STONINGTON PORTRAITS: A Seafaring Saga
"STONINGTON PORTRAITS: A Seafaring Saga" is a collection of portraits by artist Sabina Streeter inspired by the lives and personae of the great maritime era. A contin-uation of her previous show "CAPTAINS, MATES, and WIDOWS, the collection fea-tures a poetic interpretation of Stoningtons iconic seafaring characters of the eigh-teenth and nineteenth century.
Originally from Munich, Germany, Sabina Streeter holds family ties to Stonington and is currently based in Sag Harbor, NY. Her studio at 25 Madison Street (built in 1828) is the original residence of the great Whaling Captain, David P. Vail, master of the whaling ship The Sabina.
Nathaniel Brown Palmer (1799-1877)
A famous seafaring captain , and ship designer, Nathaniel Brown Palmer was born in Stonington, Connecticut in 1799. A descendant of Walter Palmer, one of the town's founders, Nathaniel grew into a skilled and fearless seaman, achieving his first command at the young age of 21. At the time, hides of Antarctic Ocean seals were highly valued as items for trade with China. Palmer took his station as second mate on board the first sealing voyage of the Hersilia, the first American vessel known to reach the South Shetland Islands. Aggressively searching for new seal rookeries south of Cape Horn, on 17 November 1820, Palmer and his men, aboard The Hero, became the first Ameri-cans to discover the Antarctic Peninsula. A compelling account
of the discovery describes Palmers run in with a fellow expedition ship, the Vostok, and its commander Fabian Gottlieb Von Bellinghausen: Upon their meeting in the midst of the Arctic fog, the Russian Captain assessed Palmers sea charts and was as-tonished to discover that the young seaman had already sighted the land which he himself had been in search of for years. In a gesture of goodwill, Bellinghausen claimed the land to be called Palmer Land in the younger captains honor.
After concluding a successful sealing and exploring career, Palmer, still in the prime of life, switched his attention to the captaining of fast sailing ships for the transportation of express freight. In 1843, Captain Palmer took command of the Paul Jones on her maiden voyage from Boston to Hong Kong, arriving in 111 days. In this new role, the Connecticut captain traveled many of the world's principal sailing routes. Observing the strengths and weaknesses of the ocean-going sailing ships of his time, Palmer suggested and designed changes to their hulls and rigging. These improvements made him one of the foremost designers of the fabled American mid-19th century clipper ships.
The original Palmer family home burnt down in 1850 and was rebuilt by Nathaniel and his brother Alexander between 1852 and 1854. Today it is known as The Capt. Nathaniel B. Palmer House. Designed by the well-known architect Gamaliel King, the house is of a transitional style combining elements of the Greek revival and Victorian Italianate styles. It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1996 and is now part of the Stonington Historical Society.
As his own prolific sailing career came to a close, Palmer established himself in his hometown of Stonington as a successful owner of clipper ships sailed by others. In the winter of 1870, he lost his beloved wife Eliza to illness. Seven years later, when his fa-vorite nephew Natty became sick with tuberculosis, Palmer suggested they sail to Hong Kong to seek a more agreeable climate in which to coalesce. However, Natty died soon after their ship set sail. Devastated from the loss, Palmer, himself, became ill and died in San Fransicsco in 1877, at the age of 77.
Fabian Gottlieb von Bellinghausen (1778 -1852)
A Russian officer of Baltic German descent in the Imperial Russ-ian Navy, Fabian was a cartographer and explorer who ultimately rose to the rank of Admiral. He participated in the first Russian circumnavigation of the globe and was leader of another circum-navigation expedition to seek the continent of Antarctica.
During one of his Arctic expeditions, the Russian Captain had a run in with the much younger American Captain by the name of Nathanial Brown Palmer.
Here is Palmers account of the meeting:
I assented said Captain Palmer in his Hong Kong narrative of the incident. I at once entered the boat, was laid alongside, mounted to the deck, and was ushered into the presence of the venerable commander. Here is the conversation that followed so far as remembered:
What is your name?
Nathaniel Brown Palmer
Where are you from?
Stonington, Connecticut, USA
What are you doing here?
On a sealing expedition, A fleet from Stonington is at work among the islands, here.
He now arose much agitated and begged Captain Palmer to produce his ships log book and chart.For a time he examined them without saying anything and then he arose from the table and exclaimed: What do i see and what do I hear from a boy in his teens? That is a commander of a tiny boat the size of the launch of my frigate, in which he has pushed his way to the pole through the storm and ice; has sought and found the point I, in command of one of the best appointed fleets have for three long weary years searched day and night for.What shall I say to my master? What will he
think of me? But be that as it may, my grief is your joy. Wear your laurels with my sin-cere prayers for your welfare. I name the land you have discovered in honor yourself, noble boy, Palmer Land.
