On the 22nd of August, 1859, the little steamer Senator called at San Diego with passengers from Los Angeles. It rounded the point under the lighthouse and entered the harbor’s narrow channel at about 8:00 on a hot blue morning. Its destination was the new wharf, on the site of the present-day sportfishing piers, near Shelter Island, but it stopped in the stream to accommodate one important passenger who wished to be rowed ashore on Point Loma to revisit an old haunt.
He was short and erect, with strong arms beneath a gentleman’s coat; he had longish dark hair and a wide expressive mouth. Like others in his family, his eyesight weakened in times of mental stress. When he was 16, this condition had been aggravated by a case of measles, and he had decided not to rejoin his undergraduate class at Harvard College after being expelled for joining a students’ rebellion. Unable to read, bored and aimless, he had gone to sea, not as a paying passenger (he hadn’t the money, in any case) but as an ordinary sailor quartered forward of the mast, in the forecastle. He had never sailed in his life, apart from launching toys on a duck pond, yet he shipped out of Boston, rounded Cape Horn, spent 18 months at hard labor loading ships with cowhides taken from the wild California coast, returned a hero to his classmates, and narrated his adventure in an extraordinary book, Two Years Before The Mast.
He was Richard Henry Dana Jr., now revisiting San Diego on a recreational voyage around the world. During this trip he had been enjoying a revival of his literary reputation. In San Francisco, Santa Barbara, and Los Angeles, he had been met as a visiting dignitary. His book, with meaty detail about life on the California ranchos and juicy observations on many Californians still living in 1859, met with an eager readership on the coast, especially since the former Mexican province had joined the United States and Californians could find in Dana’s writing an accurate prediction of the Yankee conquest.
“You can have no idea of the interest that is taken with my visit,” he wrote to his wife on the day following his stop in San Diego, “the number of persons who remember me (or think they do) and the number who have read my book – everybody has read it – and I am met with kindness and earnest inquiries and congratulations on all points.”
Dana was 44 in 1859. Nearly twenty years had passed since the tremendous success of the book, already recognized as a classic of sea literature. Herman Melville had been influenced by the book’s simple, realistic treatment of sea life and had written that the “chapters describing Cape Horn must have been written with an icicle.” In reform-minded England, the book’s description of the hard life of a sailor had the impact of muckraking journalism. Two thousand copies were said to have been sold in one day to sailors in Liverpool. The book’s accurate descriptions of seamanship and the proper management of a vessel had won approval in other circles. The British Navy had obtained copies for the libraries of its officers.
But the years had added nothing to his achievement. Dana was now an aristocratic Boston lawyer who felt his true life’s purpose was not to write but to perpetuate the family name in law and public affairs. He emulated his grandfather, an austere jurist who had affected the manner of an English lord, adopting a coat-of-arms, carrying a gold-handled cane, and traveling on circuit in a coach with a liveried driver and outrider.
Unfortunately for Dana, a present generation of ne’er do-well relatives whom he was obliged to support, together with his own snobbishness, had prevented him from achieving the success in public life he felt he owed the Danas and himself. That his book, rolled out in one draft and two light revisions when he was a 24-year-old law student, would likely mark the high point of his career was to Dana a source of inward misery.
After delivering Dana to Point Loma, the boatman rowed away and left him alone on the beach – La Playa, as it was known then, near the foot of present-day Kellogg Street. Much was familiar. In front of him was the treeless hill, stark as an empty shelf, and 500 yards of hard brown sand; to the south, the open ocean and the rocky split (Ballast Point) that guarded the entrance of the harbor. Opposite the beach were the shallows of the outer edge of today’s North Island, which actually was an island at high tide, in Dana’s time; to the north, the shoreline curved away toward hundreds of acres of flat, black mud, where Lindbergh Field is today. Beyond, on a low bench of land whose steep sides marked the course of the river, was Old San Diego. Across the bay from where Dana stood was a featureless point of land that had been a burial ground. Seven years earlier, it had been a new town of prefabricated building – San Diego’s first suburb – but an earthquake in San Francisco had ruined its developer, and now, save for the wharf and military barracks, it was abandoned.
What Dana had stopped to see on Point Loma was also gone. In the summer of 1835, when Dana lived here, La Playa was a roistering community of 50 sailors and layabouts who worked or loafed in the daytime and drank at night, fished when they were hungry or brought a steer down from town to butcher on the sand, foraged on the point for firewood, and made sport of killing rattlesnakes and chasing rabbits and coyotes. A cry of “Sail ho!” could mean a ship arriving or the approach of a native woman from town. Like most of the sailors, Dana, then 19, lived for a while with various women (a detail not mentioned in his book). For a Puritan boy from Boston, it was a memorable summer.
