Walter Burlingame Letters

The bulk of correspondence from WAB resides in the Burlingame Family Papers at Syracuse University Library. These papers cover his life from the time he was an early adolescent into adulthood. The Letters reside in Box 9A of the collection. Many of them are correspondence from WAB to his grandfather from China.

Two additional letters can be found at the Onondaga Historical Association. One is the letter to his mother in which he recounts the attack on his father’s party (this is widely published) and a letter to his grandfather upon the death of his father (transcribed below). There is a second letter from WAB about the attack written to his grandfather — this letter can be found at Syracuse in the collection mentioned above.

Pictures of many of the letters from Syracuse can be found here: tt98l7

WAB description of his first passage to China:

Yokohama Aug 24th, 1866
Dear Grandpa,

We arrived here a week ago, last Sunday, having been thirty-six days from the Hawaiian Islands. We were all of us tremendous glad to get on shore again. It is bad enough to go to sea in a steamer, but when you come to go in a sailing vessel of two hundred and fifty tons, it does not fray at all. We did not see a single sail, nor island in the whole distance we went, though the Pacific is filled with the latter. But after all we had a very pleasant time, though it was so monotonous. A few days after crossing the meridian we had a very heavy gale. It came in the night about 12 o’clock. We had all sails set, and we were almost on our beam ends before we could get any sails taken in. I thought that the best place for me would be in my berth, so I lay there listening to the orders which were given, and wondering whether the lightning, which flashed around us, would strike, or not. I can’t say that I enjoyed my thoughts very much. If we had not been able to have understood the orders which were given, it would not have been so bad, but the trouble was, we understood every order, about as well as the sailors did, and so we could tell just what the danger was. Before we could get them in, our flying jib was carried away, and our main-sail was split in two. After the first squall was over there was a short calm spell which lasted for about five minutes, and then another one came, but by this time we had our sails in, except our topsails, and so the wind did not have much effect on us. The next morning, the sea ran very high, but the wind had gone down a good deal. The Captain thinks that it must have been the tale end of a typhoon, as squalls in that part of the Pacific were very unusual. One night, about eight o’clock, we saw what looked very much like a light, about eight miles off. The Captain changed his course and bore down for it. We sent a man up in the royals yard, with an opera glass, and her reported that he saw a white object very low down on the horizon. We got out our signal and Mr. Winter, the first mate, waved it around three times and then put it suddenly out. In a few minutes the light disappeared entirely. We still bore down for the place where we saw it last, but we did not come across any thing. What it was, I don’t suppose we shall ever know, but whatever it was it was something very curious. The Captain and the two mates both say that it was either a ship on fire, or else that it was the lights of a ship reflected on her sails. It may have been the big Sunny South, which started from the Islands five days before we did and which has not been heard from since. As we have been here thirteen days, and as she started five days before we did it looks very bad for her. She was very much over loaded and had a great number of cattle on her decks. If she is still afloat she must have got out of water long before this, and must have had to throw all her cattle overboard. About a week before we got in we had some more very heavy weather, but we got through it safely, with out losing anything, except a few small sails. After this squall we had a calm for three days and a half. A squall is bad enough, but it is splendid compared with a calm. Our principal occupation for these three days was in fishing for sharks, which swam all around the vessel. Oh! Didn’t we long for a breeze through. To be calmed within 250 miles of land, knowing that there was a strong current drifting us past the port, and also to know that if we did go past the post, it would take at least three weeks to beat back again, was altogether too much. But about eight o’clock on the 4th day a good steady five knot breeze sprang up. You had better believe we were delighted. As soon as we felt the first breath of air, the Captain hopped on the quarter deck, and shouted out, “There she breezes.” Which was the way we always answered a breeze. Then came the order to hoist up the mizzen staysails and before the sailors could get there, we had the staysails all up, and the yards all braced round, so that we did not lose a bit of that breeze. We were all so delighted that we cheered, and sang and did all sorts of queer things. The breeze steadily increased all night, and when we got up next morning it was blowing a nine knot breeze. About 12 o’clock that day (Saturday) we sighted the Island of Fatsisjo. This is one of the Japanese islands on which is quite a large settlement of Japanese and there are also a few foreigners there, who raise silk, and send it to Japan. The whole island is only 9 miles long. We were tearing along at such a rate, that they evidently thought we were in distress for they fired a cannon as a signal to us. We did not see stopping, though, for a cannon or any other man, until we got to Yokohama. We kept on at this rate all day. About 7 o’clock we sighed Broken Rock. About 10 o’clock Sunday morning we passed Kosee, from which we had a very narrow escape of being wrecked. Sighted Vrie’s Island at 3 o’clock and Fusiyama, a mountain rising right up 14,000 ft at 4 o’clock. This mountain is situated on the coast of Japan about a hundred miles from Yokohama. It is worshipped by the Japanese, as their principal God. You will see on all there lacquer ware, either a picture of Fusiyama, or a stork, which is another of their Gods. We were now in the channel, and were going along very slowly so that we got a view of the land on each