Beyond Safe Shores
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.
By taking to the seas, Hannah Rebecca Burgess left a remarkable legacy as a captain’s widow in Victorian-era Sandwich.
“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.”
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…”
On December 11, 1856, just 19 days after leaving Callao, William died, leaving his wife to bravely assist the crew in navigating the clipper ship to safety, battling harsh seas while coping with the loss of her husband. On December 13, the Challenger safely reached port at Valparaiso, where Rebecca, accompanied by her husband’s body, boarded a steam vessel that would bring them to Boston. Rebecca wrote very little immediately after the death of her husband, overwhelmed with grief for her loss. On December 22, she wrote, “William, my dear Husband, Let me devote the remainder of my Days on earth, in cherishing thy memory. William thou wast my first love, and never can I forget thee.”
At just 22 years old, Hannah Rebecca Burgess spent the rest of her days as a widow, living a quiet life at her family home in Sandwich. Rebecca was well supported by her family and friends and worked hard to raise money for a variety of projects for her church. The community embraced her. “They called her ‘Aunt Rebecca,’” Shockley says. She kept her promise to William that she would never take another husband. “Despite many proposals, Rebecca never married again,” Schofield says. “She was devastated after her husband’s death and visited his grave every day for quite some time.”
While Rebecca never navigated the open sea again, the memories of her trips with William and her heroic journey remain very real at the Sandwich Glass Museum’s fascinating exhibit. Pieced together, the documents, photographs, and other items tell a story of a young girl, a tragic love story, and an incredible journey—on land, on the sea, and through time.
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