Now Dana looked in vain for the hide house that he had lived in, one of four that had occupied the beach. These wooden structures, resembling New England ice barns, no more than rectangular boxes with peaked roofs, were warehouses for cattle hides collected from missions and ranchos along the coast. Fresh hides, dirty and spoiling with ragged flesh, were unloaded on the beach, soaked, scraped, and pickled in brine, dried, beaten free of dust, and finally stored for the voyage to the shoe factories of Massachusetts.
A hide at that time traded on the Pacific coast for a dollar and a half and fetched three to four times that amount in Boston. The trade was profitable until 1843, when three cargoes of hides arrived in Boston at once and glutted the market. An already dwindling trade quickly ceased, and Point Loma’s hide houses were dismantled for their valuable lumber.
Dana also looked for a huge brick oven built by Russian traders. The abandoned oven, large enough for ten men to sleep in, had been taken over by Hawaiian sailors, who sometimes crewed on vessels trading off the coast. There were French, Dutch, English and Chilean sailors on the beach as well, but none affected young Dana as did the Hawaiians, or Kanakas, as they called themselves. Easygoing, open-hearted, willing to share whatever goods they had at the moment, and unwilling to save for the future, they formed in his mind a standard of goodness that put his fellow Bostonians to shame. No doubt he idealized the Kanakas, but he did so from the perspective of one who had suffered at the hands of Yankee employers. Dana, the high-minded Puritan, could not overlook the fact that his countrymen’s highest principle was the making of a dollar. On Sunday, their only day of rest, Dana and his shipmates were frequently made to work, if their captain, who took a percentage of the profits of the voyage, could gain a day’s advantage over the competition. In his book, Dana relates that he had been at sea scarcely a week when he saw what he and his shipmates were in for: “In no state prison are the convicts more regularly set to work, and more closely watched.” The Kanakas, who had gotten wind of Dana’s odious captain and had refused to work for him at any price, too on a kind saintliness in Dana’s mind. He wrote in his book:
I would have trusted my life and my fortune in the hands of any one of these people, and certainly, had I wished for a favor or act of sacrifice, I would have gone to them all, in turn, before I should have applied to one of my own countrymen on the coast, and should have expected to have seen it done, before my own countrymen had got half though counting the cost. Their customs, and manner of treating one another, show a simple, primitive, generosity, which is truly delightful, and which is often a raproach to our own people. Whatever one has, they all have. Money, food, clothes, they share with one another, even to the last piece of tobacco to put in their pipes.
Now he looked around the beach and saw nothing of the life he had known. He wrote later in a memoir:
The past was real. The present, all around me, was unreal, unnatural, repellent… the peopled beach; the large hide-houses, with their gangs of men; and the Kanakas interspersed everywhere. All, all were gone! Not a vestige to mark where one hide-house stood. The oven, too, was gone. I searched for its site, and found, where I thought it should be, a few broken bricks and bits of mortar.
He spent three hours rambling about La Playa, which since has been obliterated by the Naval Ocean System Center and other buildings of the military and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. He walked to the crest of Point Loma, where he and his shipmates used to rest while carrying firewood and where they frequently looked for ships coming down the coast. In his journal, he wrote of being “borne down by depression.”
The purpose of his return to California had been to recover from the nervous collapse he had suffered the previous month in Boston. One evening at dinner, after a strenuous appearance in court, he succumbed to years of overwork and passed out into his soup. The prescription of rest gave Dana the opportunity to fulfill a long-held dream of voyaging around the world, under sail whenever possible. He left his family at home and borrowed the money for the trip from his law partner. “My thoughts wander back to my old sea life,” he wrote during the trip. “I believe I was made for the sea and all my life on shore is a mistake.”
The strain he was under resulted from the pull of his need for money and his aversion to hustling to earn it. His book had made riches for Harper’s, but the publisher had acquired it for $250 from the then-unknown author and held firm in denying him a royalty. Dana estimated the book earned the company $50,000 before he regained the copyright in 1868.
As a lawyer, he had a dazzling success from the day he opened shop, winning the first 29 cases that came in. Nearly all of these involved sailors with petty claims against employers for back wages and the like. As his reputation on the waterfront increased, his tiny office came to smell of tobacco and tar. He charged modest fees, often assumed the costs of prosecution, accepted payment when it was readily offered, and overlooked accounts in arrears. The habits fed his pride; little else prospered. After 2o years as a gentleman engaged in the practice of the law, Dana was forced to send his wife and children to live the better part of the year under the roof of an aunt, and he owed his household servants back wages.
