Friday, November 19, 2010

Research Challenge: Join in a quick group consultation/research plan exercise

My Facebook friend, genealogist Caroline Gurney, has a brick wall. Caroline lives in England and what's interesting is that her difficult ancestor was a sea captain who used to sail to the Americas during the 19th century. He mysteriously never returned to England and Caroline hasn't been able to find out any more about him.

I thought it would be a fun exercise to post details of her brickwall here and see if her US and Canadian counterparts could participate in an online consultation to give her suggestions for where she should focus her research.


Here's the background on our subject:

Name: John Winn
Born: England, date unknown

Wife: Heneretta (sic - not Henrietta) Tomlin. She was the daughter of William Tomlin, a wealthy London barge owner.
Marriage: in Bow, London in 1829, when he was "of this parish"
Children: His only known child was born in 1830 when John was described as a master mariner (i.e. sea captain) in the baptismal... register.

Probate: His father-in-law's 1848 will in London he was described as: "John Winn, who some years since went to North America and whose existence is uncertain".
His wife's will (written 1856) and death certificate (1857) describe him as a deceased master mariner.

Previous Research

British Newspapers:
I can find no reference to him (such as a missing person advert) in the British Library's 19th century newspaper collection and no identification of him as captain of a ship that went down at any of the websites devoted to wrecks. 

US & Candian Censuses:
There are 46 John Winns in the 1840 US Federal Census but that doesn't give birthplace or occupation to enable me to identify him. There is no 1841 Census of Canada. There are no British born John Winns of the right age, or sea captains, in the 1850 US Federal Census or the 1851 Census of Canada. 

Merchant Marines
There are no records of merchant navy officers in the UK before 1845. I spent a day trawling through crew lists at the National Archives. There were many John Winns, all ordinary seamen, but nothing to identify my man. I've been through all available volumes of the Lloyds Register of Merchant Shipping from 1800 to 1860 and identified one ship with a master called J Winn (a domestic coastal vessel) and five with a master called Winn, for whom I cannot find a Christian name from another source and which did not carry on sailing after the 1840s. The only North American ports those ships traded with were Halifax, "New Brunswick" (presumably St John) and Montreal. There are three masters called Winn on the Ship's List website but, from the names of their ships, I have eliminated all three as being different people. My ONLY possible candidate is John Winn, a ship master, aged 35 years & 4 months, who arrived in New York from the Turks on board the schooner "Deposit" on 23 August 1836. However, he is described as US born & resident. 

Surname info:The surname Winn originated in Yorkshire and to this day is most common in north-east England. In the early 19th century there were quite a number of sea captains called Winn sailing from the north-east ports. But to complicate matters, there were also quite a few sea captains called Winn sailing from ports in New England, such as the John D Winn from Salem I mentioned in reply to Cathi on your FB posting.

PRIZE: "If anyone can find this man they will win the Genealogist of the Year award!"
Let's see if we can put our collective expertise together and give Caroline some suggestions to to help her find John Winn.

PLEASE POST YOUR RESEARCH SUGGESTIONS IN THE COMMENTS!  If you have questions for Caroline, please post those in the comments too.


  1. I've enjoyed researching a sea captain - my brother in law's great grandfather who lived in Cambridge, MA (born in Hampshire, England). He died at sea in a shipwreck in 1865. Caroline - have you checked the NY Times archive and other vintage newspapers for your John Winn? I had good success locating news of my sea captain that way. I found a lot of articles in early Boston newspapers available on Genealogy Bank.

  2. Thank you so much for highlighting my brick wall ancestor, Marian. I've just started my own genealogy blog and, in view of your post about John Winn, decided to start my blogging journey with him: I've included some images of the scanty evidence I have about this elusive man.

  3. I had a couple of minutes today and thought I would check out GenealogyBank. I found a couple of references to a John D. Winn, who seems to be the captain of a ship called the Eliza. The shipping notices are within your time frame. According to the notice his ship was headed from Salem to the "FeGee" Islands. If you are interested I'd be happy to forward what I've found.

  4. Thank you so much, Cynthia, I'd love to see these records. How can we exchange emails without publishing our addresses here? I've only recently discovered Genealogy Bank and was thinking about subscribing. Is it the most comprehensive site for historic US newspapers?

  5. Caroline,

    Other resources you can try are:

    The New Bedford Whaling Museum and Library online at

    The Essex Peabody Museum -

    The National Maritime Digital Library -

    There is also a Maritime database associated with Mystic Seaport in New London Connecticut but I'm having trouble finding the link. Even anyone else knows it please share it here.

  6. Part 2 of my post about Captain John Winn is now available: I had a near disaster when I posted it as I accidentally overwrote Part 1. Fortunately I was able to reconstitute it from the Google cache. However, it means that the link in my comment above no longer works. The new link is: If anyone knows how to change the URL of a page posted on Blogger, as one can with a website page, I'd be grateful to hear from them.