Gloucester native joins museum as it lands 1779 privateer's letter

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May 31—A Gloucester native is settling into his job as the new executive director of the Custom House Maritime Museum in Newburyport just as it is preparing to display a handwritten 1779 letter from a Newburyport shipping merchant and privateer.

Chris Silva, who has family in Newburyport, is succeeding Joan Whitlow, who recently retired as executive director of the Newburyport museum. Silva said his new position has given him the opportunity to be back where his heritage is from.

"The opportunity came up here and I just couldn't let it go," Silva said.

Silva will be caring for one of the museum's newest acquisitions: the 1779 letter penned by Newburyport shipping merchant Nathaniel Tracy.

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

Custom House Maritime Museum President Jack Santos likes to keep an eye on auctions for Newburyport-based items, and he saw the letter come up for bid in Rancho Santa Fe, California, in late March.

Although the first auction saw no bidders for the Tracy letter, the item came up again in April and Santos was the successful bidder, thanks to a $2,000 donation from an anonymous local donor.

"We have a pretty good roster of members, former members and board members and we had a generous donor who understood the importance of this item," he said.

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

"We think it had something to do with a prisoner exchange that was going to go on in Halifax. So he was telling the captain to take these two up to Halifax to arrange for it," Santos said.

"He wrote this letter at the height of his power," he said, adding it was during the middle of the Revolutionary War, which took place from April 19, 1775, to Sept. 3, 1783.

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

The Newburyport library is also in possession of another of Tracy's dispatches, which Santos said was written at a later period in his life.

"That letter was written when he was penniless and living at is what now the Spencer Peirce Little Farm. He had to sell his house on State Street to pay his debts and you can really see the difference in the two signatures," he said.

Silva, who recently spent three-and-a-half years as director of facilities at the Boston Athenaeum and also oversaw the finish of the expansion and renovation of the Harvard Art Museums' well-known Fogg Museum, has been consulting with the Andover-based Northeast Document Conservation Center about Tracy's letter. He said the center will give the museum the best recommendations on conserving and preserving the letter.

Tracy is a prime example of a Revolutionary patriot, according to Santos, who added that he hopes the letter can find a home in the museum's privateer history exhibit.

"This would fit perfectly in that room, once we mount it and display it. So we are working with some companies now to see what our next steps are," he said. "Once we have it on permanent display, people can come on over and see it for themselves."

Jim Sullivan may be contacted at jsullivan@gloucestertimes.com or at 978-961-3145. Follow him on Twitter @ndnsully.

Jim Sullivan may be contacted at jsullivan@gloucestertimes.com or at 978-961-3145. Follow him on Twitter @ndnsully.