Finding Records of Relatives Who Died at Sea

The months long journeys by early ocean seafarers were often perilous and harrowing experiences. Shipping laws were lax and ships of all types of construction, seaworthiness, and size sailed the oceans. Millions died at sea.

Death was ever present in the minds of voyagers. Huddled below deck were hundreds of men, women and children with no ventilation and living in filthy conditions.

Causes of Death: The most common causes of death included maritime disasters (violent squalls, faulty ship design or human error), disease, poisoning from contaminated water or spoiled food, drowning, poor nutrition or starvation, and unsanitary conditions. Approximately half the deaths among sailors were due to work-related injury or accidents.

During those early voyages there was no possibility of evacuating a sick person to land while out to sea. There was limited access to qualified medical assistance (occasionally a ship’s surgeon) and no life-saving facilities aboard; therefore, those suffering from a serious condition faced a fatal outcome.

Records of Death at Sea: Finding a record of death at sea is not always possible, but it may be found if you know what nation to which the ship was registered.

Most records for ships that belonged to the former British colonies in America were retained within the former colony, with some records still available through the UK National Archives or British Library. According to the National Archives, any record of death at sea from 1837 onward was sent directly to the General Register Office and recorded in the Marine Register. Find My Past allows you to search indexes of the General Register Office and National Archive overseas records of births, marriages, deaths, and burials.

FamilySearch also has more than 200 record sets in their Migration and Naturalization collection. Olive Tree Genealogy has searchable passenger list. Ancestry.com has a database of New York, U.S. Arriving Passenger and Crew Lists (including Castle Garden and Ellis Island), 1820-1957, as well as other searchable passenger ship catalogs.

Burial at Sea: Burial at sea has taken place throughout history for as long as people have gone to sea, dating back to ancient civilizations. British seafarers often found it necessary to perform sea burials and developed their own ritualized burial methods. Officers and ships mates having different ceremonial procedures. Commonly, the decedent’s body was stitched into a shroud or sailor’s hammock, with the last stitch passing through the corpse’s nose to ensure they were dead. The body would be weighted down and tipped into the water feet first.

On the other hand, the French and Spanish preferred to leave the bodies of the dead in the ship’s hold until such time they could find land, anchor and perform earthen burials.

African Slave Trade: Some burials at sea were grizzly. The Atlantic Ocean is known as a graveyard that holds the bodies of enslaved Africans thrown overboard if they were dead or dying. During the African Slave Trade, ships carried between 220-250 slaves, who laid in two rows, one above the other, on each side of the ship chained together for up to three months. Their existence was nothing less than inhuman, with minimal rations, contaminated water containing dangerous bacteria, and infectious diseases. The Atlas of the Transatlantic Slave Trade suggestion between 1500 and 1866 about 12.5 million Africans were loaded on ships bound for the New World, with about 1.8 million of them dying along the way.

Irish Potato Famine (1845-1852): During the famine period, an estimated half million penniless Irish tenants were evicted from their cottages by their landlords. If not thrown in jail for owing back rent, their landlords would pay to send pauper families overseas to North America with promises of money, food, and clothing upon arrival, and a signatory note in their pocket to repay their debt. The Irish people were packed into British sailing ships, often poorly built and unseaworthy (known as coffin ships). Of the 100,000 Irish that sailed in 1847, an estimated one out of five died from disease and malnutrition.

World War II: Many burials at sea took place during World War II when naval forces operated at sea for months at a time.

Modern Practice: Sea burials still happen today and are associated with many cultures and traditions.

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