A member of the MARHST-L discussion list pointed out a fairly recent Congressional Research Service document about the naming of US Naval vessels, titled “Navy Ship Names: Background for Congress“. It’s an interesting read. As a CRS document, it just provides background, and doesn’t discuss whether previous actions are right or wrong, but it sure does highlight how mixed-up the US Navy’s current approach to ship naming is.

I assume (but don’t know for sure) that this report is part of the response to a Senate Amendment to the FY2012 National Defense Authorization Act, adopted November 30, 2011, which called on the Secretary of Defense to submit a report to Congress within 180 days that contained an overview of the past naming of navaly ships, and recommendations for the future. This document is dated January 6, 2012, so I imagine it makes up the first part of the report to Congress. I would be interested to see how long it takes the Navy to develop the ‘policies’ part of the response.

I certainly hope the Navy, and its Naval History and Heritage Command, comes up with some much more specific policies on how ships should be named, and then sticks to them. It makes sense that aircraft carriers should be named after presidents (but should they only be named after good presidents?), and that, say, attack submarines should be named after states, and destroyers named after naval leaders and heroes. And so on, and so on. What seems most important to me is that they develop a sensible policy, and stick to it. It would be nice to be able to identify the type of vessel based on its type of name. (I realize that wouldn’t always be the case, but it’d be nice if it were nearly always the case.)

There should also be an inviolate policy that no individual be considered to have a ship named after them until 12 months have passed since their death.

But we’ll have to wait and see. If you hear of the release of the final document before I do, please let me know here.

ShipIndex resources regarding the US Civil War

ShipIndex’s range of content is “any named vessel in a resource in English” – meaning that we list ships from the ancient Athenian navy, from the Middle Ages, from basically every European war and most Asian ones (except for the land wars, I suppose), to 19th century merchant vessels, modern-day freighters, and anything in between. And many of the resources we include – particularly the indexes to journals, such as Mariner’s Mirror, American Neptune, and Nautical Research Journal –cover wide temporal and geographic ranges.

But there are times when it’s good to know how much coverage there is in a specific area, so I thought it would be useful to highlight a few of the resources for various topics. For example, we have a lot of different resources that cover the US Civil War. Here are some titles of particular relevance to US Civil War researchers, which are already included in the ShipIndex database:

I’m working to add Iron Afloat: The Story of the Confederate Armorclads by William N. Still, soon. I’ve also started working on a really big project – the indexes to the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies and Navies, and their supplements. (Those will all take a while to complete.) What else should I add, that would further enhance our coverage of the US Civil War?

Talk tonight at MOHAI about USS Decatur in Seattle

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Long time no post. Sorry about that. Will try to do a better job soon.

I just saw mention of a talk tonight at Seattle’s Museum of History and Industry about the USS Decatur in the Pacific Northwest by the author of a new book from University of Washington Press. I’d love to go, if I weren’t 2500 miles away. But, if you’re closer, you might want to consider.

And if you go, I’d love to hear how it is. Should we add contents from the book’s index to ShipIndex.org?

Let me know.

More posts coming soon; I promise.

This Day in History, 1620 – Mayflower Set Sail

On this day in 1620 (old style; September 16, in new style), Mayflower sailed from Southampton, England. She arrived in the hook of Cape Cod on November 11. The rest is, as they say, history.

Nathaniel Philbrick published his book about the ship in 2006; it’s titled Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community and War. My feeling was that the book should have been titled “King Philip’s War,” since it was much more about the interactions between the settlers and the Native Americans they encountered once they arrived, than it was about the voyage or the vessel, but very little is known about those subjects. Nevertheless, it made for an interesting story.

If you have other opinions about the book, please don’t hesitate to share.

This Day in History, 1939 – First British Ship Sunk by Germans

On September 3, 1939, the British passenger liner SS Athenia was sunk by the German sub U-30. This was the first British ship sunk in World War II, and because it was a passenger vessel, rather than a cargo ship, it was a violation of existing treaties between Germany and England. In fact, the Germans did not admit to sinking Athenia until well after the end of the war. Many didn’t believe that the Germans would have sunk a passenger liner, as there was much to lose, and little to gain, by doing so.

118 people lost their lives, from more than 1100 on board, and much that loss occurred during the rescue. Because the seas were calm, many vessels were able to assist Athenia, and most did so successfully. A Norwegian vessel, Knute Nelson, caused about 50 deaths when it suddenly steamed full speed ahead, sucking a full lifeboat that was aside it into its propeller.

This Day in History, 1601 – Dutch complete circumnavigation of the world

On this day in 1601, Olivier van Noort arrived back in Rotterdam, becoming the first Dutchman to circumnavigate the globe. He left in July 1598, with four ships, but arrived back home just over three years later with only one vessel – Mauritius. He also returned with just 45 of the 248 who left with him.

While he was the first Dutchman to circumnavigate the globe, a fair number of other explorers already had. Ferdinand Magellan’s voyage of 1519 to 1522, of course, was the first — though Magellan himself didn’t survive the voyage. Magellan sailed with five ships – Trinidad, San Antonio, Concepción, Victoria, and Santiago – and only Victoria survived, under the leadership of Juan Sebastian Elcano.

Between 1580 and 1589, Martín Ignacio de Loyola circumnavigated the globe in both directions, becoming the first person to do that.