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Ruschenberger, William W. M.
Autograph Letter Signed, Valparaiso, Chile, June 18, 1827, to his mother, c/o S. B. Rawle, Philadelphia, per ship William and Henry, Capt. Low, Boston

quarto, 4 pages, plus stamp-less address leaf, second leaf of the letter sheet is quite worn, and lacks a portion, which affects about 18 lines, as well as small portions at fold joints and a few lines at the lower portion of that page, else in good legible condition.

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W. W. M. Ruschenberger, the future, famed United States Naval surgeon and scientist, writes as a 19 year-old Surgeon’s mate on his first Naval cruise to South America, vividly describing collision and shipwreck of American vessels, and decries Bolivar as the “tyrant of the South”.

The teenaged Ruschenberger had just received his appointment as a Surgeon’s mate in the U.S. Navy; he wrote this letter to his mother on his first cruise to South America. On his return, he would graduate from the University of Pennsylvania Medical School, be commissioned a US Navy Surgeon and set off on the first of several long cruises to the Pacific, during which he would acquire the life-long habit of keeping painstaking diaries. He would recount his Pacific voyages in two now classic books of travel: Narrative of a Voyage round the world during the years 1835, 36 and 37: including a narrative of an embassy to the Sultan of Muscat and the King of Siam, and Three Years in the Pacific, including notices of Brazil, Chile, Bolivia, Peru. These were particularly valuable because of his scientific expertise. During his long Naval career, he also published an entire series of basic scientific books on Geology, Botany, Ornithology, Herpetology, Mammology and Anatomy.

This letter gives a hint of the writing talents that would later make his books classic travel accounts. Also notable is his patrician New England prejudice against the South American “Liberator” Simon Bolivar.


“ … Here I am again staring you in the face with another long epistle after having so often promised to be silent, but we can never foresee what is to come, and tho you may not have this two weeks before you see me, the occurrences and opportunity compel me again to trouble you and make me think it almost a crime to let it pass by.

In my last (June 7th per Yellet) I gave you an idea of the heavy rain but what I must now add is still more shocking to the feelings of humanity. The schooner by which you receive the last left the port just in the commencement of a Norther. (This name is given to the wind coming from the North and always attended  with rain and a heavy swell in the bay, so that vessels are endangered at their moorings, of dragging or even the cables are massed off like thread by he tremendous waves made by the vessel during this wind. The harbor is so located that gales from all other points save the North do not affect its safety, but from that quarter it receives the heavy rolls of the sea and it is almost incredible the height to which they rise.

On the 4th inst. the rain commenced and on the 7th immense quantities of rain fell and the wind at night blew almost a hurricane. About 9 in the morning of the 8th the scene of misery here commenced. From the front of the hill we saw ship American Hero, having parted her cables lying across the bows of the William Penn, at every sea tearing and grinding down the bows of the latter in the most horrid manner. We all decided that both ships must inevitably come on shore together, but we were fortunately mistaken; by some one of those unforeseen accidents which are so often in our favour when we think everything lost, the Hero fell gradually round and cleared her, but encountered several vessels as she drifted towards the shore. The Brig Canada of Baltimore broke her chains and hemp cables and drifted against the Brig Rob Roy of London; they separated and the Canada dropped another anchor and would possibly have ridden out the gale, but the Rob Roy, again came in contact with her and the last cable broke! The three vessels came, every well nearer the rocks; all was anxiety, everyone fearing the men would remain too long with their ships. They sill neared the breakers; the captains stood on the shore awaiting the shock that must perhaps ruin them forever. Three Americans had all their fortunes in two of the vessels and if thought they these vessels go into pieces the hard earnings of all my past life are lost. Every one was breathless with anxiety; the shore was crowded with foreigners and natives. The Canada and American Hero are close together in the breakers; they roll apart and then rush together - and again separating tear up the plank. The ropes are snapped and their cordage broken floats upon the wind. A second roll…breaks the bows and bowsprit of the Canada. Both vessels are deserted by their crews, excepting the mate of the American Hero, who fearful of censure remained by the ship at the imminent risk of his life. He alone stays upon the deck almost unconscious of his hazardous situation while the ship rides high and nearer the sand and Rocks on every swell. At length she strikes - she trembles - her masts quiver with the shock - she recovers and again she strikes the jutting rocks - the seams open and the water runs from them. The mate has now pulled off his clothes in order to swim. There comes a sudden surge and the foremast falls over the side with tremendous c rash and breaks into pieces. A second surge succeeds - the main mast quivers and falls direct for the head of the unfortunate master.

