That devotion prompted Rebecca to accompany her husband at sea. On February 4, 1854, she found herself on board the Whirlwind, a clipper ship captained by her husband that left New York for San Francisco. The young wife soon learned how difficult life at sea could be. “O, how the waves did come over the side of the Ship,” she wrote in her journal. “I can remember well how I felt, when the Ship was pitching and rolling and I was not able to walk for fear of falling down. Then I was seasick too.”
For the young, adventurous Rebecca, it did not take long to adjust and soon she began to delight in the serenity of life at sea. Rebecca earned respect among the ship’s crew and the ship’s steward, spending much of her time in their company. Not only did Rebecca develop bonds with the crew—she also tried her hand at learning everything there was to know about navigation. Learning maritime skills wasn’t uncommon for the educated, middle-class wives of New England ship captains, says Shockley. “[Learning to navigate] was a useful tool to help their husbands,” she says.
The journals that Rebecca kept are the primary historical documents for her time at sea. These were public journals—texts intended to be read by others—and as a result, the journals and correspondence only convey what Rebecca was comfortable revealing to an audience. “It’s tough to get at the inner life of any woman who wrote journals at that time, because they knew that they were going to be read by others,” Shockley says.
On her second sea voyage, aboard the Challenger, Rebecca’s maritime skills were put to the test. This was to be a much longer journey set to stop at several locations including San Francisco and Hong Kong. From the beginning the journey was troublesome, one that was often delayed due to bad weather and unruly seas, yet Rebecca would work tirelessly with her husband to continue to expand her knowledge of the sea and refine her navigational skills. “By the end of her time aboard the Challenger, she was a seasoned nautical wife,” Shockley says.
The journey took a turn for the worse as Captain Burgess’s health began deteriorating after he contracted dysentery. The Challenger spent several months in the harbor of Callao, Peru, and William seemed to only grow weaker. The Burgesses decided that it would be best to try and get the captain to Valparaiso, Chile, where there was access to better medical treatment. William put command of the Challenger in his wife’s hands despite criticism from the captains of other ships. According to an article in the Sandwich Glass Museum’s publication The Acorn, William replied to critics saying, “My wife has navigated the Challenger in these 19 months and is fully capable of doing so now . . .”