Correspondence of Captain Burr Sistare to his Wife, Abby

Undated photograph of the General Scott
Accession #2000.100.664

Every piece in the Library has its own unique story to tell, and we invite you to look at a few of the thousands of materials and hear their tales through the Museum's From the Vault, a rotating digital exhibit featuring a different treasure from the Library.

Included among several items donated to the Research Library in 2009 by Deborah, Hannah, and Christine Sistare are five letters written by a nineteenth century whaling captain to his wife back home. Captain Burr Sistare of New London, Connecticut, penned these letters from several different ports of call, including Faial, Cape Verde, and Talcahuano from the years 1845 to 1847. His rich correspondence reveals a deeply religious and devoted husband in command of a whaling voyage marred by an unfortunate twist of fate.

Consisting of five letters written to his wife, Abby, while in command of the ship General Scott’s 1845 voyage out of New London, Connecticut, Captain Sistare describes the typical events a captain expects to encounter while onboard a whaling voyage, including desertions, illness, and theft. Sistare even describes the difficulties of catching whales during a particularly unprosperous season, describing his voyage as “broken” and states that “I have done all that land in my power to fill the ship.”

Captain Sistare never shied away from showing his disdain for whaling while expressing his undying affection for his wife and children back home in New London, Connecticut.

A deeply pious man, Sistare demonstrates in each of his letters an unshakable faith and reverence for his religion by observing the Sabbath with his crew and often invoking the name of the Lord, praying that He will bring the General Scott a plentiful catch on this voyage and guide Sistare home safely. His affection for his family also shines through, as his adoration often directly juxtaposes his disdain for whaling in light of the General Scott’s poor voyage. Perhaps the most notable example occurs when he writes to Abby on November 15, 1846, soon after discovering that their son, George, intends to enter the whaling industry. Sistare states “I am sorry to hear that George thinks of going to sea. I hope that he will think better of it.”

The General Scott returned to port on March 27, 1848, but Captain Sistare, having died tragically on the return voyage, never experienced the joyous reunion with his loving wife and family that he intended. Sistare’s January 12, 1847 letter to Abby eerily warns of this heartbreaking plot twist when he writes “I pray that God in his goodness will enable us to meet once more in this world in health, for there is no one else to look to but Him, and all I ask is that I may live to get home once more.” Sistare penned these heartfelt words while in “first rate health,” unaware of the tragic fate in store for him.

Pictured above is the envelope in which Abby and her children enshrined Burr Sistare's final letter in remembrance of him. 

Since this collection contains only the letters written by Captain Sistare to his beloved wife, it is impossible to read how Abby longed for her husband while he was at sea or feel her sorrow after she received the news of his death. However, Captain Sistare’s final letter, dated December 1, 1847, sheds some light on how Abby and her children coped with the pain of this tragedy. At the top of this letter appear the words “The last letter mother received from your father – A.S.” The initials stand for Abby Sistare, proving that she and her children cherished this letter as a lasting and enduring memory of their fallen captain.

While the history books tell a grief-stricken tale of loss, this collection provides evidence of an enduring love unbroken broken by distance or death, granting them a timeless quality that will endure for countless generations to come. The Research Library houses over 120 distinct manuscript collections, and Burr Sistare's story offers only one example of the thousands of unique and interesting stories stored in the Library’s vaults.  If you would like to take a more detailed glance at the Library's holdings, please contact Mark Procknik at the Research Library, (508) 997-0046 ext. 134, to schedule a research appointment.