Conducting Vessel Research

This Information Bulletin has been issued in order to provide some aid for those who wish to trace and/or identify any seagoing vessel by acquainting them with some of the books in the reference collection and outlining the best approach to these resources to gain the desired information. While this bulletin was originally intended for use on site, we hope to continue to adapt it for use online as well.

Researching Vessels Prior to 1858 or of Uncertain Date

A. With only a name to go by:
1. Check Fairburn’s Merchant Sail, vessel index (note 2 indexes). Fairburn often provides enough information to satisfy the inquirer immediately, or at least to allow you to go to other sources.
2. Check the online catalog, subject heading
3. The American Neptune, indexed every five years and annually
4. Mariner’s Mirror, indexed through Volume 36 (1950)
5. Lloyd’s Register (British). This is of use generally only if some idea of the date is known. For an American vessel chances are still quite slim, as British Lloyd’s listed only vessels approved by the underwriters.
B. Name and home port, or general area the ship came from:
1. Check the applicable WPA port registries. The bound volumes are in the Reference Room. The Connecticut WPA records are available online as the Connecticut Ships Database.
2. Check the various book sources covering the particular port or area of interest, such as Peterson, Mystic Built, Wasson and Colcord, Sailing Days on the Penobscot and Briggs, Shipbuilding on North River. Here the Catalog subject headings will be of use.
C. If you know the vessel type, i.e., packet, clipper, Down Easter, schooner, etc., books will again be helpful (in addition to Fairburn) .
1. Packets:

R. G. Albion, Square Riggers on Schedule
Carl Cutler, Queens of the Western Ocean
2. Clippers:

Carl Cutler, Greyhounds of the Sea
Howe and Matthews, American Clipper Ships
3. Down Easters:

Lubbock, The Down Easters
4. Schooners:

John Lyman, Log Chips, not indexed
5. Whalers:

Hegarty, “Index to Starbuck” in his Addendum to Starbuck and Whaling Masters
Starbuck,The History of the American Whale Fishery, to 1876
Hegarty, Returns of Whaling Vessels, from 1876
Whalemen’s Shipping List often provides needed information on ports of call or special occurrences during any particular voyage.
Information Bulletins for any aspect of the CHARLES W. MORGAN.
D. Steamers
1. A. 2 and 3, above
2. Check Merchant Steam Vessels of the United States, 1807-1868 (The Lytle List) and Erik Heyl, Early American Steamers (4 vols.) in the Ship Register Room and Morrison, History of American Steam Navigation in the stacks.
3. There are also many books on particular types of steamboats, generally by locale, e.g., Mississippi River, Hudson River, Long Island Sound, etc.

Locating Vessels After 1858

A. We can utilize the same procedures as before, but we now have ship registers available for use once a date after 1858 has been established. In fact, once a date of the ship’s activity is known, we can go directly to the registers; however, it is often wise to check Fairburn anyway (in the case of sailing types) as inquirers positive of certain dates are frequently off the mark. Ship registers contain information on a ship’s dimensions, rig, propulsion, owners, master, builders, repairs, construction features (number of decks, construction materials, etc.), date of construction completion, and often international call sign and official number. Also included are the classification standards employed which give much detail concerning construction specifications, lists of vessel owners, and lists of former names of vessels. Later registers supply more information than earlier ones.

1. American Lloyd’s. Series commences 1858, alphabetical by ship type.

American Shipmasters’ Association Record. Commences 1871, overlaps American Lloyd’s. Both have gaps until 1882 when the Record is held almost continuously. Strict alphabetical list. With 1882, also lists alphabetically by last name in separate list following regular listing.
American Bureau of Shipping Record. New name for the ASA in 1898.
2. Bureau Veritas, 1885 and 1898. A valuable supplement for these two years.
3. List of Merchant Vessels of the United States, begins 1868, arranged alphabetically by propulsion category (sail, steam or motor, unrigged), includes yachts. Has gaps until 1882, and sometimes lists ships by official number. Government vessels of the various departments are also listed alphabetically by department. Commencing in 1906 it provides a most useful list of vessels lost, giving dates and essential particulars. A list of compound names by last name commences in 1910.
4. Lloyd’s Register, after 1881 becomes more and more a “universal” directory of shipping and provides information on ships other than those approved by the underwriters. Separates steamers and motor vessels from sailers after 1896. An excellent source to pick up sales to foreign countries.
5. New York Maritime Register. A maritime newspaper, good for tracing a ship’s trading pattern, if she traded with the U. S., and for finding details concerning any disaster; June 1869 – December 1948.
6. Other maritime newspapers provide information as to disasters, sailings, cargoes and their prices:

Bound: The Boston Shipping List
Microfilm: The Shipping & Commercial List and New York Price Current, 1815- 1894
Boston Gazette ( 1719-1798)
Columbian Centinel ( 1784- 1840)
Nautical Gazette (N.Y.) (1871-76; 1879-1954)
7. New York Times Index. Basic information on disasters, companies, owners, etc., by year, 1863-1874; 1913-1948.
8. Reports of the U. S. Lifesaving Service (later U. S. Coast Guard) 1880-1932, with a few missing years. Usually detailed descriptions of any disaster involving loss of life. Reports on disasters occurring all over U. S.
9. Special Register Source: Maritime Shipping Board (WWI) – all ships under the board to June, 1923.

Locating Masters

A. Without knowledge of ship and voyage, identification is practically impossible, unless he was master of an American whaler,B. Lists which should be checked:
1. For whalers, Whaling Masters and Hegarty’s addendum thereto.
2. For packet captains, Albion’s Square Riggers, Cutler’s Queens.
3. General merchant sail, Fairburn’s general index.
4. For 1871, ASA Record for that year gives masters of the Association.
5. The American Neptune indexes
6. Other book and periodical indexes as time and information provided allow.

Locating Yachts

A. Lloyd’s Register of American Yachts, from 1903
1. Gap from 1943-1947 filled by List of Merchant Vessels
B. American Yacht List – commences 1874
C. Manning’s Yacht Register D. List of Merchant Vessels, from 1872-3
E. Mott, Yachts and Yachtsmen of America, up to 1895
F. Lloyd’s Register of [British] Yachts, 1883-1939, with some gaps.

Locating Naval Vessels

A. Neeser, Statistical and Chronological History of the U. S, Navy 1775-1907
B. Dictionary of American Fighting Ships
C. For more recent naval types – Jane’s Fighting Ships (1898-1999) and Fahey’s Ships & Aircraft of the U. S. Fleet.
D. Various books on naval history by period, e.g., Official Records of… the War of the Rebellion, Series II, Vol. I; Index to Morison’s Naval Operations in World War II.

updated 2/1/99