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What Can a Family Historian Learn from the Titanic?

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We’re all very familiar with the story, we’ve read the books and watched the movies. This week marks the 100th Anniversary of the Titanic disaster, and it’s being played out over and over again across the Internet.

I’ve read many articles this week, watched a television special, and something started to bother me; the varying degree of information floating around.

A few nights back, I put my genealogy cap on, (not that it ever comes off) and pondered why was I reading one thing, and then hearing something else. I listened to descendants of Titanic survivors tell their stories, hoping they had their ancestor's account recorded in their own words. I read stories over and over again, only to read another story claiming differently and claiming facts to be myths. I could no longer tell the real story from the fictional one. And I dare say most would think the grand movie that we all know and love is becoming the fact instead of the fiction.

Of course, as family historians we know all to well the problems that arise when a moment in history begins to be wrapped in speculation and theory and told as truth to future generations. The hype of the Titanic this week certainly drives home a lesson many of us learned early on, the value of a primary source.

As family historians, when we get handed a 100 year old story are focus becomes a task of separating fact from folklore. The Titanic story has been fictionalized in books and movies for our entertainment which has put us in a difficult place, some members of our society only know the story as it was told on the big screen. Add to that 100 years, the power of the internet and we have a mess. 

Therefore, I  encourage you, like we would encourage any new family historian, to look to your primary sources. Those sources should include, documents, eyewitness accounts and correspondence. There is no excuse, because the sources are readily available.

When it comes to the Titanic story, don’t take some else’s word for it. Take some time to look at the actual documents for yourself. You can find them quite easily at These records are free for viewing to everyone until the end of May 2012.

The other night I took some time to look through these records. I am not related to anyone who sailed the Titanic. My only desire was to see the documents for myself.

The documents included:
Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, RMS Titanic Fatality Reports, 1912
Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, RMS Titanic Graves, 1912
Titanic Survivors, Carpathia Passenger List, 1912
UK, RMS Titanic, Crew Records, 1912
UK, RMS Titanic, Deaths at Sea, 1912
UK, RMS Titanic, Outward Passenger List, 1912

Some of the records at include correspondence, crew agreements, lists of crew deceased, crew surviving, passengers deceased and passengers surviving or missing.These are not transcriptions, you can view the actual documents.

A few years ago I had the opportunity to go to Halifax, Nova Scotia. Halifax played a key role in the recovery of the victims of the Titanic. If you have an opportunity, visit the Maritime Museum, it houses many Titanic artefacts and stories. I also visited the cemetery where many passengers are buried. Some were never identified while others were buried here because their families could not afford the passage to have their bodies returned home.

To learn more about Nova Scotia's roll in the Titanic disaster visit Titanic in Nova Scotia, 100 Years 1912-2012 

Other reliable sources of Titanic information that can be found on online include

The Titanic Historical Society

When it comes to books, I learned of a book recently, by Violet Jessop,Titanic Survivor.  Violet was a crew member on the Titanic and survived, but also survived the sinking of the Britannic and served on hundreds ocean crossings. Violet was a women ahead of her time and her memoir not only is a first hand account of her experience on the Titanic but it reveals the life of very adventurous young women. Consider picking it up for a read.

Also available on, Titanic: The Official Story April 14-15, 1912  This boxed set contains reproductions of eighteen documents, including orginal deck plans, the Titanic's final telegrams, an eyewitness account by one of the survivors, findings of the Parliament and Senate investigations along with many other records.

The History channel will be airing on April 15th at 8pm ET Titanic at 100: Mystery Solved  a high-tech documentary that will present the expedition’s astonishing findings and reveal never-before-seen wreckage of the famous ship, which was discovered in 1985 off the coast of Newfoundland. Click the link above to purchase it on DVD.

What can you learn from the 100th Anniversary of the Titanic, other then don’t believe them when they tell you a ship is unsinkable (by the way, there is no proof that was ever proclaimed, one of those myths). 

Consider your source, seek out primary sources, and don’t take 100 year old stories at face value. Do your own research, and always seek out solid sources to support your family history story.  Let’s not allow the entertainment value of a good story cloud our view of history.


Liesa Healy-Miller said...

Excellent points, Lynn! I think we are all overwhelmed by the volume of coverage right now. It's important to step back and reflect, as you have suggested, on what's real, and what's not so real!

Heather Kuhn Roelker said...

A good point. I have always been interested in the Titanic so it was important for me to commemorate it's 100 anniversary through a blog post. But I found that as I was looking for information for my post it was difficult to find "fact." I think the Internet is a large piece of that issue. Some website owners just post information without any research and it becomes "fact" because it is on the Internet.

Lynn Palermo said...

Thanks Liesa and Heather, there certainly is a very blurry line between fact and fiction when it comes to the Titanic story. Thanks for stopping by really appreciate it.

Linda Gartz said...

Thanks for this excellent list of resources to learn more about the Titanic Disaster and practice separating fact from fiction. My Dad was born in 1914, and although he was born after the disaster, he spoke about it to us often. No matter what details are fact or fiction, I'm sure it's difficult of anyone to think of those doomed passengers on that star-crossed ship and the horror of their last moments. Even those who survived must have been haunted their entire lives by what they experienced. The NYT had an excellent article this past week about the confluence of weather and sea-related phenomenon that came together that perhaps puts this event more into a "perfect storm" scenario than human miscalculation (although not being prepared for disaster was the greatest miscalculation).

Lynn Palermo said...

Thanks Linda, I will have to look for that article. I agree, I cannot think of a more awful way to leave this world, and those who survived and were haunted with survivors guilt, it's a tragedy that much was to be learned from.

Jacqi Stevens said...

While we may all feel like we are on the verge of commemoration overload, I recently was tipped off about an opposite problem by my college-age daughter. Evidently, until this week's news frenzy, a number of her peers knew nothing of the Titanic other than the movie, leading them to believe it was all just a great story! They had no idea there was really such a ship or that this tragedy really happened! As the kids say now, *head desk* to think our history classes have failed this reality-check generation.