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Franklin Pierce

Multi-language Sea Letter
Issued July 29, 1856

This document was issued in New Bedford to the barque Chile, which was under the command of Benjamin S. Clark and which had a carrying capacity of 291  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. This voyage in the Chile was documented through a spectacular “journal” kept by Rodolphus W. Dexter of Martha’s Vineyard who sailed on this voyage. The journal, illustrated profusely with drawings by Dexter, is preserved in the New Bedford Whaling Museum. The illustrations from the famous journal have been used to enhance many later books on whaling including an edition of Moby Dick.

This sea letter is in four languages: French; Spanish; English; and Dutch, and was signed by President Franklin Pierce who served one term from March 4, 1853 until March 4, 1857, and who had served both in the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate before ascending to the Presidency. Pierce entered the White House distraught over witnessing his eleven year-old son die when their train wrecked only two months before. Almost immediately, the issue of slavery in newly acquired territory that had theoretically been resolved by the Compromise of 1850, was rekindled. Secretary of War Jefferson Davis advocated a southern railroad route to the west and James Gadsden purchased land in Arizona and New Mexico for $10,000,000. Bitter argument developed over whether slavery would be allowed in this and other territory. This issue plagued Pierce throughout his Presidency as the Nation inched closer to civil war. The document is also signed by Secretary of State William Learned Marcy who had little foreign policy experience and had never traveled outside the United States. Never the less, he negotiated a number of treaties and agreements and was instrumental in the acquisition of 30,000 square miles of territory through the 1853 Gadsden Treaty. A unique aspect of this sea letter is that, even though Charles B. H. Fessenden was the Collector of Customs in New Bedford at this time, the document is signed by James Taylee, who signed as both Collector and Notary.

This sea letter is printed on rag paper and bears the Great Seal of the United States in the center and two notary seals on the lower center and the center left.

[Description provided by J. Revell Carr, former President and Director, Mystic Seaport: The Museum of American and the Sea]