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Genealogy by Occupation: Watery Deaths

This week Judy Rosella Edwards points out the value of knowing an ancestor's occupation.

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Resource: GenWeekly
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I live in a river town on the Illinois River that was once the largest city in the state. It isn't Chicago. It's Peoria.

The first steamboat arrived in Peoria in December of 1829, just a decade after statehood. In 1848, the Illinois and Michigan Canal connected the Illinois River with Lake Michigan. Within two years, 59 different boats made a stop in Peoria, making 1,286 arrivals.

Along with the river traffic came jobs for captains and mates. Death, also came.

Nearly every week, the local newspapers, beginning in the mid-1800s, ran stories of deaths by drowning. Often, the deceased was a deckhand who went overboard and was not recovered until it was too late. He was also not necessarily a local resident.

Because of the extensive river traffic, the deceased was sometimes far from home when they met their final fate. In the summer of 1860, a 30 year-old deck hand fell overboard from the steamer Brazil. According to the newspaper report, he was intoxicated while he was carrying lumber on board. He stumbled and fell into the water. A line was tossed into the dark water, but to no avail. When the Brazil left at 1:00 a.m., the body had still not been found.

Later, his body was found and identified as Daniel Keller, an Irishman, who had relatives living down the Mississippi River, in St. Louis. The implication was that he was an immigrant. The coroner determined Keller "was without friends or estate," and had his body interred in Peoria.

Local newspapers from river towns are full of such accounts. Drownings were sadly common and, as in the case of the Brazil, life went on and the local officials sorted out the details.

About the same time period, deck hand James Searles fell overboard during the night from the steamer Vigor, someplace between Chillicothe and Hennepin, Illinois. He was from Havana, Illinois, and the father of seven children.

Even if death certificates exist for those who drowned in the river, they were probably filed in a county other than where the deceased was living. They may have even been filed in a different state, as in the case of Keller.

Knowing an ancestor's occupation helps in these searches. River town newspapers, from early on, seemed fairly eager to report drownings, along with the coroner's reports. If an ancestor seems elusive, consider his occupation. If he worked on a river boat, either a steamer or a tug boat, peruse river town newspapers for information.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2010.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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