Multi-language Sea Letter
Issued November 11, 1859
Photo by Timothy D. Bartolo
This document was issued in New Bedford to the vessel Rainbow, which was under the command of James Nichols and which had a carrying capacity of 473 tons (known as “burden”). The vessel was heading from New Bedford bound for the Pacific Ocean, with provisions and stores with utensils for a whaling voyage. Earlier, the experienced Captain Nichols had commanded the whalers Ganges and Sophia Thorton. On this successful voyage, Rainbow departed New Bedford on November 12, 1859 and returned on June 10, 1864, having avoided Confederate raiders during this five-year voyage. She returned with over 1200 barrels of sperm whale oil. In a later voyage, the Rainbow was involved in an important lawsuit in 1872, which arose when its crew harpooned a whale in the Okhotsk Sea, but the whale got away. The crew of the Hercules shortly after captured the whale. The court found that because the Rainbow’s harpoon and line were attached to the whale, valued at about $3,000, it should belong to Rainbow.
The sea-letter is in four languages: French; Spanish; English; and Dutch and was signed by President James Buchanan who served one term from March 4, 1857 until March 4, 1861. During his time in office, the country saw the dissolution of the Whig Party and the emergence of the Republicans, and the country cascaded toward the Civil War. Buchanan didn’t grasp the power and importance of the sectionalism and the arguments over slavery in new territories. In his inaugural address he said the issue was, “happily, a matter of but little practical importance” but two days later the U. S. Supreme Court handed down the Dred Scott decision, which delighted the South and infuriated the North. Tensions continued to grow and when a number of his cabinet members resigned, Buchanan replaced them with Northerners and sent reinforcements to Fort Sumter. A month after he left office, the first shots of the Civil War were fired at Fort Sumter. The document is also signed by Secretary of State Lewis Cass, who was well-prepared for the office having served as a U.S. Senator, Andrew Jackson’s Secretary of War and Minister to France where he served for six years. President Buchanan had been Secretary of State under President Polk and did not allow Cass the freedom he needed to be effective. When Abraham Lincoln was President-elect, Cass voiced his difference with Buchanan and resigned before the end of Buchanan’s term.
The sea letter is also signed by Collector of Customs in New Bedford, Charles B. H. Fessenden, who served in the office for four years. The notary, James Taylor also signed.
This sea letter was printed on rag paper and bears the Great Seal of the United States on the center bottom and the embossed seals of the New Bedford Collector of Customs in the center left and Notary at the left bottom.
[Description provided by J. Revell Carr, former President and Director, Mystic Seaport: The Museum of American and the Sea]