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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course Research: New Brunswick Ancestors  by Althea Douglas, MA, CG(C). The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Contents

Shipbuilding & Shipowners

Because Great Britain and Ireland were islands, the sea and everything that sailed on it, became matters of record. The British Admiralty, and in civilian guise the Board of Trade, as well as Lloyds insurance brokers, kept detailed records of all British ships and their crews, and British Colonies came under their care. Library and Archives Canada has filmed almost everything relating to ships and shipping in the colonies that became Canada.

In 1878, the year when Canadian ship ownership peaked, 4,467 vessels, totalling 943,583 tons were registered in the Maritime provinces, and many of these were built in the Timber Colony, where shipbuilding was a major industry and being a “shipowner” an “occupation” of the better off members of society.

There are records of both the people who owned the ships and the people who sailed them that can be useful if your research leads into this field.

Shipping Registers

Every ship over 15 tons, owned by any of His/Her Majesty’s subjects, was required to be registered. Until 1874, Saint John was the Port of Registry for ships built along Fundy, including Moncton, Sackville and Dorchester. After Confederation, registration became Ottawa’s responsibility and political gift so just about anywhere that ships were built, a registrar was appointed.

The 18th and early 19th century records are incomplete, but almost everything after 1824 has survived, though the “casually” assembled microfilms at the “Canada Archives” gave Esther Clark Wright some problems.[1] The registers describe the vessel in some detail, some give the date of launching so you can check local newspapers, and every time a share changed ownership, this had to be registered and a new list of owners entered in the Registry Book.

Vessels were owned in 64 shares, the same number for a 100 ton coastal schooner or the 1600 ton Marco Polo, and in theory, there could be could be 64 owners. Ownership patterns varied, in a community where wealth was concentrated in the hands of two or three families, they owned everything. In places where wealth was more widely spread, so was ownership.

For example, in the county town of Dorchester, New Brunswick, many well-to-do lawyers invested in local vessels. Such “shipowners” might hold shares in a dozen vessels, rather like a stock portfolio today, spreading the risk of loss.[2]

These registers of owners can contain a great deal of personal information. A small wooden coastal schooner did not require a great outlay of capital, and a sawmill operator or blacksmith might accept shares in payment for the lumber or hardware they supplied. Usually the Master held a few shares, and in the boom years of the 1860s, even caulkers and other workmen, or merchant’s clerks, are found among the lists of owners. If an owner died, the register will give the date of death, details of probate, names of executors or administrator, and disposition of the shares. The history of a long-lived vessel may be spread through several books.

A Selective Database

You will find a searchable database of Canadian shipping registers on several Internet sites and on a CD-ROM Ships and Seafarers of Atlantic Canada now for sale.[3] The Atlantic Canada Shipping Project was set up in 1976, when computer memory was limited and every byte counted; it indexes each vessel by name, official number, and owner’s name, with some further bits of information.

That means their database does not include a great many ships built in other ports once these became ports of registry. Dorchester, Moncton, Sackville and St. Andrews among others in New Brunswick. The large Vaughan and Moran fleets originated in St. Martins New Brunswick, which never did become a port of registry and Esther Clarke Wright points out that St. Martins ships were registered not only in Saint John and Halifax, but further afield in Irish ports, in Scotland, and Liverpool.

Crew Agreements - A Sample Only

Some data compiled from crew agreements of vessels registered in the ports of Saint John, New Brunswick (and Halifax, Yarmouth and Windsor, Nova Scotia) for the years 1863-1914 is also in this database and CD-ROM. The files contain information on some 20,000 masters and 182,000 seamen, their ports of call and voyages from Atlantic Canada. Just remember, this database is only a sampling of the records that actually exist. The actual records are, for the most part, now at Memorial University in Newfoundland. Other repositories are acknowledged by Eric W. Sager in his Seafaring Labour: The Merchant Marine of Atlantic Canada, 1820-1914 (Montréal, Kingston, London: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1989), a valuable source if you are researching seamen, as is Judith Fingard’s Jack in Port: Sailortowns of Eastern Canada (Toronto, Buffalo, London: University of Toronto Press, 1982). Library and Archives Canada in Ottawa has colour microfilms (some 54 reels) of Lloyd’s Captains Registers (MG 40 O 3).

Women’s Lives

For a glimpse of the lives of women connected with ships and shipbuilding, look for Helen Petchy’s little booklet, Signal Sea Changes (1997) which tells of two Dorchester “daughters of the shipyards,” Emma Chapman O’Neal and Sarah Palmer Ryan. Donal M. Baird’s Women at Sea in the Age of Sail (Halifax, Nova Scotia: Nimbus, 2001), 226 pages with map and illustrations, among other stories, tells that of Captain Daniel Smith Cochrane, born in St. Martins, New Brunswick, and his wife Annie Meldrum Parker, born in Tynmouth Creek, Saint John, New Brunswick, who accompanied his many voyages on the Prince Lucien of the Moran-Galloway fleet. It is important to note that they were married in Liverpool in 1866, and ended their days in England where they are buried. With seafaring families, this is always a possibility to watch out for.


  1. "Introduction", Saint John Ships... describes the state of register books and detail her frustrations.
  2. Douglas, Althea, Here be Dragons! Navigating the Hazards found in Canadian Family Research (Toronto: Ontario Genealogical Society, 1996)m pages 57-58
  3. Contact The Secretary, Maritime History Archive, Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John's Newfoundland A1C5S7, Canada, Telephone: 709-737-8428, Email:mha@mun.ca

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Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course Research: New Brunswick Ancestors offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at wiki@genealogicalstudies.com <br>

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.