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Historical Association Catches the Big One: A Whaler’s Meticulous Manuscripts

The Nantucket Historical Association, thanks to the help of an anonymous donor, now owns the writings of a 19th-century whaler whose meticulous notes offer supreme insights into the nature of his chosen trade.

Perhaps this observation is obvious, but the latest acquisition by the Nantucket Historical Association is a whale of a tale.

Back in May, NHA got its hands on an impressive document—400 pages of writings by a whaler named Seth Pinkham, who left the tiny island off of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, for the final time in 1840, dying of disease four years later in Brazil, a long way from home.

Pinkham never made it back to Nantucket, but thanks to a $11,070 bid by an anonymous party at an auction, his writings have. (The winning bidder donated the papers to the association.) Devon Eastland, who leads the fine books and manuscripts efforts at Skinner Auctioneers, said that the papers, which were put up for auction anonymously, were especially impressive because of Pinkham’s clear voice as a writer.

“Ordinarily, documents from whaling are factual, and are about weather, longitude, latitude,” Eastland told the Boston Globe. “Seth Pinkham was very unusual. He was eloquent. He was opinionated.”

In comments to the Cape Cod Times, NHA Research Chairwoman Betsy Tyler said that the documents offer some important context about the whaling trade that defines the Nantucket region—by filling out the full shape of an active whaler.

“They really give you a real sense of who he was,” Tyler told the Times. “A lot of the documents we have that talk about whaling captains, we know what they did but we don’t really have a lot of sense of who they were. (The papers) really give you a sense of how his mind worked and where his heart was.”

NHA plans to make the documents available to fellow historians and will put the documents on display as part of an exhibit at the Nantucket Whaling Museum, which the association operates.

“What we’re hoping to do in our exhibit next year is to connect objects to real people’s stories from the past,” NHA Chief Curator Michael Harrison told the Times. “We’re really going to try and focus on objects that come from specific people and relate to specific events … connect people to sort of more of a living past.”

(Skinner Auctions)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a senior editor for Associations Now, a former newspaper guy, and a man who is dangerous when armed with a good pun. MORE

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