Monday, March 21, 2016

Monday Mailbox: Death at Sea

The Ancestry Insider's Monday MailboxAfter my comments about standardizing “on the boat” in “RootsTech: Ron Tanner – Looking Back at Family Tree,” a reader had a follow-up question. I’ve reread my comment in that article and I disagree with myself. I’m liking the approach of the lady in the class, and here’s why:

Dear Ancestry Insider,

So what should we do for a “death at sea”? I would have thought recording the next port of call would be the correct answer, but what does Family Tree want us to record? What about born at sea?


In my opinion, when you are asked to specify the location of an event, you should specify the location of the event.

But you’re on the right track thinking about ports. My initial reaction in class that day was “No! If all you know is that it occurred “on the boat,” then don’t make things up! Especially don’t make things up to satisfy the bad behavior of a computer program!” Now I’m thinking the lady in class had given it more thought than I had.

Like any good genealogist, you’re going to follow the genealogical proof standard. You won’t be relying on that single source that states nothing more than “at sea.” You’ll find indirect evidence that will enable you to say something more specific like, “In the North Atlantic, approximately 600 miles en route from Liverpool, England to New York, United States.” Then you’re going to write up how you came about that conclusion. Where indirect evidence is involved, your explanation might be longer than a short proof statement that you could put in the Family Tree Reason Statement. If your explanation is only a couple of paragraphs (what we might call a proof summary) you would save it in a Family Tree Note and reference it in the Reason Statement. If you’re obsessive compulsive like me, by the time you include citations to the passenger manifests and passenger accounts and sailing schedules and weather reports and death records created by corporations and governments, and by the time you explain how you got as specific as you did, you may find it easier to use a word processor. Then you’re going to save it as a PDF and upload it to Family Tree as a source Document that you reference in the Reason Statement.

Will Family Tree “like” that location? Sure it will! You won’t find it in the list of standardized localities, but Family Tree is designed to accept non-standard locations. It will show you its best guess as to a standardized location. And there is a chance it will standardize to something on the other side of the planet. But if it does, ignore it. Stand your ground. Don’t contort the location just so the standardized place isn’t absurd. That’s FamilySearch’s problem to fix, not yours.

Okay, okay. So you’re not as compulsive as me and you’re heads down on finding a new cousin instead of over refining old information. The principles still apply. Specify the location of the event as closely as your evidence allows, and don’t let the computer bully you.

---The Ancestry Insider


  1. I, too, am obsessive about details. How does one find weather conditions for a particular day - for instance New York City on 15 April 1887?

    Peggy Leone Morphew

  2. Oh, for mercy's sake, who cares exactly where in the ocean someone was born on board a ship? (Still less what the weather was like?) I have a great-great aunt who was born "at sea" en route from Yorkshire, England to Whitby, Ontario, Canada, and it has never occurred to me to give two hoots about precisely where on the briny waves she was born, since it's not a place she ever lived. She was in that exact geographical quadrant for about a minute, and then inexorably slipped off west--west--west...

    They landed in Quebec--and at once continued west--west--west. They didn't LIVE there. So "at sea" seems to me to cover any serious genealogical base, since you know where her parents were living when they began the journey and you know where they ended up living with their new daughter when they got where they were headed. The "in transit" stuff--except, of course, for the fascinating detail of having been born at sea in the first place, and the name of the ship, I suppose, if you could get it--seems quite beside the point. As my mother always said, "What does that have to do with the price of rice in China?"

    Being buried at sea might be slightly different--I think I'd say about where, if it could be determined, but that is because it is a final resting place.

  3. For many years my mother-in-law and her many brothers and sisters talked about the oldest brother who died and was buried at sea during their immigration to the US. I decided to find out more information and learned that he had not died at sea as was the family story, but was taken to Hoffman Island hospital and he died there after 10 days. Poor little boy was only 2 years old and must have wondered where his mother and sisters were! But I do have a cemetery plot for him in NY and an official death record. Not speaking English, the mother and sisters did not understand what was going on and so the "tossed overboard" story was handed down in the family.

  4. Consider also airplanes and trains! Along highways! Inland waterways!

    Information about the vessel/aircraft/train itself (mainly for boats, and truly obsessive compulsive, but worth tracking down): Name, country of registry, captain, person who issued the report. Longitude and latitude of the event. Next port of call. Passenger lists, of course!

    Births/Marriages (yes, captains can perform marriages)/deaths: Any documentation/pictures/family stories (see Karen above).

  5. Years ago I was trying track down the date of death of someone who died at sea, leaving his wife and 2 very young daughters to continue on to a new life in New Zealand. I found nothing recorded in Auckland NZ, the port of destination, but found that details from a ships log and official papers from such voyages are filed with the port of registration (or embarkation) on their return. So while nothing was found in Auckland NZ, the logbook was deposited in Greenwich UK on the ship's return in 1866.
    For anyone whose breath is taken away at the need for passenger lists, take a deep breath and think about what may be recorded there - unrecorded children, fellow passengers who may later marry into or be associated with your family line etc.


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