Data Critiques

Whaling Crew List Database

This dataset was created by the Whaling Museum and the New Bedford Free Public Library and is updated once a year. This set shows all men who left New Bedford, MA on whaling vessels between the years 1809-1927. The data was originally recorded by Custom officials and was then later transcribed by chaplains of the New Bedford Port Society. Each row is an individual sailor. The columns contain the collected information about the sailors. This includes their first name, last name, and complete name, each as a separate column. Also noted is their skin, eye and hair color as well as their height and age. They included the sailors place of residence, their position on the vessel and their lay, or portion of the earnings. Also noted is the name and type of vessel, the voyage number, the vessel number and the estimated date of departure. Sometimes notes, marking a sailor’s return, desertion, death or other such information, was provided.

It was probably important to keep records of who was sailing on which vessel for business purposes. Some of the information makes sense, such as name and position but I honestly do not know why other information would be included such as eye color or height. I do not know much about the whaling industry though, so to a researcher familiar with this topic it may be more obvious.

According to the Whaling Museum website, there are 127,531 records in this data set that represent people from 33 states, two US territories and 100 nations. Each record is unique, but the same man may have sailed on multiple voyages so would be included more that once in the data set. Therefore, 127,531 records do not equal that many people. This data-set gives a look at the men who made up the whaling industry. It does not, though, give a complete understanding or picture of the industry itself or the people who worked it. Nothing is said about where the voyage was headed and what type of whale they were hunting. It does not describe the conditions or life on the ships or how these men ended up there.

Incomplete data is a problem with this data set. There are not complete records for most sailors. Place of residence is one of these that was not always recorded, and it is unclear if residence is the same as nation of origin. Someone may be living in New Bedford but was born in another state or country which could change a researcher’s understanding about the movement of people and who the people were who made up the whaling industry at that time. Another problem noted on the site is that the original documents were handwritten, and the officials may not have been able to correctly spell all the names. If the same man sailed more than once and each time his name was spelled differently, it may not be easy to connect them as the same person. This would create problems, too for genealogist looking for family members. Finally, when trying to see if there are trends in the data, the non-standardization of some of the entries could make this process more difficult. This is most clearly seen with skin color which can be any thing from dark or light to a simple “B” to the more bizarre, “blue.” This last one leads me to believe that sometimes eye color and skin color were recorded in the wrong columns. It is also unclear who was the person deciding what to put in these spaces. Was it the official or the sailor’s themselves?

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