The collection comprises 426 items, including family correspondence, drawings, poems, and speeches from the period 1828 to 1903. Of primary interest is the material pertaining to William Findlay Shunk's years as a midshipman of the U.S. Sloop of War Preble and its Pacific cruises during the period 1846-1850.
When sixteen years of age, William Findlay Shunk, 1830-1907, a younger son of Francis Rawn Shunk (1788-1848), governor of Pennsylvania (1845-1848), decided to go to sea. His influential father successfully petitioned the Secretary of the Navy, George Bancroft, to give him a Midshipman's warrant. Young Shunk was assigned to the Sloop of War Preble, which outfitted at Brooklyn's Navy Yards and sailed September 25, 1846, for Macao via the Cape Verdes, Rio de Janiero, Cape Horn, Callao (Peru), Monterey, San Francisco, Hawaii, Hong Kong, and Canton to return in time via Hawaii, Benicia (California), Ursenal, and Panama. His letters home give wonderful vignettes of sea life through the eyes of an intelligent and sensitive youth. Many interesting items are recounted in these letters, such as his descriptions of life in the city of Lima, the California campaign against Mexico, and Hawaiian experiences.
One of the friends whom William F. Shunk made aboard the ship was F. L. (Frederick Lewis) Hanks, whose twenty-eight-page personal journal of the voyage of the Preble to Nagasaki in 1849, kept expressly for Shunk, is included in this collection. It recounts in detail how the captain of the vessel demanded from the Daimyo and obtained the release of certain American whalers who had been unlawfully imprisoned by the Japanese. Little known and all but forgotten today, this voyage into the forbidden waters of Japan by one unescorted sloop was a most significant precursor of Commodore Matthew G. Perry, who employed a squadron to formally open the country to the Western world nearly five years later.
An interesting addition to these narratives of sea life are the sketches Shunk made of the places the Preble visited. Several of them are of Hawaii, which made a lasting impression upon him.
In later life, as a structural engineer, Shunk wrote two authoritative books on railroad bridges, curves, and grades.
Also in this collection are some 243 interfamilial letters between Shunk's parents, Governor and Mrs. Francis Rawn Shunk, himself, and various brothers, sisters and cousins dating from 1828 through 1903, but written principally between 1846 and 1866. Together with these are thirty-six early poems by Shunk, sixty-three odd pages of speeches composed by Gov. Shunk for delivery before the Pennsylvania Assemblies, and some other miscellaneous items. The family letters are mainly from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, except that the majority of brother Caspar's are from Cornwall Furnace, Pennsylvania.