“The mizzen falls at the same time and the man is lost in the ruins. That he was killed or knocked overboard was the opinion of every body present. Providence however interfered and at the end of 5 minutes he was again upon his legs. But alas he is bloody! All cry out to him to get nearer the bows being a safer place but he hears not tho not 20 yards from us on shore, so loud are the angry waves and wind! The wreck [wreaths?] in every part - her oaken timbers can no longer withstand the heavy sea that almost sweep the decks - her stern is washed away and she is broke in the middle. In vain do the natives endeavour to throw the laso to save the man! So near yet no possibility of rendering assistance! He throws a line towards the shore that only reaches a rock that, when the sea rolls back, is bare - a brave man rushes forward from the crowd to the rock, seizes the end of the line and if washed on shore by the returning swell holding fast however to the rope and this at the risk of his own life is the means of saving that of his unfortunate tho imprudent fellow man. The half drowned man lowers himself by his hands and swinging his legs over the rope, first one and then the other is safe at last on shore with but a slight wound of the scalp! What joy is manifested in every countenance! What numerous prayers are offered by the natives to their different saints for his delivery even from the very jaws of death! The Canada also is now a wreck on the sand and the Roy Boy, at one surge is cut through the middle of a projecting rock.

“The gale shortly abated or the three vessels must have certainly gone to pieces and many others come on shore as several parted their cables heaving them up since to right them. The cargoes were all saved tho much damaged and what is worthy of remark, many articles sold for more at auction than if they had been regularly landed and disposed of at private sale. The storm did not entirely cease until the 10th.

[incomplete paragraph]… A frightul addition is made to the former catalogue of distress on shore. The Almendral is entirely inundated. So bad were the roads that from 4th to the 13th the communication with the city was entirely suspended and now every mail informs us of the destruction of lives and property in the....of the Mapocho a whole village was swept away.....mostly drowned; and the city itself must have.... The loss cannot be yet known....count millions to pay the damage!  Not in the memory of man has there Chile as we have just suffered. The...of which Santiago is built was converted into a....rushed on with more rapidity than a tor4rent the....quantities of stored wheat and flour we.....away and the city overflowed. An immense....of houses are destroyed as well the....hovel as the rich man's stately.... The fields are devastated and numerous...the victims of...the most lamentable scene of 'penury and woe'. All the southern part of the state has suffered - scarcely a village escaping more or less destruction.

“The Peacock arrived in Callao the 14th of May and was to leave there for this Port about the 15th inst, so allowing the ordinary passage (20 days) she will be here on the 5th of July. Her stay here will be short and will probably leave here about the 10th so that about the 11th of October, I shall be at home. This is certain...and not vague rumour.

“We hear that the tyrant of the South, Bolivar, disgusted with his warfare and heroism has left the balmy regions of South America for Europe but I suspect it to be only a political diversion to ripen some deep scheme. A man of his ambition would never abandon his power when about to crown his desires with success…

[PS on address leaf:] a letter of introduction to a gentleman....Parry. He will probably introduce him to you. He has been sometime in the country engaged in mining and is about to engage the working of the gold mines of Carolina. I do not know whether I shall be able to write to Parry – if not you will be kind enough to tell him the news etc.

Ship news: The ship Hope and the Heroine of Baltimore here to sail shortly for the leeward prts and then the latter to proceed home. The Mexican ship Asia of 64 guns still here to sail in about a month…The ship Emily will leave in a day or two for Callao. The [P?] and Vincennces are supposed to be still at Callao.”