Custom House lands historic letter written by Newburyport privateer | News

NEWBURYPORT — The Custom House Maritime Museum is preparing to display a 1779 handwritten letter from Newburyport shipping merchant Nathaniel Tracy, and it also has a new executive director to care for it.

Tracy achieved great wealth during the American Revolution when he put a large fleet of privateer ships out to sea which intercepted and pillaged British ships. The Harvard graduate also spent time with Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin, but was forced to liquidate his assets when the war ended. He died at the age of 45 in 1796.

Museum president Jack Santos likes to keep an eye on auctions of Newburyport-based items, and he saw a letter Tracy wrote in 1779 come up for bid in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif. , end of March.

Although the first auction saw no bidders for Tracy’s letter, the item returned in April and Santos was the winning bidder, thanks to a $2,000 donation from an anonymous local donor.

“We have a pretty good list of members, past members and board members, and we had a generous donor who understood the importance of this article,” he said.

The letter is addressed to one of Tracy’s privateer ship captains, Samuel White, and gives him instructions on what to do with a pair of captured British officers.

“We believe it had something to do with a prisoner exchange that was going to take place in Halifax. So he was telling the captain to take those two to Halifax to arrange that,” Santos said.

Santos also believes that Tracy most likely wrote the letter while sitting in his State Street home, which is now the Newburyport Public Library.

“He wrote this letter at the height of his power when his privateers were there and he was giving instructions on prisoner exchanges,” he said.

Tracy wrote the letter in the midst of the Revolutionary War, which took place from April 19, 1775 to September 3, 1783.

The Newburyport Public Library is also in possession of another of Tracy’s despatches, which Santos claims was written at a later time in her life.

“This letter was written when he was penniless and living at what is now Spencer-Peirce-Little Farm. He had to sell his State Street home to pay his debts and you can really see the difference between the two signatures,” he said.

The 1779 letter made its way to the Custom House Maritime Museum just as the museum’s new executive director, Chris Silva, settled into his job about two weeks ago.

Silva recently spent 3 1/2 years as Director of Facilities at the Boston Athenaeum and he also oversaw the completion of the Harvard Art Museums famed Fogg Museum expansion and renovation.

The Gloucester native has family in Newburyport and succeeds Joan Whitlow, who recently retired as executive director of the Newburyport Museum. Silva said his new position allows him to return to his legacy.

“The opportunity came here and I just couldn’t pass it up,” Silva said.

Silva has consulted with the Andover-based Northeast Document Conservation Center, which he believes will give the museum the best recommendations on the conservation and preservation of the letter.

Tracy is a prime example of a revolutionary patriot, according to Santos, who added that he hopes the letter will find its way into the museum’s exhibit on the history of privateering.

“It would fit perfectly in this piece, once we have it up and displayed. So we are now working with some companies to see what our next steps are,” he said. “Once we have it on permanent display, people can come and see it for themselves.”

Writer Jim Sullivan covers Amesbury and Salisbury for The Daily News. He can be reached by email at [email protected] or by phone at 978-961-3145. Follow him on Twitter @ndnsully.

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