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It is no coincidence that the state flag of Maine depicts a sailor. Much of our early prosperity came from our proximity to the sea which was our very lifeblood. In our early days, no one traveled overland unless they had to.

It is no coincidence that the state flag of Maine depicts a sailor. Much of our early prosperity came from our proximity to the sea which was our very lifeblood. In our early days, no one traveled overland unless they had 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 ship being unknown. This was not at all uncommon in the days of sailing ships which faced many dangers when they left land behind.

Did you have a marine ancestor? How do you know and what are the challenges involved?

The census can help identify men at sea. Ordinary sailors who had enlisted ‘in front of the mast’ were sometimes reported by their families as ‘at sea’. But unmarried men without close family are rarely counted because no census has been taken at sea or in foreign ports. It was all too common for sailors to have no fixed abode until they retired from the sea when their joints and reflexes forced them to disembark. Many of these men were unmarried.

In the age of sail, voyages could last for months or even years, making it difficult for families to survive the absence of the breadwinner. Additionally, seamen paid in foreign ports sometimes disappeared into history when they signed on to any ship that needed crew. This itinerant lifestyle made it difficult to form lasting relationships. Ship captains were more likely to appear in censuses and other records, and often the captain’s wife and children accompanied him.

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

What if someone died at sea? Sailing was a dangerous occupation, and men died from falls from the mast, swept 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 journal, but these entries were usually brief. The captain would report the death of all sailors on board to the nearest American consul when the ship called. These ships traded and there were usually consuls in major ports around the world or there was the consul of another country empowered to represent American interests.

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

Many consul documents survive on microfilm at the National Archives in Washington, DC. Also check local historical societies, maritime museum archives and newspapers for information about ships and/or sailors.

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

Dover-Foxcroft columnist Nancy Battick has been researching genealogy for over 30 years. She is the past president of the Maine Genealogical Society, author of several genealogical articles, and co-transcriber of the Dover-Foxcroft Vital Records. Nancy has a master’s degree in history from UM and lives in DF with her husband, Jack, another avid genealogist. Reader emails are welcome at [email protected]

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