Following his Arctic journeys, Admiral von Bellinghausen published a collection of maps of the newly explored areas and islands of the Pacific Ocean. Subsequently, he commanded several ships of the Baltic and Black Sea Fleets and In 1831, he published the book on his Antarctic travel, called Double Investigation of the Southern Polar Ocean and the Voyage Around the World.
He became the military governor of Kronstadt (from 1839) and died there in 1852.
Amos Palmer, Jr. (1788-1854)
Son of Captain Amos Palmer who fought in the Revolutionary War and was one of the officials who negotiated with the British during the Battle of Stonington. His half sister was Elizabeth Betsy Palmer Dixon. Amos Jr. lived on the corner of Wall and Main Street in Stonington Borough. The house later became a childhood home of painter James McNiell Whistler, poet Stephen Vincent Benet and writer James Houston.
Elizabeth Betsey Palmer Dixon (b. 1778)
Elizabeth "Betsey" Palmer Dixon was the daughter of Captain Amos Palmer and Phebe Brown Palmer. Captain Amos Palmer served in the Revolutionary War and was the Senior Warden of Stonington Borough during the War of 1812 as well as the fa-mous Battle of Stonington in 1814. He was the primary negotia-tor with the British during that attack. Betsey was the half-sister of Amos Palmer, Jr. In 1804 she married Nathan Fellows Dixon, U.S. State Senator from Rhode Island. Betsey was the mother of Priscilla Dixon Palmer (wife of Captain Alexander Palmer). Bet-seys oil portrait by Samuel L. Waldo was commissioned by her
son-in-law, Alexander Smith Palmer, in 1840 and was gifted to the Stonington Histori-cal Society in 1996 by her great great granddaughter, Elizabeth Babcock Scherr.
Priscilla Dixon Palmer(1815-1851)
Priscilla Palmer was born on June 17, 1815 in West-erly, Rhode Island. Her father was Nathan F. Dixon, Senator of Rhode Island and her mother was Eliza-beth Betsey Palmer Dixon. She married Captain Alexander Palmer and together they had four chil-dren.
In 1850, shortly before Christmas, Priscilla became ill with pneumonia. Tragically she died several weeks later on January 12, 1851, at the young age of 35,
leaving her husband with their four young children - Nathaniel Natty 10, Alexander, 7, Louis, 5, and Libby, just two years old. It was not the only loss the Palmer family had endured - just one year earlier, their home at Pine Point was destroyed in a fire. Alexanders brother and fellow Captain, Nathaniel Brown Palmer, wrote to him of their loss:
Overwhelmed with sorrow, I sit to write a few lines - hoping to mitigate, if possible, some of the accumulated sorrow which of late has been heaped upon youyou shall have my hearty cooperation [in bringing up the children] for I will leave you no more. We have enough of the worlds goods to educate your children and make us comfort-able the residue of our days.
Later that same year the brother began construction on a new home at Pine Point where the two families could live together. The Palmer House still stands today and has been designated a National Historic Landmark. The artist took the liberty of using her daughter, Lily Streeter, as a model for the second portrait as there is a striking resem-blance between her and Priscilla.
Colonel Henry Harry Babcock (1736 - 1800)
Born in Westerly, Rhode Island in 1736, Henry Babcock was known as a charismatic and popular colonel in the Revolution-ary War as well as an educated and practicing lawyer for much of his life. He graduated from Yale at the age of sixteen and in 1754, at eighteen, was made Captain of the Rhode Island con-tingent of the French War stationed in Canada. Afterward, Hen-ry returned home and settled just across the border of Con-necticut in Stonington.
In 1761, Henry was invited to sail to England in order to have an audience with Queen Charlotte, the wife of King George III. It is reported that when they met, he declined to kiss her hand,
which would have been the custom of the time, and instead planted a kiss upon her
cheek (historians have noted this as an indication of his charm and popularity). In 1775, Henry volunteered for duty in the wake of the Revolutionary War and served with great distinction. His reputation was so esteemed during his service, that he was recom-mended by General Putnam to George Washington for a promotion to major general. However, in the following months, Henry developed an illness that affected his mind. George Washington remarked on the tragic turn in a letter to Governor Hopkins of Rhode Island, Colonel Babcocks misfortune is truly pitiable. The incontestable proofs that he has given at Cambridge and since of a distempered mind must to everyone ac-quainted with him show how unfit he must be to command the forces. (New York, April 28, 1776).
