Suggestions for Researching Mariners in the Family

Do you have any mariners in your family tree?

First, we need to define mariner: While a very loose definition might include anyone who made a living at sea, there is a distinction between fishermen, who went out in boats on a daily basis and men who left home for periods of time, working on the ocean.

Therefore a mariner is a seafarer or sailor who had specific jobs on sailing vessels.

Now, I have to warn you before we begin that this post isn’t the usual list of many helpful links because this is a topic that could fill an entire book. Instead, I will provide suggestions about TYPES of repositories to get you started in maritime history.

That’s because finding information depends on several factors:

1. Why type of seafarer your ancestor was
2. Where he lived
3. Historical time period in which he lived

I also need to say right up front that it is highly unlikely that you will find specific information pertaining to, say, a 17th century whaling mariner unless something noteworthy happened during a particular voyage.

On the other hand, if you are researching a late 19th or early 20th century master mariner, then there might be records still in existence that document his career.

Let’s get started.

To have any kind of success in locating mariner historical records, you need to know exactly where your ancestor lived. The local economy determined what type of occupations related to the ocean.

For example, my 5X great grandfather, Joseph Coleman (1739-1791), was a mariner. He lived in Massachusetts, but his town of residence matters a great deal.

If he lived in Boston, he would likely have been involved in merchant trading with ships crossing the Atlantic to England.

If he lived in Gloucester, rather than being a “mariner,” it is more likely that his sea-bound life would have involved day-to-day fishing.

However, he didn’t live in either of those towns, but in Nantucket and he worked in the whaling industry.

We’ll come back to Joseph in a bit.

So, exactly how does one go about finding repositories?

Here are my suggestions:

1. Local Historical Societies
2. Local Public and Private Libraries
3. Regional Historical Societies
4. Maritime Museums and Societies
5. State Libraries and Archives
6, Local Genealogical Societies
7. Local Historical Newspapers
8. Local Vital Records
9. National Archives

Using Joseph Coleman, part of the thriving Nantucket whaling industry, as an example, where might I find information about him and/or the history of Nantucket seafarers?

My possibilities correspond to the numbered suggestions above. These resources are just a portion of what I’ve found:

1. Nantucket Historical Association
2. Nantucket Atheneum
3. None – the National Historical Association is both local and regional, since Nantucket is a county.
4. Egan Maritime Institute
5. Massachusetts Archives – whaling-related links
6. Cape Cod Genealogical Society – none found on Nantucket Island
7. Local Historical Newspapers – nothing found on Chronicling America for Nantucket whaling
8. Nantucket Vital Records to 1849– includes an entry that Joseph Coleman died off the coast of Guinea of yellow fever!
8. Smithsonian Magazine article – How Nantucket Came to Be the Whaling Capital of the World
9. NARA – Search for “Nantucket whaling” brought up 202 results

While perusing those websites, I’d be on the lookout for manuscripts, books, diaries, society journals and magazines, logbooks (although these are scarce) and individual ship lists of crew members and cargo.

Another tip – Cast your net a bit wider than the state as there well may be items held by repositories in another state. For example, many New England organizations and colleges hold collections related to other New England states.

If you are interested in the shipping industry in general, the Library of Congress has a research guide.

This post is quite short, but I hope my suggestions and the example using Joseph Coleman has given you an idea of the kinds of information that might be found on various websites.

Remember, too, that the more modern the time period, the greater likelihood of finding actual records pertaining to a specific ancestor.

Happy Hunting!

 

 

 

2 thoughts on “Suggestions for Researching Mariners in the Family”

  1. While I have no mariners, I enjoyed reading this post – your list of possible repositories applies to so many possibilities. Very useful! I know people often forget public libraries as a resource, when often they have local history sections.

    I will be saving this post to show library patrons who might need the information 🙂

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