This question is about crew ages on trading voyages in the North Pacific around 1810. The number of crew members on these voyages was often in the low dozens. Funding could come at least in part from captains like Barkley, Dobell, or Gyzelaar, but often the backer was a corporation like the East India Company, the Russian-American Company, Bryant & Sturgis, or the North West Company. Let's disregard the unique case of the Manila Galleon system, which wound down around this time.

It goes without saying that the captains preferred to hire skilled, reliable, affordable candidates for their crew. The skill and reliance criteria could rule out very old and very young applicants (but note the role of cabin boy).

Local conditions affected crew age distribution. A sponsored mission of exploration could hire a whole cohort of sailors in the prime of life, while a frontier transport beset by scurvy might be forced to hire whatever manpower was available in some remote port. All else equal, a vessel with a larger crew would tend to have a slightly larger spread of ages. Every crew had one youngest and one oldest sailor.

Typically, how old were the youngest and oldest sailors aboard?

Probably this question can only be answered obliquely, so I'm open to extrapolations based on other places and times.

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    The answer may be skewed by the fact that the Pacific was something of a frontier region for European crews and that the Napoleonic Wars were in full swing (which would have draw a large number of able-bodied seamen into the European and U.S. navies). So the age range may be wider that you might expect compared to, say, pre-war Atlantic trade.
    – Steve Bird
    Jan 16, 2019 at 21:17
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    @aaron brick: my g.g.g. grandfather was taken to sea by his father at age 6. There is no age to young for a sailor! It's really a question of the work being done. Many sailors continued their work into their fifties and beyond. See the biographical work by James Fenimore Cooper, "Ned Myers, Or, A Life Before the Mast": play.google.com/books/reader?id=fVcI6OY6N6gC&pg=GBS.PA1 Jan 16, 2019 at 23:35
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    @SteveBird definitely. I hope someone can put some numbers on it. Jan 17, 2019 at 1:30
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    Interesting name: Gyzelaar is (probably of) Dutch or Flemish (origin), and means hostage. :-)
    – Jos
    Jan 17, 2019 at 2:00
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    @Jos: For a sailor, that name would most probably be earned as having once been taken by the Barbary Pirates.; whether self or an ancestor unclear. Jan 17, 2019 at 8:45

1 Answer 1


I would use the assumption that the age ranges were approximately normally distributed, and then work on determining:

  1. The mean of the distribution; and

  2. The standard deviation of the distribution.

and how both might vary by maritime speciality - fishing and particularly whaling, for instance, perhaps attracting a younger demographic due both to the need for greater strength and being more dangerous

Why a normal distribution you ask?

  1. Because the Central Limit Theorem states that if we can make the assumption that the arithmetic mean of the ages on individual ships are statistically independent, then the distribution of those means across the industry (and its specialities) is normally distributed even if the age distributions on each ship are not.

  2. The Central Limit Theorem further states that, if the distribution is actually Binomial, then due to large N the Normal Distribution is a suitable and accurate substitution.

  3. There is no reason to believe or expect that a specialized distribution, such as the Poisson or Pareto to take two common possibilities, would be applicable.

A reasonable sized sampling of crew lists from ships of the period would then allow one to estimate the mean and standard deviation of the whole population from that of the sample.

  • I expected an anwser for this question to contain at least one figure (e.g. "the mean is 20 years old")
    – Manu H
    Apr 12, 2020 at 17:50

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