Geneanet > Resources > Blog > Genealogy News

General Slocum genealogies: a thousand source documents added

Posted by Sean Daly on Jun 14, 2023
Composite image of scenes from the General Slocum disaster

On June 15, 1904, the awful General Slocum steamboat disaster in New York City decimated the German-American community of Kleindeutschland: over a thousand women and children perished. At Geneanet, we honor the victims and survivors of the tragedy by documenting the lives of every known passenger. It’s a free and collaborative project, open to all.

Front page of the New York Tribune, June 16, 1904, with news of the burning and sinking of the excursion steamer General Slocum
Captain William van Schaick was supported by the harbor captains and pilots of New York; Pastor Haas, who lost his wife, daughter, mother-in-law, and sister-in-law, received condolences from the President and the Kaiser.

We have written previously about this entirely preventable disaster in New York’s East River which occurred due to a combination of circumstances: greed and indifference to safety on the part of the ship’s owners; an experienced captain a year from retirement who somehow never organized a single fire drill, tolerated unusable safety equipment, and didn’t know or care that flammable materials were stored in a cabin; incompetence or corruption on the part of the federal inspectors who certified the boat as safe; a wooden boat, painted with flammable paint, tinder dry in the summer; a green crew, recruited from the docks three weeks prior; a majority of passengers women and children dressed in their finest clothes, who didn’t know how to swim; the fire discovered just as the ship advanced into a headwind through the treacherous Hell Gate channel, pushed by a flood tide; the captain’s decision to beach in deep water at North Brother Island instead of the shallower Bronx shoreline, for fear of spreading the fire to land. Over a thousand passengers died from drowning or fire in the disaster.

Side photo of the PS General Slocum in 1893
The General Slocum, New York’s largest palace steamer, in September 1893, two years after it was launched. Photo: Nathaniel L. Stebbins
Prow photo of PS General Slocum in 1893.
In October 1893, the Slocum was crowded with spectators for the America’s Cup yacht race south of New York. By 1904 however, the ship had seen better days. Photo: Nathaniel L. Stebbins
It was from this pier at the foot of East 3rd St in Kleindeutschland that the passengers boarded the Slocum the morning of the picnic excursion. Photo: George Ehler Stonebridge, New York Historical Society
St Marks Evangelical Lutheran Church on East 6th St in Kleindeutschland organized an excursion every year at the end of Sunday school classes. Today, the building is a synagogue; the congregation installed a memorial plaque for the Slocum victims in 2004. From the Geneanet Postcards collection.


From the 1840s on, Germans came in great numbers to New York City; most settled in the adjacent 17th, 11th, 13th, and 10th Wards which came to be known as Kleindeutschland, Little Germany (or “Dutchtown” to other New Yorkers). The spiritual heart of Kleindeutschland was St Marks Evangelical Lutheran Church on East 6th St; pastor George C.F. Haas had married hundreds of German-American couples in previous years.

Every year for the previous 16 years, the Sunday school of St Marks Church — where classes were conducted in German — organized an annual picnic excursion to Long Island. The General Slocum was the natural choice as it was the largest paddle steamer in New York’s waters along with its sister ship, the Grand Republic.

June 15th was a Wednesday, a workday, so very few working men joined the excursion; most dropped off their families at the pier that morning. Many would never see their families again. In the years following the disaster, several bereaved fathers, inconsolable, took their lives.

The burned hulk of the PS General Slocum, with only the metal armature and paddlebox visible
The dead and missing far outnumbered the survivors of the General Slocum.

Condolences for Pastor Haas of St Marks Evangelical Lutheran Church

The disaster was reported worldwide. Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany was in the Taunus mountain range north of Frankfurt as the guest of honor at the fifth annual Gordon Bennett Cup road race sponsored by the millionaire owner of the New York Herald. The Kaiser learned of the full scale of the disaster on the day of the race, June 17, and the next day wrote a telegram to his ambassador in Washington, Baron Speck von Sternburg, to be forwarded to Pastor Haas:

Auf das tiefste erschuerttert durch die Kunde von dem unbeschreiblich entsetzlichen unglueck welches die deutsche lutherische gemeinde getroffen beauftrage ich sie bei Ihr der dolmetsch meines inningsten mitgefeuhls zu sein.

Deeply shocked by the news of the indescribably horrible catastrophe that has befallen the German Lutheran community, I ask you to convey my deepest sympathy to them.

The Gordon Bennett Cup road race of 1904 near Frankfurt
Kaiser Wilhelm II was in attendance at the Gordon Bennett Cup road race in Bad Homburg vor der Höhe near Saalburg when he was informed of the tragedy in New York.
Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany in 1904
Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany in 1904.
The Kaiser instructed his ambassador in Washington to convey his sympathy to Pastor Haas. Politisches Archiv des Auswärtigen Amts (Political Archive of the German Foreign Office), file RAV 292/43.
Telegram from German Ambassador Baron von Sternburg to Pastor Haas
Baron Speck von Sternburg immediately forwarded the Kaiser’s message to Pastor Haas — he had already expressed his sympathy — adding: Indem ich diesen auftrag meines allergn aedigsten herrn ausfuehre bitte ich nochmale die versicherung auch meiner persoenlichen teilname anzunehmen. Der Kaiserliche botschafter. (In carrying out this order of my most gracious sovereign, I ask you to accept again my personal sympathy. The Imperial Ambassador.) Lutheran Archives Center at Philadelphia.

