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Rare Abraham Lincoln-Signed Whaling Ship’s Sea Letter
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ABRAHAM LINCOLN. Partly-printed Document Signed as president, and countersigned by Secretary of State William H. Seward, September 26, 1864. Four-language sea letter issued to whaling ship Illinois of New Bedford. Lincoln-signed whaling ship sea letters are as much as 100 times scarcer than Civil War military commissions. 1 p., in parallel French, Spanish, English and Dutch, with the seal of the United States and a revenue stamp. 22 x 17 in.

Inventory #24694       Price: $16,000


Be it known, That leave and permission are hereby given to Joshua V. Davis master or commander of the Ship called Illinois…lying at present in the port of New Bedford bound for Pacific Ocean and laden with Provisions, Stores, and Utensils for a whaling voyage.

Historic Background

The sea letter, including a statement of cargo and destination, signed by the President, gained currency after 1789. Through decades of maritime use, such letters became accepted as proof of nationality and provided some protection for the vessel and her owner.  Even with the sea letter’s plea for safe passage, maritime trade was a hazardous endeavor due to piracy, privateering, impressment, and other dangers. A hazardous business in the best of times, during the Civil War, New England whalers faced the additional danger of Confederate attacks. From June 22 to June 28, 1865, ironically over two months after the Civil War had officially ended, the Confederate raider CSS Shenandoah burned twenty of the fifty-eight Yankee whalers working in the Bering Sea and captured four more.

The Illinois was a 413-ton whaling ship built in 1826 in New York City. It operated from Newburgh, New York, from 1833 to 1839, and out of Sag Harbor, New York, from 1843 to 1850. In 1850, Dennis Wood (1804-1878) and Willard Nye (1811-1865) purchased it and moved its base to New Bedford, Massachusetts. The voyage authorized by this sea letter began on September 26, 1864. Captain Joshua Davis commanded a crew of 31, ranging in age from 14 to 45. Twenty-three of the crew came from the West Indies, with Maine, New Bedford, Long Island, Brooklyn, Germany, and the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) each providing one man; two men had no place of origin listed. Over the next 58 months, Davis and his crew sent home 139 barrels of sperm oil, 2,265 barrels of whale oil, and 64,450 pounds of whale bone, and returned to New Bedford on July 25, 1869, with an additional 1,550 barrels of whale oil. On a voyage that began in 1872, the Illinois collided with the Marengo and sank in the Arctic Ocean on April 18, 1876.

For additional background, see Douglas L. Stein, American Maritime Documents, 1776-1860, and A. Starbuck, History of The American Whale Fishery. (Secaucus, NJ: Castle Books, 1989).


Fine to Very fine. Light block of overall toning from prior display, and some separating on the folds. The white paper seal affixed to lower portion remains intact.

Joshua V. Davis (1829-1893) was born in Bristol County, Massachusetts. He married Elizabeth Wilson, and they had at least three children. In 1850, he was a farmer in New Bedford, Massachusetts with $4,000 in real property. From November 1858 to June 1863, he served as master of the Two Brothers on a whaling voyage from New Bedford to the Pacific. He then served as master of the Illinois from September 1864 to July 1869, for the voyage covered by this Lincoln-signed document. In 1870, after that successful whaling voyage, he lived in Dartmouth and was recorded as having $9,500 in real property and $11,000 in personal property.  

Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) was born in Kentucky and grew up there and in Indiana. He had less than one year of formal schooling, but he was largely self-taught. He moved to Illinois in 1830, and worked variously as a storekeeper, rail splitter, postmaster and surveyor while studying law in his leisure hours. Elected to the Illinois General Assembly for four successive terms (1834-1841), Lincoln moved to Springfield to practice law in 1837. He served as a Whig member of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1847 to 1849, became a prominent Illinois circuit-riding attorney. Nominated by the new Republican Party for the U.S. Senate in 1858, he held a series of debates with the Democratic incumbent, Stephen A. Douglas, taking a stand against slavery. Although he narrowly lost in the Illinois General Assembly, his oratory and moderate anti-slavery stance made him a viable candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 1860. Elected by a plurality in a four-way race, he became president in March 1861 of a dividing nation. After southerners attacked Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor, Lincoln called for a volunteer army to suppress the rebellion, driving more states into the Confederacy. He proclaimed a blockade of southern ports and pursued a policy of restoring the Union. During the Civil War, he loyally supported his generals in the field but the war in the East ground to a stalemate, while in the West, Union armies made major advances. On January 1, 1863, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation as a war measure and declared freedom for the slaves in all states then in rebellion against the Union. In November 1863, Lincoln delivered his immortal Gettysburg Address, dedicating the national cemetery there. Re-elected by an electoral landslide in 1864, he began his second term as the war neared its end. Just five days after General Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Court House, virtually ending the Civil War, actor John Wilkes Booth assassinated Lincoln on April 14, 1865, at Ford’s Theater in Washington D.C.  Lincoln died the following morning.

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