While still in college, he had admitted some doubts about becoming a lawyer like his father and grandfather. He expected it to be “strenuous and dull.” Earlier yet, on the eve of his return to Boston after his adventure, he had felt a curious numbness that he had been at a loss to explain. He had literally counted the days until his return to the comforts of Boston and his social position, “but now that I was actually there,” he wrote in his book, “and in sight of home, the emotions which I had so long anticipated feeling I did not find, and in their place was a state of very nearly entire apathy.”
He was about to re-enter the hothouse world of suppers, teas, hymnals, and pianos after having so spectacularly broken away. Tan and hearty, wearing his hair long, sailor-fashion, as he would continue to do for the rest of his career, Dana embraced the world of the upper-class Bostonian but never forgot the satisfaction of proving himself outside his milieu. During his infrequent vacations from law practice, he loved to hike, not as a city gentleman out to commune with nature but as a he-man out to test his endurance. He delighted in outwalking woodsmen and in racing a mountain climber to a summit.
Away from Boston on business, he would furtively don rough outer clothing and spend time alone in dance halls and brothels, usually engaging a prostitute in conversation and revealing himself at the last moment as a gentleman on a mission to reform the fallen. “I walked until I was hidden from view by the side of a fence in a lane & then called the girl to me,” he wrote in his journal of 1842 from Halifax, Nova Scotia. He was 26, had been married one year, and had fathered the first of his six children.
I told the prostitute at once that I did not want her in the way of her calling, but wished to say a word to her. I then in a careless manner opened my coat to show her that I had the dress of a gentleman & she knew by my voice & manner that I was different… and she answered me respectfully. I told her plainly & at once that I knew what she was, what her life was & had been, & asked her if she knew what she was fast going to. She made no reply, but looked down.
He would later read the passage to his wife.
Testing his virtue outside his hereditary class was Dana’s satisfaction. His career after the publication of his book ignored that inclination. Sitting atop Point Loma now in 1859, heavily in debt, respected in his field but by no means as distinguished as he had been by the publication of a book that he came to think of as “the work of a mere boy,” Dana had cause enough to be depressed.
But now the day was approaching noon, and duty called. He was to have lunch at the home of a couple he had met aboard the Senator. They lived in Old San Diego, and he had four miles to walk.
The road from La Playa to town has been called the first commercial highway in California. It largely followed the route of present-day Rosecrans Avenue. Ox-drawn carretas loaded with hides rattled on the dirt path that edged the high ground around the bay and muddy flats.
As he strode toward town, Dana must have been reminded of his joyous first day in San Diego, a Sunday, when he, his friend Ben Stimson, and the other members of the starboard watch had been granted liberty, and he walked to town to make the most of it. “I shall never forget the delightful sensation of being in the open air,” he wrote in his book, “with the birds singing around me, and escaped from the confinement, labor, and strict rule of a vessel – of being once more in my life, though only for a day, my own master.” Today, he made a middle-aged attempt to re-create his first day of liberty, calling at the same places and looking for some of the same youthful enjoyments.
Without a tree to obscure it, the town was still visible from miles away, a nestling of low adobe huts around a dusty plaza with a tall flagpole that looked like a ship’s mast. Above town, on a natural shelf in the hill, were the ruins of the presidio – its crumbling adobe walls, abandoned chapel, and military quarters. The main road led 100 yards north of town to a narrow ford and continued up the valley to the mission. But in the dry season, the more convenient path branched toward town directly from the west, crossed the wide river bottom, and climbed the steep bank about where present-day Morena Boulevard meets Interstate 8.
Dana found nothing changed from the pueblo he had visited 24 years before. “It certainly has not grown,” he wrote later. The Los Angeles he had visited before had 5000 inhabitants, three times as many as he had seen in 1835; and San Francisco, which he had known as a vast and heavily wooded harbor without a sign of habitation, save for one shack, had since been transformed by the Gold Rush, into a city of 85,000, with hotels, churches, a synagogue and miles of redwood row houses, and boardwalks wending among the sandy hills.
Here, in Old San Diego, the population had decreased from 430 in 1834 to 200 in 1859. The town had undergone a spurt of prosperity shortly after the Gold Rush, when cattle from the ranchos fetched high prices to feed the miners in the north. But the boom had long passed, and San Diego’s natural deficiencies in water, wood, and flood control had pulled the economy back to its meager equilibrium. In 1855 the residents had attempted to build a church to replace the presidio’s chapel, unused since the 1830s, but no sooner were the walls of the new building up than they were undermined by a flood.
The little pear orchard in the northeast corner of town was still here. And with statehood, the square had acquired the distinction of a brick courthouse: a few wooden buildings, one a three-story hotel that had just gone broke, were new to Dana’s eye, though not worth mentioning in later writing. At a glance, the square was dry and shadeless as ever, trees being impossible to maintain in the open where horses would make short work of a sprig of green.
