Composed of two volumes and separate newspaper clippings, the Marine Disaster Registers contain shipwreck data including casualty numbers and monetary losses for the years 1784 through 1858. This suggests the unknown compiler or compilers of the registers had an interest in maritime activity relating to economics and insurance considerations. Thus, the compiler(s) possibly worked for an insurance company, a shipping firm, or a government agency interested in compiling statistics concerning maritime travel.
Each register contains entries listing shipwreck data including vessel names, captains, dates of accident or loss, and these specific vessel types: bark, brig, clipper ship, corvette, ferry-boat, frigate, mail steamship, man-of-war, pilot boat, privateer, propeller, revenue cutter, sail-boat, schooner, ship, sloop, sloop-of-war, steam tug, steamship, troop ship, war schooner, war steamer, whale bark, and whale ship. Both volumes recorded a vessel's home country, i.e. the United States, Great Britain, France, Spain, Russia, Belgium, Chile, Egypt, Mexico, Norway, Peru, Portugal, and Sardinia. Register entries commonly included a vessel's port of departure, intended destination, and home port. Most often mentioned are the ports of New York, Boston, Chicago, Mobile, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Baltimore, San Francisco, and Savannah. Other ports mentioned include Wilmington, New Bern, Hatteras, and Ocracoke in North Carolina, as well as Buffalo, Cincinnati, Liverpool, London, Constantinople, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Sydney, Havana, San Juan, and Port-au-Prince, and ports in Wales, Bermuda, the West Indies, and Nicaragua.
Each register frequently documented specific geographical information regarding marine disasters (often including latitude and longitude) and the reasons behind them. Bodies of water repeatedly mentioned include the Great Lakes region (Lakes Erie, Huron, Michigan, Ontario, and Superior), many rivers (Mississippi, Ohio, Pidgeon, St. Lawrence, Red, and Mersey Rivers), and the Black Sea. Often a vessel's geographical disposition was referenced to the nearest shoreline, cape, or island. Many disasters occurred off Cape Hatteras Shoals, Currituck, Ocracoke, Key West and the Tortugas, Long Island, Mobile, below Vicksburg, Virginia, Cadiz, the Cape of Good Hope, Chile, and the Straits of Magellan. Only a few entries related specific causes of the marine disasters such as "captain and crew murdered and schooner sunk opposite City Island by the Negro cook," "sunk by propeller
`Potomsku'," "lost on the reef," "never heard from," "struck by lightning and burnt at sea," and "wrecked on a coral reef" . Most references include short descriptions concerning a vessel's demise such as "abandoned," "abandoned at sea," "ashore," "burned," "capsized," "collided with," "exploded," "exploded and burned," "lost," "lost at sea," "naval engagement," "run into," "struck a rock," "struck ice," "sunk," and "wrecked." Some entries mention if a vessel simply went aground and "was got off" a bar or reef. Entries often list number of lives lost, life-saving feats by the crews of other vessels, monetary value, year of construction, vessel tonnage, and number of masts.
Volume I contains 132 handwritten pages in two unbound and separate sections. Its first segment has 12 pages (numbered 2-13) with single-sided entries, and lists maritime disasters for the years 1827-1828 and 1838-1842. This section is not organized chronologically or alphabetically. Pages 12 through 13 are organized in a chart form with subject headings including vessel name, captain, from (port of departure), to (destination), and space for the disaster's description. Volume I's second segment contains 120 handwritten pages in four divisions. The first 35 pages have double-sided entries, are unnumbered and not chronological, and catalogue disasters between 1853 and 1855. Included in the text is a tally comparing American and foreign losses of ships, their value, and human lives lost for 1853. The next 70 pages are partially numbered (pp. 2-50), have double-sided entries, and contain non-chronological records for 1837-1839, 1853-1854, and 1856-1858. This section appears to consist of note-like annotations and includes increased references to monetary losses and vessel construction information. The third section has 4 pages consisting of a British screw war steamers chart of 1854 with these subject headings: number of guns, tonnage, length, breadth, cylinder diameter, horsepower, kind and number of cylinders, and maker's name. This section is arranged alphabetically by vessel name. Volume I's last 11 pages log vessels captured or destroyed during the War of 1812 (1811-1815) and marine disasters of 1784-1785 and 1817-1824. This section is unnumbered and non-chronological.
Volume II is bound and comprised of 111 handwritten pages with distinct chronological headings with a loose single page incomplete index for pages 77, 79, 81, 83, and 85. Beginning in January 1856 and ending in December 1858, the register lists marine disasters in chronological order with additions in non-chronological order made throughout. A tally of lives and money lost in January 1856 for the United States appears with comparisons to the countries of Great Britain, Spain, Portugal, Norway, and Chile (pp. 6-7). All of the foreign vessels lost during the months of January, February, and March of 1856 are listed separately by country. Beginning with April, the vessel's home country is named in the ledger entry text. Volume II is organized in a relatively chronological order with the exception of January 1856 (pp. 1-7, 43-44). A roughly alphabetical list of ship names, their types, home ports, destinations, and monetary losses appears on pages 45 through 47. For pages 91 through 137, the register includes only odd-numbered pages and there aren't any pages numbered 131, 133, or 135.
A small collection of newspaper clippings (1857-1858, undated) were inserted into pages of both register volumes. One clipping is Lloyd's of London losses, while others contain news of lives and vessels lost in marine disasters.