Thus the brilliant career of Colonel Henry Babcock came to an end. He returned to his home and law practice in Stonington where, with the passing of time, he grew even more eccentric in his behavior. Devil-driven, as one historian described, he was giv-en to performing strange pranks such as riding around the countryside on horseback in the middle of the night sometimes dressed in womens clothing, shouting and waving all the time. He died in 1800.
Captain Thomas Burtch (1807-1888)
A Stonington Captain, for a long time a seafaring man, he lat-er kept a storewhere children used to delight to peer into the windows at various dolls, toys, and glass jars of bright colored candy sticks, lemon balls, pink and white kisses. and large pep-permints (excerpt from Homes of Our Ancestors, Grace Deni-son Wheeler, 1903.
Harriet Miner Burtch (1818- ?)
The wife of Captain Thomas Burtch. There is little known about Harriet, however, her portrait, by Orlando Hand Bears, hangs in the Old Lighthouse Museum in Stonington.
Mary Burtch Brewster (1823-1878) The sixth of seven children of Samuel and Polly Burtch of Stonington, Mary lost her mother at the age of five and was raised, along with her brother Charles, in the pious and pros-perous household of Robert S. Bottum, boatbuilder and dea-con of the Baptist Church in Stonington. She married William Brewster in 1841, six months after her eighteenth birthday. Three months later, her husband began his career as a whal-ing captain in command of the Philetus.
After years apart, Mary Brewster, faced with another long separation, decided to break convention and join William on his next sailing voyage. Only three other Stonington women are known to have preceded her onboard - Eliza Palmer, wife
of Captain Nathaniel Palmer, Mrs. Slumon Gray, who sailed upon the Newburyport in 1844, and that same year, Mrs. John S. Barnum who sailed on the Warsaw. It was a decision that took much courage, however, Mary Louisa Burtch Brewster had good reason - she was devotedly in love with her husband. In one journal entry she referred to William as the bright star of her affection and the center of her thoughts. Her first voyage was aboard the Tiger, owned by fourteen owners (Stonington residents John F. Trumbull, Benjamin F. Pendleton, Captain Nathaniel B. Palmer, William Brewster and his brother George, amongst others), and bound for the Sandwich Islands. In 1848, Mary embarked upon a second journey to the Arctic. Overcoming both family opposition and public disapproval, she made these two long voyages with her husband and then re-mained ashore until his retirement in 1856.
On April 8th, 1878, within weeks of her thirty-seventh wedding anniversary, Mary Brew-ster died of unstated causes. Despite remarkable bravery, loyalty to her husband, and defiance of popular convention, there were no details listed in Marys death notice or obituary.
William Brewster (1813 1893)
William E. Brewster came from a family of whalers based in Stonington, Connecticut. Along with his father, Captain Stephen Brewster, and his two brothers, Charles and George, William spent many years at sea in command of commercial whaling ships. He married Mary Burtch in 1841, nine years his junior. They were a dedicated and pious couple. In fact, Mary was so dedicated to William that she accompanied him on many of his voyages to sea. She died from unknown causes just weeks from their thirty-seventh wedding anniversary. A year and a half later, William remarried Harriet Louisa Holmes, a woman seventeen years his junior. William died in 1893 at
the age of seventy-nine.
Jeremiah Holmes (1782-1872)
Jeremiah Holmes was born in what is now North Stoning-ton and spent several years with relatives in Norwich, New York, after his father died. He went to sea in 1800, at the age of eighteen, shipped in the schooner Four Sisters for the Falkland Islands. However, the unlawful smuggling scheme of their commander, Captain Peleg Barker, landed him in a dark and damp Portuguese dungeon on the coast of Brazil. After a West Indies voyage, he sailed on a whaling voyage to the west coast of South America and then joined a British whaler. A French privateer captured the whaler, and in July of 1804 Holmes ended up on the island of St. Helena and imprisoned aboard HMS Trident, a British ves-sel.
After three years on HMS Saturn and several other British warships, where he learned to handle cannons, at the naval dock in Portsmouth, Holmes managed to escape to London and return to America aboard a merchant ship in 1807.
Holmes finally settled in Mystic and married Ann Denison (1784-1873) in 1809. He worked in both the transatlantic and coasting trades. In June 1813, Holmes helped arm the...