All Aboard: A Piece of Maritime History in the Archives

One of my favorite experiences while interning at Burke has been to inventory the MRL unprocessed records. I was working on records pertaining to China when I came across a very interesting letter, written by  woman named Gertrude. Perhaps it was a result of daydreaming about the Titanic or that I had recently seen a video about ships, but for whatever reason the letter captured my attention. The header of the letter read “American President Lines, On board S.S. President Jackson,” the name of the vessel sounded familiar and I was set to determine why. I also noticed that the letter was dated December 1946, not that long after World War II had ended and I was curious to see what was happening in the world after such an event.

I decided to read the full letter and was pleased to find it amusing but also very informative. The author paints a full picture of the characteristics of the ship including the arrangement of the sleeping quarters. She also describes the passengers on board and their customs. I was struck by the detail of the letter and the interesting facts that it revealed. Why was this diverse group of people aboard a troop ship? What was happening with mission work in China during the 1940s?

A quick search on Google revealed the interesting origins of the S.S President Jackson. The American President lines had been providing services since the 1850s. This ship was part of a famous fleet that was built by the American Government when they took over the company during World War II. The ship was a C-3 class vessel, a type of cargo ship that could be converted for naval use. The S.S. President Jackson was used to transport soldiers but also to evacuate passengers from several destroyed ships. Not only was this ship a war ship but it earned several battle awards for its service during World War II and the Korean War. It appears that after the war the ship continued to be used as a regular transport ship, though, no doubt not one of the most luxurious options. As the writer of this letter reveals, this was no luxury vessel; the sleeping quarters were cramped and these conditions contributed to the spread of disease.

Another interesting fact that the letter reveals is that this ship was being used by the Foreign Missions Conference and that there were over 58 different denominations on this ship. A little research revealed that this period of time was an intense period in China for evangelism. The church had grown dramatically as a result of the war, including the birth of many independent denominations. In 1946, when the letter was written, communist forces started to take over China and this resulted in a mass exodus of missionaries. The writer reveals that there were many families on board the ship and that life is China was drastically different from what many missionaries experienced at home. Therefore, the excitement that is conveyed in this letter is one that might have been felt by many as they returned home.

Finding these little bits of history is exciting and is a great part of what makes archiving so rewarding. It is always interesting  to see how someone’s perspective can provide insight into historical events. I am happy that I had a chance to come across such an interesting record before I leave Burke.

To read Gertrude's full letter, please click here.

The finding aid for Burke Library's Foreign Missions Conference of North American collection is available online here.

Wikipedia contributors. "American President Lines," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, (accessed December 20, 2013).

Overseas Missionary Fellowship International. “History” December 20, 2013).

One thought on “All Aboard: A Piece of Maritime History in the Archives

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *