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This list consists of descriptions of merchant vessels, both sail and steam, compiled by me over the course of many years from a variety of sources. While I have checked this information against my sources, much of it is derived from secondary works which may themselves contain errors. In addition, although the published annual volumes of voluntary ship registries such as Lloyd's Register of Shipping, the Bureau Veritas Registre Maritime, and the New York Marine Register / Original American Lloyd's Register are considered primary sources, because of the imperfect nature of pre-20th century communications much of the information they contain, in particular concerning masters, owners, and destined voyages, was often out of date at the time of publication. I welcome any corrections and additions to these accounts.
It is usually not possible to identify a merchant vessel positively by its name alone. Very few names given to merchant vessels in the centuries prior to the 20th are unique. Indeed, names with nautical references, names of ports, names of national symbols or rulers, names of people prominent in politics, the arts and literature, and in business, and common given names (in particular, those female names connoting beauty) were frequently given to merchant vessels. To my knowledge, no nation, with the possible exception of certain totalitarian regimes, has ever maintained an institution to regulate the naming of merchant vessels; there certainly has never been such an institution at the international level. There has therefore been nothing except economic expedience or political prudence to prevent a shipbuilder (or, in latter years, a ship owner) from naming a merchant vessel anything (s)he chooses. As a result there have at any given time been any number of ships, barks, brigs, schooners, barges, etc., named ANN, BRITANNIA, COLUMBIA, COLUMBUS, JANE, JOHN, LIVERPOOL, MARY, MAYFLOWER, NEPTUNE, NEW YORK, OCEAN, SEA, and VICTORIA.
By the mid-19th century, most countries with significant merchant fleets had instituted systems giving each vessel with a unique identifying number or code. Use of these numbers and codes, however, was restricted for the most part to official documents, such as registry, inquests, and admiralty court proceedings.
The information required to identify a merchant sailing vessel with any certainty is:
While not all this information is necessary in all cases to identify a merchant sailing vessel, in the great majority of cases items 1, 4, and 5 constitute the absolute m i n i m u m amount of information necessary.
In the great majority of cases, the first source to check will be either a specialized commercial newspaper such as Lloyd's List (world-wide, although best for vessels of British registry), the Shipping and Mercantile Gazette, Mitchell's Maritime Register (both of London), or the Shipping and Commercial List and New York Price Current, or the "marine intelligence" column of a general newspaper such as the New York Herald. The following extracts from the "Arrivals" section of the Marine Intelligence column of the New York Herald for 16 June 1859, indicate the sort of identifying information these newspapers provide:
While the information and format in which it is given varies slightly over time and from newspaper to newspaper, the basic facts remain largely the same:
With the information provided in an arrival list such as the one above it should be possible to identify any vessels more fully in one or more of the following published works, as appropriate:
Note that until at least the 1870's the information in the published voluntary registers is generally fuller (rig, place and date of build, dimensions) than the information in the official government registers. However, as indicated above, as a result of the imperfect nature of pre-20th century communications, the information in the voluntary registers (in particular concerning names of masters and owners and destined voyages) is more likely to be out of date at the time of publication than the information in the government registers.
These published works in turn refer the researcher back to the most important records for the history of vessels, the ship registries themselves. These records are in most cases now held by the national archives of the appropriate country (while all official transcripts of ship registries for British ports are held by the Public Record Office in London, original ship registries for certain ports are held by local record offices).
Whenever possible I have included a pictorial representation of the vessel in question. To conserve space on the server these pictures are presented in small format, generally no more than 400 pixels wide. In some cases I am able to provide a larger copy of a picture. If the legend to a picture concludes with the sentence "To request a larger copy of this scan, click on the picture," click on the picture and your web browser will automatically generate an email to me with an appropriate subject line. This is an automated procedure (viz., I do not read the messages generated by it), so please do not alter the subject line in any way or use the message generated by this procedure to communicate a personal message to me. Please note also that I am providing these larger scans to you for your personal use only. If you wish to publish a larger scan or to use it on a website, please contact the holder of the original drawing, watercolor, painting, photograph, or model (identified in the legend to the scan on these pages) for permission to do so.