Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Any Sailors in the Family?

Daguerreotype of a young sailor  from the Library of Congress collection
Daguerreotype of a young sailor
from the Library of Congress collection
I've been reading a book called When America First Met China by Eric Jay Dolin. You can imagine that the trade between the United States and China originated via merchants and shipping (and most of it probably continues this way today). This book has introduced me to many of the varied activities that sailors and merchant marines participated in.

When you think about the sailors in your family were they naval (military) sailors or commercial venture sailors?

The commercial venture sailors could have been involved in many different activities. They could have been on the merchant trade ships sailing to various parts of the world, selling their product and purchasing items to bring back home.  Sometimes they would make intermediary stops to purchase items, such as sandalwood, which was of more interest to certain markets (such as China) than American goods. Of course, merchants were also tied up in the triangular trade of slavery.

Or they could have been on the ships that sought out raw materials or products to sell to near and distant markets. The sailors could have been involved in sea otter hunting in the northwest, seal hunting in the Pacific or whaling.

I'm quite astounded at the variety of activities a ship and its crew could be involved in, not to mention the dangers and diplomacy required on their missions.

Early African Americans were also among the ranks of sailors. On ships they often found more equality and career opportunities than they found at home on land.

Perhaps your ancestors were pirates.  While we have romanticized the historical nature of piracy, this was a very real and active community for a number of centuries. Or perhaps your ancestor was a privateer, a euphemistic word for a state-sponsored pirate.

I can't also help but wonder that not so many of us have sailors in our family trees. The sailors weren't settled, traveling great distances on long journeys. Their career and lifestyle did not lend itself to starting a family.  And the dangers of their jobs cut short many of their lives before they had the chance to retire to land and settle down.

Perhaps that 3rd great uncle without "issue" in your family tree that you didn't bother researching might just turn out to be a sailor or a pirate!

Have any of you researched sailor ancestors? If so, what did you learn about them? Do you know where they sailed or what their role was onboard? I am so curious to learn more!


  1. I just got back from burying the only naval ancestor that I know about in my family. He served on the U.S.S. Iowa during World War II.

    The rest of my family tree is full of people who sailed from one continent to another once and then called it good. None that I have found that did it for a career, legal or otherwise.

    I suspect the reason you might not find more is because back in the day, sailors didn't have the greatest life expectancy and thus didn't procreate as much as his land loving brethren.

  2. Thanks for this post. I'll remember this, although I believe all my ancestors were on land, growing cotton and tobacco in the South. I am reminded of two fun novelists, though: (1) A Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, about the clashing British, Dutch, and Japanese empires; and (2) any of the 20 or so seagoing novels of Patrick O'Brian, with characters Jack Aubrey and Stephen Mathurin.

  3. My daughter is in the Navy . I am forwarding this to her . That Daguerreotype is an amazing picture . The founder of the US Navy , John Barry, is buried in Philadelphia , Pennsylvania in Old St. Mary's Cemetery next to my daughter's ancestors !!