Most women of the Victorian era rarely traveled or knew the hardships of life at sea. Yet at age 22, just three years after her marriage, Hannah Rebecca Burgess had crossed the equator 11 times, helped her husband transport cargo from ports all over the world, and had learned to navigate clipper ships. Looking back, what is perhaps most remarkable about Hannah Rebecca Burgess is how she made the story of her life a lasting part of Sandwich history.
“This woman was amazing, not for what she did or didn’t do aboard the ship, but for the way in which she became this historical figure at a time when there weren’t many women who were considered prominent,” says Megan Taylor Shockley, a professor of history at Clemson University and the author of The Captain’s Widow of Sandwich: Self-Invention and the Life of Hannah Rebecca Burgess, 1834-1917. Through artifacts and journals archived at the Sandwich Glass Museum, Hannah Rebecca Burgess turned her four years on the ocean into her identity—a New England captain’s wife who circumnavigated the globe.
Rebecca, as she was fondly known, was born Hannah Rebecca Crowell on July 4, 1834, and grew up in West Sandwich in the home of her parents, Paul and Lydia Crowell. In an era when most of the women of Sandwich yearned for marriage, children, a homestead, and stability, Rebecca seemed set on that conventional path—she hardly ever left her home except for the occasional trip to Boston. When she was just 15, this quiet country girl traveled to the city to visit her wealthy great uncle, Benjamin Burgess. It was during this stay that the young Rebecca was first introduced to her future husband and distant cousin, the 20-year-old successful sea mariner William Howes Burgess, a native of Brewster.
Despite time apart because of William’s voyages at sea, William and Rebecca continued a courtship. On August 5, 1852, just two weeks after returning from sea, William and 19-year-old Rebecca were married in the West Sandwich Methodist Church. While journal entries attest to the young girl’s deep love and loyalty to her husband, William was equally attached to his wife. “Many people think that Rebecca had ‘I will never marry again’ engraved into the couple’s rings, but it was in fact William that did this,” says Dorothy Hogan-Schofield, curator at the Sandwich Glass Museum. “They were very devoted to one another.”