At Westerly Library & Wilcox Park: A sad tale of locals lost on an ill-fated ship | Guest Columns

I work in the library’s Reference Department, on the second floor, but these days I spend more time around the corner in the Local History Room. The opportunity to connect with other local history lovers and exchange information, sources, and anecdotes has been great.

One fun thing about working with our special collections is the wonderful stories I stumble upon. They can be tantalizing because it is rare that the complete story is easy to uncover, so sometimes I just obtain a little peek into the life of a local person from the past. I thought I might summarize one here today that I recently read that really stayed with me.

I was searching our vertical files for some information, and I unexpectedly found some older handwritten pages in a file on the Stillman family. Curious, I began reading the 4- to 6-page packet. It was riveting, but the ending left me feeling gobsmacked and a bit sad.

A woman, presumably a descendant, had written some notes for context, and copied some passages from letters that had been sent home by Ezra Stillman, and donated this to the library. Stillman, a Westerly man, age 26, had sailed out of Stonington on the schooner Sovereign in November 1849, leaving a wife, Abbie, and a baby boy, Edgar, 10 months old at the time, in Pawcatuck. He was with a group of other local men, headed for San Francisco and the Gold Rush. Many local names were represented on the ship’s manifest, such as Captain Palmer Hall, Gurdon Hall, Amos and David Pendleton, Stephen Babcock, Jonathan Larkin, Thomas Palmer, and George Frazier, among others. Their journey took nine months, arriving in San Francisco in July 1850.

Mr. Stillman’s letters home from California are short, and there are only four, but they provide a first-hand account of life at a few of the Gold Rush camps around the North Fork of the Sacramento River. He tells of a cholera outbreak in which a fellow Westerly man, Amos Pendleton, peddled bread around the community of Sacramento City one Sunday morning, feeling well, and had passed away before evening from the disease. He describes the communities that sprang up practically overnight as people traveled from all over to pan for gold — the lawlessness, great fortunes made and others lost, and shared some examples of terrible violence, and of swift justice meted out in the camps. His last letter from him was sent in August 1851.

Ezra Stillman left the port of San Francisco headed for home on the schooner Penelope in October 1851. He probably was again sailing with fellow local men, based on passenger names such as James Lamb, Hoxie Green, Joseph Chapman, Peleg Saunders, and William Stanton . Sadly, they never returned. The Penelope encountered a terrible squall off of Cape Saint Lucas (Cabo San Lucas in Mexico) and was lost at sea. At that time, passenger lists for ships were not required, so loved ones had to wait and hope, and eventually assume the ship must have gone down.

Top requested books

  • 1. “The Paris Apartment” by Lucy Foley
  • 2. “The Lincoln Highway” by Amor Towles
  • 3. “The Match” by Harlan Coben
  • 4. “Run Rose Run” by James Patterson
  • 5. “The Maid” by Nita Prose
  • 6. “What Happened to the Bennetts” by Lisa Scottoline
  • 7. “Dream Town” by David Baldacci
  • 8. “22 Seconds” by James Patterson
  • 9. “The Hotel Nantucket” by Elin Hilderbrand
  • 10. “One Italian Summer” by Rebecca Serle

Top requested DVDs

  • 1. “Belfast”
  • 2. “Spider-Man: No Way Home”
  • 3. “Yellowstone Season 4”
  • 4. “Sing 2”
  • 5. “Nightmare Alley”
  • 6. “The Beatles: Get Back”
  • 7. “The Handmaid’s Tale Season 4”
  • 8. “West Side Story”
  • 9. “All Creatures Great and Small: Season 2”
  • 10. “Death on the Nile”

this week

MONDAY — 4-4:45 pm, Couch to 5k Run Club – It’s week two of our Run Club, and we’re meeting at the fountain in Wilcox Park for our group run. No registration is required!

TUESDAY — 10-10:30 am, Family Storytime – Join us on Tuesdays in the Terrace Room for a family storytime! The program will be geared towards ages birth through 11 years when accompanied by a caregiver; 1-4 pm, Community Resource Advocate – Our volunteer Community Resource Advocate is available via email to help connect you with local services/resources. Contact her at; 1-2 pm, Tuesday Afternoon Book Discussion – New members are welcome! This month, we will meet in person and on Zoom to discuss “A Discovery of Witches” by Deborah Harkness. Email Caroline at for meeting details; 2-3:30 pm, Virtual Tech Social – We meet on Zoom every Tuesday to address your tech questions. Preregistration is required; 5:30-7:30 pm, Knit and Crochet Club – The Knit and Crochet Group is meeting on the 2nd floor of the library. Masks are highly recommended.

WEDNESDAY — 5-7 pm, Digital Literacy Classes – Sign up for up to 8 weeks of free computer classes with Spanish support, presented by the Providence Public Library and RI Office of Library and Information Services. Limited spaces are available, so registration is required; 6-7 pm, Author Talk with Jillian Cantor – Please join us on Zoom for a discussion and Q & A with author Jillian Cantor about her book “Beautiful Little Fools.” Registration is required. Please register by Tuesday, April 12th.

THURSDAY — 4-5 pm, Teen Writers Workshop – Join our teen writers workshop to get feedback on your poems, short stories, personal essays, novels in progress — whatever you like to write! Registration at least one day in advance is required; 5:30-6:30 pm, Zumba in the Park and Library | Turn It Up and Tone – Enjoy a free Zumba class with Yvonne Brown and Tina Pagliusi; 5:30-7:30 pm, Chess Club – Drop by the library’s Old Main Reading Room for our weekly Chess Club. Players of all skill levels are welcome.

SATURDAY — 10:30-11:30 am, Zumba in the Park and Library – Try out Zumba for a fun workout! Classes are FREE and will be held on the grassy area near the gazebo (weather permitting) or in the 3rd floor Terrace Room (in undesirable weather).

Nina Wright is a reference and local history librarian at the Westerly Library and Wilcox Park.


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