Feature Article: Our Ancestors Came in Ships—but the Trip Could Be Fatal

There were hundreds, probably thousands of ships arriving every year at American ports in the early 1800s. We depended on them for commerce and the steady arrival of the immigrants that built this country. The trip across the Atlantic was dangerous—and could be fatal.

Two voyages in 1836 ended in disaster. The news must have been riveting. Were our ancestors waiting for word of the arrival of a sister from England? A son returning from a trip to Europe? Disaster at sea was a reminder that no trip was completely safe.

In November 1836 the Bristol was wrecked off the coast of Long Island, New York.

Painting by Thomas Chambers: "Rockaway Beach, New York, with the Wreck of the Ship Bristol,"
c. 1837-1840. Indiana University Art Museum. Credit: Athenaeum.

America's newspapers quickly spread the word about the wreck of the Bristol. GenealogyBank's online historical newspaper archives have hundreds of articles giving details of the shipwreck.

Saturday Morning Herald (Boston, Massachusetts), 26 November 1836, page 51.

Each voyage took months. It must have been tense waiting for so long to know if your relatives or friends made their voyages successfully.

The news of the Bristol's shipwreck was about to be repeated, just one month later.

Newark Daily Advertiser (Newark, New Jersey), 5 January 1837, page 2.

The barque Mexico left Liverpool, England, in October 1836 with a 12-man crew and 104 passengers on board. Two-thirds of the passengers were women and children.

Two months after departing, the ship made it to the coast of New Jersey on Saturday, December 31, 1836. But, like an airplane waiting for the designated gate to open, the Mexico had to sit offshore with another "thirty or more square rigged vessels" waiting for a guide ship to pilot them in to the docks.

The sea was rough that day, and a gale-force wind blew them fifty miles from the port. It was now January 1837, the weather was not cooperating, and half the crew "were badly frost-bitten." They could only remain above deck for 30 minutes at a time.

Soundings were taken but were not accurate. As the newspaper article explains: "The event has shewn that the information given by the mate as to the depth of water was incorrect; his error probably arose from the lead line being frozen stiff at the time it was cast."

The captain, thinking that the water was deep enough for him to remain in place, dropped anchor. But as the tides shifted the ship "struck the bottom, 26 miles east of Sandy Hook at Hempstead beach, and not more than a cable's length from the shore."

A bad situation for the ship out at sea was growing worse... "The scene that ensued on board, we leave to the reader's imagination."

"The Wreck of the Mexico and the Rescue of Captain Winslow," artist unknown.
From Tragedies of the Seas by Charles Ellms (Philadelphia: Carey & Hart, 1841).
Credit: Google Books.

The Mexico's life boats were deployed, but they were quickly smashed by the pounding waves. Finally a rescue boat came out from the shore to help the stricken ship and eight men—including Captain Winslow—jumped in and headed back to shore, escaping the Mexico.

What? The captain was one of the first to desert the ship?

The remaining ship passengers and crew, despite the fierce cold, gathered on the deck—watching the shore to see if more rescue boats would come out to save them.

None did.

"When they perceived that no further help came from the land their piercing shrieks were distinctly heard at a considerable distance, and continued through the night until they one by one perished."

Their remains were found in the morning "lashed to different parts of the wreck embedded in ice."

"None, it is believed, were drowned, but all frozen to death."

Read the full account of the Mexico' shipwreck and the list of those that died in the Newark Daily Advertiser (Newark, New Jersey), 5 January 1837, page 2.

GenealogyBank gives you the news as your ancestors' lived it.

Newark Daily Advertiser (Newark, New Jersey), 5 January 1837, page 2.