side of us. It is the most beautiful land you can possible imagine. It is different from the tropics and different from a temperate country. It looked as green, as green could be, and was covered with little thatched farm houses. We had a most beautiful sail all day. About 4 we entered the bay of Yokohama, and were soon surrounded by Japanese fishermen in junks. The junks are the clumsiest contrivances that I ever saw. They have one large square sail with immense Japanese letters on it. About 5 o’clock we caught sight of Yokohama. The first vessel we saw was the American frigate Hartford, farraguts and flagship. We dropt anchor about 6 o’clock. We were soon boarded by the American Admiral, and also by the American consuls here. We went ashore about eight o’clock, and went to Mr. Walsh’s house where we are going to stay while we are here. We had a nice supper of fruits and cold meats, which tasted very nicely after being at sea so long. We all went to bed pretty early that night as we were very tired. The next morning when I woke up, instead of looking out on the ocean, I looked out on a yard, surrounded by tea houses. In the yard were lots and lots of Japanese coolies, packing up the tea in chests, and carrying it away on their shoulders. The way we live here would disgust you, and Grandma, as much as it does me. We get up about 9 o’clock in the morning and have what is called little breakfast (consisting of eggs and toast) which is brought up to our rooms. After this we generally sit up in mother’s room and read, as the heat is so great that it is dangerous to go out. At 12 o’clock we have breakfast. After breakfast the curio men come, with curiosities to sell. About five we go out and take a walk. At 7 ½ o’clock, we have dinner, which generally lasts for two hours. I could stand everything but this dinner, but I could note quite go that, so now I have my dinner, with Gertie and Mary, at 5 o’clock in mother’s room. Yokohama is very prettily situated on a beautiful bay in which ships of all nations are at anchor. There are 3 American men of war here (Hartford, Wyoming and Wachusett) two Russian, two English, one Italian and one Portuguese, besides a great many steamers and merchant vessels. About 20 miles further up the bay is Yedo, the capital of Japan, and where the General is going to live. Yokohama looks much more like a foreign city, than like a Japanese one. Most, of the foreign houses are built on what is called the broad (?). The Broad is a wide street, with a sea wall, bordering on the bay. Every little way long stone docks, or _ extend out into the water. On the sides of these are stone steps where the boats land. Farther back from the bay, the streets are very narrow and are gilled with Japanese. There are very few horses here, and all the carts are drawn by coolies, who make the most horrible howlings (thinking that it helps them along) that you ever heard. I do not like the Japanese nearly as much as I do the Chinese I have seen. They do not begin to be as bright, nor as civilized. Mr. Walsh says, that the Chinese have done more to civilize Japan, than the foreigners have. In Yokohama it is perfectly safe to go round as much as you please, but up at Yedo, where there are but two, or three, foreigners, it is not safe to go out of the house, without a guard. The common people are friendly enough, but the higher classes, are very hostile. The most troublesome class are what are called two sworded men. They are petty officers, who are allowed to wear two swords. They have one long sword, and one short one, both of which they are very skillful in using. The long one they have, for cutting peoples heads off, and if they should fail in doing this, they have the short sword to rip you up with. This was the way they used to do to foreigners, but now there is no more danger here than there is at home, if so much. When we go to Yedo we shall have a guard of 300 marines from the Hartford, so that there will be no danger at all. Mr. Walsh’s house is situated on the Broad overlooking the harbor. It is a beautiful house, with large comfortable rooms. The Tuesday after we arrived here, I woke up quite sick with cholera-morbus. I was sick abed all day. The same day the General was taken very sick, with the same trouble. The next day Mother was taken, the next day Father, and then Gertie and after that Mary. So you see we were all sick excepting Ed. The doctor says that people are nearly always taken that way, after having been on the sea for a good while. We have spent most of the afternoons since we have been here in cramming the articles, brought by the curio men. The house the most splendid things that I ever saw. For an itzibou (thirty three cents) you can get boxes, which would be worth four or five dollars at home. We have bought some splendid cabinets. We also bought fifteen, or twenty, different kinds of tops, which I am going to send home to the boys the fist time we send a box. The other day we went through the curio shops. They have much better, and cheaper things, than the curio men bring. Everybody advices us not to buy any large articles, until we have seen the curios at Yedo, which they say are much finer than those here. About a week ago Ed and I took a walk out into the country. We went with Mr. Vidal (and English student who was at Peking, when mother was there) and he took us quite a long walk. The country is perfectly beautiful. It looks more like the country at home than anything I have seen since since we left. The green rice fields, which we walked through for a long distance, reminded me exactly of the meadows at Sherborn. We went to two Japanese temples. These were situated in quiet places in the woods, where the Japanese can go and sacrifice their cash before the shrine which is built there. We looked at some of the cash, which had been laid there, and Mr. Vidal said that nearly everyone of the coins were bad ones. This is the way these Japanese fellows offer sacrifices. We went up on a high hill which overlooked Yokohama. It was a magnificent view. We did not get back from our walk till after dark. I went all through Mr. Walsh’s tea houses the other day, and saw the whole process of drying and packing the tea. But I must stop writing now, as I must go out and take a walk in the Broad.

