I was listening to a book recently about shipwrecks on the Great Lakes and a thought came to my mind that really made me quite sad…though definitely not as sad as when I consider the loss of life that took place in those many wrecks. My Uncle Bill Spencer told me years ago that the Great Lakes are littered with ships that were lost in some of the worst storms on the lakes. In fact, he told me that if you fly over Lake Superior, which is the lake near where he lived most of his life, you could actually see the ships on the bottom of the lake. That thought always made me want to charter a small plane and go see for myself.
Shipwrecks aside, the book told of the different reasons that ships went down, and how the safety regulations were often extremely inadequate. From not enough lifeboats, to lifejackets that were stored to far from the posts to be reached, to companies who regularly pressured their captains to take their ships out in terrible storms, the life of the sea was very dangerous. Of course, there are still shipwrecks today, although the last sinking on the Great Lakes was on November 10, 1975, when the SS Edmond Fitzgerald went down in a horrible November gale. With more recent safety regulations, the Great Lakes have been able to stave off shipwrecks in the last 45 years.
Still, it is not the number of wrecks, or even the lives lost, that has me considering a loss that is even greater…and least from the viewpoint of genealogy. As I was listening to the book, I heard that in several situations, they could not get an exact count of the lost, even if they technically knew how many were on board. The ships manifests had gone down with the ship. My mind raced. If there were people on those ships who had immigrated here, and their names were not recorded somewhere, they could virtually disappear and along with them, their line in the family tree they came from. I know that the many genealogy fanatics, like me, would just cringe at the thought of one of our ancestors simply vanishing. There are so many ways for a family line to get muddied. Name changes, marriages, undocumented deaths, as well as those who just left without telling anyone, are all among the lost ones, but I hadn’t considered those who meant to stay in touch, but who were never heard from, and their family back in Europe or wherever they came from, had no idea what happened. All they knew was that they were lost forever.