1800s whaling letters given to college
FALL RIVER — First of all, it wasn’t easy.
And it wasn’t always a New Bedford story.
Whaling was a hard and dangerous business. Ships were gone for years. The men aboard risked death from disease or from the huge mammals they hunted.
In the 1840s, Preston Cummings sailed a ship out of Fall River, hunting the whales whose rendered blubber illuminated the world. And, as do those who wander the world, he wrote home when he could, to the wife he had waiting in Fall River.
And, in 1845, while Preston Cummings roamed the world harpooning the great beasts, his wife, Harriett, died.
The letters he wrote to her between 1840 and 1842 came down through the decades, a small packet handed from one generation to the next until they rested in the hands of Diane Carleton, a Virginia woman who recently donated the letters to the Watkinson Library at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn.
“His wife, Harriett, was my ancestor,” Carleton said. “My mother left me the letters. She was interested in genealogy, and she worked on those letters.”
There are 29 letters in the packet. “They’re very interesting,” Carleton said. “He used every piece of space on the paper.”
Whaling ships could not pull up to a mailbox. When they met ships bound for home, they’d hand over letters to be delivered in months or years.
Sometimes, the letters arrived too late. “Preston Cummings’ wife died while he was at sea in 1845,” Carleton said.
Some research indicates Harriett and Preston also had a child who died.
Preston Cummings quit whaling, though he stayed in the dry-land end of the business.
“He died in Hawaii,” Carleton said. “He had a business there providing provisions for whaling.”
Carleton said Cummings’ letters are a mine of information about everything from whaling to slaving, with side trips into encounters with cannibals and the exotic plants to be found on the islands of his wanderings.
“He writes constantly about how lonely he is and how much he misses her,” Carleton said.
Carleton said she chose to donate the letters to the Watkinson Library because she was told they would not be locked away in a dusty vault.
“They told me about how the students in Trinity would use them,” she said.
Richard Ring, head curator and librarian at the Watkinson Library said the letters are now being transcribed, photographed and digitized.
“The thing that impressed the donor was that they would be used,” Ring said.
Ring said the Fall River connection is important because it’s unique.
“Most of the whaling material I know of is from New Bedford, Nantucket, Providence and Mystic,” Ring said.
“There are parts of this material that would be very useful to scholars,” Ring said, stating that of particular interest are Cummings’ descriptions of the dodges used by slavers to outwit patrolling English ships intent on suppressing the trade.