Kaiser Wilhelm’s wife the Kaiserin Auguste Victoria, deeply moved, also sent condolences through the ambassador:

Ire majetaet die kaiserin und koenigin hat mich beauftragt allerhoechstihre herzlichst teilnahme zum ausdruck zu bringen zu dem namenlosen ungluect das so schweres leid ueber hunderte von deutschen familien gebracht hat euer hochwuerden bitte ich auch dieses zur kenntnis der beteiligten bringen zu wollen.
Der Kaiserliche Botschafter

Her Majesty the Empress and Queen has commissioned me to express her deepest sympathy from her heart following the indescribable calamity which has brought such heavy suffering to hundreds of German families, and to bring this to the attention of those involved.
The Imperial Ambassador

Telegram from Ambassador von Sternburg transmitting the condolences of the Kaiserin Auguste Victoria
Telegram from Kaiserin Auguste Victoria to Pastor Haas, transmitted by Ambassador Baron von Sternburg. Lutheran Archives Center at Philadelphia.

Later, the Kaiserin awarded medals to the nurses at the North Brother Island hospital who had rescued and cared for passengers.

In New York, recently elected Mayor George B. McClellan Jr., a former journalist and lawyer born in Dresden to American parents, was deeply affected by the Slocum disaster. He quickly visited North Brother Island and the temporary morgue, and organized a fundraising committee for relief of the victims’ families. Sadly, the disbursement of these funds in the months following the disaster led to a rift between the survivors’ association, who felt that all funds available should go to the families, and Pastor Haas, who felt that the remaining funds should be used to finance the church whose congregation had been decimated.

Mayor George B. McClellan Jr. quickly organized a fundraising committee for relief of the Slocum families.

President Theodore Roosevelt sent Pastor Haas a telegram from the White House: “Accept my profound sympathy for yourself and the congregation in the terrible calamity that has befallen you. Am inexpressibly shocked and grieved.”

Telegram from President Theodore Roosevelt to Pastor Haas
Telegram from President Theodore Roosevelt. Lutheran Archives Center at Philadelphia.
The personal effects of victims were carefully gathered into numbered envelopes and brought to the temporary morgue from North Brother Island. Some families were only able to identify their loved ones through jewelry or items of clothing they had been wearing. Photo: George Ehler Stonebridge, New York Historical Society
General Slocum monument in All Faiths (formerly Lutheran) Cemetery, Middle Village, Queens, New York City
61 unidentified victims of the Slocum disaster were buried at this monument in Lutheran Cemetery (called All Faiths today) in Middle Village, Queens; a ceremony is held there every year, and this year will take place on Saturday, June 17.

The General Slocum Families Trees project has added over a thousand BMD certificates

Nearly two years have passed since we started our collaborative tree project and today there are:

  • 1000 New York City birth, marriage, and death (BMD) certificates from the NYC Municipal Archives
  • 4000 people in the tree, including many German ancestors
  • 100 photos of victims and survivors, sourced from contemporary newspapers and from the families

No accurate count of passengers was made during boarding the morning of June 15, 1904, so every passenger list differs in numbers. We have accounted for 1,373 passengers at this writing and project volunteers continue to add passengers and their families regularly.

The opening of New York City’s historical vital records a year ago has transformed NYC genealogy and simplified our research into the Slocum families. In many cases, German family names were mangled by careless municipal registrars; painstaking research by Geneanet volunteers has resulted in isolated names on the victim lists being reunited with their extended families.

We have written about some of the Slocum families, such as the Zieglers, whose daughter Emily perished, to the great distress of her suitor John Flammang Schrank, later the would-be assassin of Theodore Roosevelt; and Walter Bernard Miller, born in New York City to German immigrant parents, who died in aerial combat during World War I.

This is a collaborative project and anyone who wishes to work on the family trees of the Slocum passengers is welcome to join! Please send us a message if you have any questions.

Screenshot of a Geneanet family tree page showing text, URL, and attached document sources
At Geneanet, sources can be text citations, weblinks to source documents or indexes, or an attached digitized document.
Portrait photo of Walter Bernard Miller in 1916
Walter Bernard Miller survived the Slocum disaster as a boy, losing his parents and youngest brother. Raised by his German grandmother, he joined the US Navy and when war broke out, he volunteered first as an ambulance driver in Alsace, then as an airman in the Lafayette Flying Corps. He was shot down over France on August 3, 1918.

1 comment

My grandmother, Meta Delventhal, who was then about 7 years old, was scheduled to be aboard The General Slocum the day it burned. That morning, however, her sister woke up with a fever and my great grandmother, my grandmother and siblings were terribly disappointed to have to cancel joining in on the outing. It saved their lives.. Kleindeutschland never fully recovered. For years my grandmother clipped articles about anniversary remembrances until they they were no longer held.

See more

Log in to leave a comment. Sign In / Sign Up