History on the sea

2 years ago

It’s no fluke that Maine’s state flag depicts a sailor.  Much of our early prosperity came from our proximity to the sea that was our true lifeblood. In our earliest days no one traveled by land unless forced to. 

Like me, you may have ancestors who came to Maine and depended on the sea for their livelihood. Some of these men went to sea and never returned, the fate of their vessel unknown. This was not at all uncommon in the age of sailing ships which faced any number of hazards when they left land behind them. 

Did you have a seafaring ancestor? How do you find out and what are the challenges involved?  

The census can help identify men at sea. Ordinary sailors who signed up for duties “before the mast” were sometimes reported by their families as “at sea.”  But single men without close families were rarely counted as there was no census taken at sea or in foreign ports. It was all too common for seamen not to have a fixed home until they retired from the sea when their joints and reflexes forced them ashore. Many of these men weren’t married.  

In the age of sail voyages could last months if not years, making it difficult for families to survive the absence of the breadwinner. Also, sailors paid off in foreign ports sometimes disappeared into history as they signed onto whatever vessel needed crew. This itinerant lifestyle made forming lasting relationships challenging. Sea captains were more likely to be in censuses and other records, and often the captain’s wife and children accompanied him. 

Some crew lists survive in maritime archives. The National Archives holds crew lists taken in different ports, including foreign ones. Captains who usually earned a share of the profits from a voyage are found in the owner’s records.  If those records survive you can track your ancestor’s voyages. 

What if someone died at sea? Sailing was a dangerous occupation and men died from falls from the mast, washed overboard in storms or succumbed to infectious diseases. These men were almost always buried at sea.  Their deaths would be noted in the captain’s log, but these entries were usually brief. The captain would report the death of any sailors on board to the nearest American consul when the ship made port. These ships were in trade and there were usually consuls in major ports around the world or there would be another country’s consul empowered to represent American interests. 

It is not uncommon to find cenotaphs in coastal Maine cemeteries. Cenotaphs are tombstones where there are no bodies buried.  Usually this was done for those killed in distant wars or buried at sea. Sometimes entire families who died at sea are recorded. 

Many consul records survive on microfilm at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. Also, check local historical societies, maritime museum archives, and newspapers for word on vessels and/or seafarers. 

Seafaring was a dangerous occupation even in coastal waters and remains so today.

Columnist Nancy Battick of Dover-Foxcroft has researched genealogy for over 30 years. She is past president of the Maine Genealogical Society, author of several genealogical articles and co-transcribed the Vital Records of Dover-Foxcroft.  Nancy holds an MA in History from UM and lives in DF with her husband, Jack, another avid genealogist. Reader emails are welcome at nbattick@roadrunner.com.