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We've been down this road before with Capt. Nathaniel Palmer, the first American to sight Antarctica. Nathaniel and his brother, Alexander, shared a home on Palmer Street in Stonington. They led sealing expeditions, carried supplies to Simon Bolivar, and commanded ships in the Liverpool and China trades. They were international celebrities, but, like most of us, their personal lives were touched by sorrow and enriched by love.
Nathaniel had sailed to distant lands but his heart belonged to a local girl, Eliza Babcock. They married in 1826 when Eliza was 16 years old. They were never able to have children, which left a sad void in their lives but made it easier for Eliza to join Nathaniel on some of his voyages.
In 1831 Eliza accompanied Nathaniel on a trip to South America. She'd read Daniel Defoe's adventure classic, "Robinson Crusoe" and was keen to see the island in the Juan Fernandez archipelago where Alexander Selkirk, the real life inspiration for the novel, had been marooned. Eliza's dream became a nightmare when more than a hundred convicts from an island penal colony seized their ship and forced Nathaniel to take them to the mainland 400 miles away.
During the 10 days it took to deliver the convicts to their destination Nathaniel sequestered Eliza in a locked room stocked with bread and water. Not daring to risk a visit, he talked loudly in his quarters above her hideaway, hoping the sound of his voice would reassure her that he hadn't been killed.
The Palmers survived this ordeal and lived to enjoy 40 more years of married life.
Like Nathaniel, Alexander had an illustrious career. Among his accomplishments was the rescue of the crew of the British ship Dorothy, whose desperate men had been stranded in life boats off Brazil for nearly a month. In another maritime crisis he rescued the passengers of the sinking ship Eugenie. Not a single life was lost, prompting Queen Victoria to award Alexander a gold medal.
Alexander had married Priscilla Dixon, the beautiful daughter of a Rhode Island senator, but in 1851 the unthinkable happened when Priscilla died of pneumonia, leaving him a widower with four children ranging from 3 to 11 years of age.
Nathaniel wrote in his condolence letter, "You shall have my hearty cooperation (in bringing up the children) for I will leave you no more." The brothers immediately began construction of the house where the children could be raised with the help of doting Aunt Eliza and Uncle Nat.
Tragedy struck again some years later when Alexander's oldest son contracted tuberculosis. Nathaniel hoped a trip to China would improve his nephew's health, but on the return voyage Nathaniel had to wire Alexander that the young man had died. Elderly and grief-stricken, Nathaniel died the next night. Love really can break your heart.
I've seen two portraits of Alexander, one as a careworn older man, and the other as a young hunk with a mane of dark hair, laughing eyes and a sensitive mouth. It's easy to believe that women found him attractive. Priscilla must have worried about this during his absences because after Queen Victoria awarded him the medal, Alexander wrote to his wife, acknowledging the reality of his fame but assuring her of his faithfulness. I found his love poem in the book "The Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer House" by Constance B. Colom, available at the Stonington Historical Society.
Here it is, a valentine from long ago:
"I am a bold Sea Captain;
The Queen she loveth me;
My palace is a golden ship,
My garden is the sea.
There's many a heart that beats for me
Beyond the heaving main
The black-eyed girls of Mexico,
The Ladies of New Spain!
But beautiful although they be,
They win no love of mine;
I'd give a thousand flashing eyes
For but one glimpse of thine."
Carol Sommer of Waterford is a self-proclaimed history nut. She writes a monthly history column inspired by local street signs.