In 1840, a Nantucket whaler named Seth Pinkham embarked on one last voyage to save his family from financial ruin. But four years later, when he was just a month from home, he died from illness.
Now, the Nantucket Historical Association has acquired Pinkham’s personal papers from the ill-fated voyage to the Pacific Ocean, including letters the captain sent to his family.
“They’re full of his philosophy of life and his advice to his children, and they really give you an idea of who this person was,” said Betsy Tyler, the historical association’s research chairwoman.
The May acquisition, originally reported by the Cape Cod Times, was made through Skinner Auctioneers, said Devon Eastland, the auctioneer's director of fine books and manuscripts. An anonymous donor paid more than $11,000 for the association’s winning bid. Eastland said she could not identify who put the papers up for auction.
“Ordinarily, documents from whaling are factual, and are about weather, longitude, latitude,” Eastland said. “Seth Pinkham was very unusual. He was eloquent. He was opinionated.”
Pinkham had already completed three voyages, earning a fortune that allowed him to retire at 37. But his investments went bad, and so in his mid-50s, he returned to the sea at the helm of the Henry Astor, bound for the Pacific.
Pinkham’s papers were not only full of letters, but his personal thoughts on the voyage. Recalling the day he left home, Pinkham wrote it was not his intention to leave “in that apparently abrupt cold manner which I did, but what was to be done ... to alleviate or assuage the painful feelings of either party in such a trying moment.”
Tyler said the papers will join a collection of documents about the Nantucket family the association already owns.
“We have later letters among his six daughters and son and their mother, so we have a real sense of the family,” Tyler said. “The missing father we’ve never known as much about, so to have these papers is really an important addition.”
Pinkham frequently wrote letters of advice to his son, but there were fewer letters sent to his six daughters.
“There’s one letter to his daughter Harriet that he explains to her why she’s not getting as many letters because she’s not a boy and doesn’t need his advice as much,” Tyler said. “His son was the youngest, and he felt really bad about not being there to guide him.”
In the letter, Pinkham told his daughter “you must not think much at the voluminous mode that I have adopted in addressing your little brother. Although you may not discover it now, you will soon perceive when a few summer suns have rolled round, that his sphere of action in life is destined by nature to be vastly different from yours.”
The papers are currently in the research library, but the association hopes to exhibit them at some point in the near future.
“We’re very familiar with his world and the world of his family,” Tyler said. “It’s all very local and that’s the kind of material that we like to collect and make accessible, the lives of real people.”