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The Ellen Payne Odom Genealogy Library Family Tree
The Family Tree - February/March 2005
Marriage and Death Records at Sea


Immigrants making the journey from Europe or the British Isles to the New World faced many obstacles on their journey.  The trip across the Atlantic prior to the 1870's may have lasted up to 1 1/2 months according to surviving manifests and personal narratives.  The dawn of the steamship era saw the length of the voyage shorted to 5-7 days depending on the number of stops and weather conditions.

The length of these voyages often affected the passengers in a variety of ways.  Health and sanitation facilities on-board were often lacking or non-existent for all but those in first class.  Passengers arriving prior to the steamship era often made the voyage on cargo ships.  Passengers were perceived as supplemental to whatever cargo was being transported.  Steamships offered improvements in terms of speed and sanitation, but the majority of immigrants could only afford the cost of passage by traveling in
steerage.  Sanitation in steerage was not considered a priority by shipping companies.

The length of the voyages coupled with overcrowded conditions resulted in many of the following situations:

1. Pregnant woman giving birth at sea
2. High mortality rate among passengers from disease, crime, weather conditions, or natural causes
3. Marriages occurring at sea either to enhance the couples chances of being admitted to the United States or because they were finally free of constraints existing in the countries of origin.

The mortality rate on some sailing and steamships ranged from 25-50%.  American vessels had a  better record for sanitation facilities and passenger safety.  However, the cost of passage was much more expensive than on vessels owned or operated by companies operating out of British or German ports.

Records of birth, marriage, and death were supposed to be noted on the ship manifest.  The captain was also supposed to keep track of the names in the ship's log, make a copy of the list for the Registry Office for Civil Registration, Office of National Statistics, and the Shipping Company archives in the country of origin.  Certificates of birth, marriage, and death were supposed to be issued by the national office in the country of origin.  In reality, many were issued in the jurisdiction of arrival.  If you uncover evidence that the shipping company maintained reports from the ship surgeon, this could be a valuable document.  Surgeon's reports, when they exist, would list births and deaths on a given voyage.

Many births occurred at sea.  The child was often named after the vessel, ship's surgeon, ship's captain, arrival port, or country.  Weddings were usually performed by a clergyman amongst the passengers although evidence indicates that some ship's captains also performed this function.

Bryan L. Mulcahy
Reference Librarian
Fort Myers-Lee County Library
2050 Central Avenue
Fort Myers, FL  33901-3917
Tel: (239)- 479-4651
Fax: (239)- 479-4634


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