August 29th
Dear Grandpa,
The mail arrived this morning, bringing us lots of letters and papers, from home. You can’t imagine how delighted I was to receive two splendid letters from you, and also to get such gay letters from Charlie Locke, and David. Please tell Miss Brooks, that I was ever, and ever so much obliged for her nice letter. I am very glad to hear that she liked her fan, and the photographs so much. I am very glad that you are going to send me the pieces about baseball, which you find in the paper. I am very much obliged to you for buying The History of the Great Rebellion (?) for me. It will be real nice for me to read out in Peking. I hope you will send my soldiers as soon as possible, for they will be very nice to play with on rainy days. I am very glad to hear, that Grandma, and Auntie are so well. I am very glad to hear that you liked my letter. I wish very much that I could go home by telegraph, so that I could drop in some Saturday afternoon and go to the museum with you. Tell Kate, and Margaret, that I am real sorry that I could not have been at their wedding. Tell them that I send lots, and lots, of love to each of them. I suppose they are both very happy. Won’t it be nice for Kate to live at Sir Frederick’s house? I am real glad that the boys have written to me. I was afraid that they would not think much about it after I left. Please tell Bayley that I am sorry that I could not write to him before. I am going to write one to him next mail. I hope Leonis will be sure and write to me. I have really missed him more than any of the rest of the boys. I don’t know exactly why, but he seems different to me, from the rest of the boys. Give my love to Auntie and Grandma, and all the people at home. Mother wants me to say that she has received letters from home the dates ranging from May 1st to June 22nd and that she will answer them by the next mail. We go to Yedo tomorrow to stay for a week or two. We go in the Hartford. I must now close.
From your aff Grandson,

Walter’s letter to his grandfather on his father’s death:

St. Petersburg
Feb 25th 1870

My dear Grandpa

I have note written before, because I could not bear to write feeling as I did.

I know that a few lines from me will be a comfort to you, although they can not give expression to what I feel. But at this sad time for us all, I know that our hearts are nearer to each other than they ever were before, notwithstanding the long, long stretch of land and water which lies between us. Poor Father’s care and trouble and worry are all over now, and his spirit has gone to some higher and better world than this, more worthy of containing it. But nothing can separate his spirit from us any more than land and water can separate your hearts and sympathies from ours.

I arrived just 14 hours after he died. I had received a dispatch from Ned on Sunday night, saying that Father was ill but giving me no cause for alarm or anxiety. I left on Monday night, arriving here at 9 o’clock Wednesday evening. I had a pretty comfortable but of course tiresome hard journey, but I comforted myself by imaging what fine times I should have in St. Petersburg. I had no more anxiety about Father’s sickness than if I had never heard that he was sick. I expected to find him convalescent and longed to have some long talks with him about our farm in California, a subject which we both loved to talk about. I stepped out of the cars at the depot without one anxious feeling, but when I saw Ned’s face, I felt that something terrible had happened, and then in an instant the whole truth flushed across my mind.

It stupefied me at first and all feeling and thought seemed gone. I tried hard to meet Mother calmly, but when I saw her the whole realization of what had happened came upon me and nearly killed me. For a long, long time I was completely overwhelmed but at last when I saw how good and beautiful and calm she was, I felt soothed and comforted and became gradually calm again. By and bye she took me to see Father and that made me feel better. Oh! Grandpa if you could only have seen him as he lay there. He looked so grand when he was dead. He lay with his hand upon his breast, and a beautiful expression of dignity and sweetness upon his face such as he always had when he slept, man a morning, I have gone into his room at the old Hotel De Rome and watched him sleeping with that same very same expression upon his face. But in his last sleep he looked grander than ever.

The funeral services will take place tomorrow morning at 11 o’clock in the house, and at 2 o’clock at the English chapel. Only family and one or two of the most intimate friends will be present at the private services.

I must leave to Mother and Ned the account of Father’s sickness and death, for I arrived too late.

Everybody in St. Petersburg is saddened by Father’s death.

The Chinese seemed perfectly broken hearted, and poor Chih-tu-jin walks up and down all day long mourning for the “great minister” whose loss can never be repaired.

They always speak of him as the “great minister,” and seem to honor him as they would a being of some other world. They feel that they have lost their best and truest friend and that his loss can never be repaired. May God have mercy upon poor China and upon us all.

Mother has borne her grief as only mother could have borne it. She is perfectly calm now and has comforted us all.

Ned will write all about our future plans.

Take courage Grandpa and bear up well. And let us hope that what seems so hard and sad now at this sad moment, may all be fore the best in the end.

With lots of love to you all

Your aff grandson
Walter A. Burlingame

Related posts

Leave a Comment