Sailor-fashion, Dana sought first the town barkeep. Thomas Wrightington, only to find that he had fallen drunk off his horse a few years before and had been eaten by coyotes. The owner of the pulqueria where Wrightington worked, Henry Fitch, had died in 1849, which might have been fortunate for Dana’s well- being. His book had described Fitch as “a fat, coarse, vulgar, pretending fellow of a Yankee trader.”
Another Yankee trader on the coast, William D. Phelps, speculated in his own book about Dana’s enmity toward Fitch. “The only motive Dana could have had for using such terms,” wrote Phelps, “is that he entered Capt. F’s house intoxicated & using foul language [and] was kicked out!” If so, it was another experience Dana had neglected to mention in his book.
Still eager to find someone in town he remembered, Dana grew bold. He later wrote:
I went into a familiar one-story adobe house, with its piazza and earthen floor, inhabited by a respectable lower-class family by the name of Machado, and inquired if any of the family remained, when a bright-eyed middle-aged woman recognized me, for she had heard I was on board the steamer, and told me she had married a shipmate of mine, Jack Stuart, who … wished very much to see me. In a few minutes he came in, and his extreme pleasure in meeting me was extremely grateful. We talked over old times as long as I could afford to. I was glad to hear he was sober and doing well.
Stuart’s descendants lived in the house until 1966. It is still standing, preserved in the state park at Old Town as the Casa de Machado y Stewart.
Another of the well-preserved buildings in the town is the Bandini house, former home of the aristocratic Juan Bandini, one of San Diego’s best-known residents, of whom Dana wrote much in his book, little of it flattering. Modern historians would make much of Dana’s disdain for Bandini and his peers, the Spanish-speaking gente de razon, nearly all of whom lost their great ranchos after California statehood. Dana admired their grace but pronounced them frivolous and lazy and predicted their ruin at the hands of the grasping Yankees.
Here is Dana on first meeting Bandini in 1836, when Bandini had come aboard Dana’s ship from Monterey to Santa Barbara:
Among our passengers was a young man who was a good representation of a decayed gentleman … He was of the aristocracy of the country, his family being of pure Spanish blood, and once of considerable importance in Mexico. His father had been governor of the province, and, having amassed a large property, settled at San Diego, where he built a large house with a court-yard in front, kept a retinue of Indians, and met up with the grandiose of that part of the country. His son was sent to Mexico, where he received an education, and went into the first society of the capital. Misfortune, extravagance, and want of any manner of getting interest on money soon ate the estate up, and Don Juan Bandini returned from Mexico accomplished, poor, and proud, and without any office or occupation to lead the life of most young men of the better families –dissipated and extravagant when the means are at hand, ambitious at heart and impotent in act, often pinched for bread, keeping up an appearance of style, when their poverty is known to each half-naked Indian boy in the street, and standing in dread of every small trader and shopkeeper in the place. He had a slight and elegant figure, moved gracefully, danced and waltzed beautifully, spoke good Castillian, with a pleasant and refined voice and accent, and had, throughout, the bearing of a man of birth and figure. Yet here he was, with his passage given him (as I later learned); for he had not the means of paying for it, and living upon the charity of our agent. He was polite to everyone, spoke to the sailors, and gave four reals – I dare say the last he had in his pocket – to the steward, who waited on him.
As a common sailor, Dana had no leave to speak with any passenger, nor ashore was he admitted to conversation with the ruling class. He lacked first-hand information of Bandini and erred in a number of details. Bandini’s father was no governor but one of the few Spanish-speaking captains who ventured to trade in California. The Bandini’s were not weary, indolent bluebloods, but scheming newcomers.
Bandini’s father was born in Cadiz, the westward trading gate of Spain, where his grandfather had probably settled from Italy. Bandini himself was born in the treading port of Arica, Peru. Emigrating from Mexico to California the young Bandini had been elected to represent the province in the Mexican Assembly and had returned from Mexico City with the plum appointment of customs collector.
Dana was wrong to conclude that Bandini was unenterprising. In 1836 he hatched a scheme to colonize California with the fresh blood of 150 craftsmen brought up from Mexico City. They were coldly met by missionaries and local authorities alike, and the venture failed. Late in 1837, Bandini moved briefly to Los Angeles to administer the San Gabriel Mission, which the Mexican government had appropriated from the Franciscans.
He soon acquired cattle-land near present-day Chino and Riverside and a concession to cut lumber from the nearby mountains. These and other lands in Tecate and Tijuana produced cattle that sold for a premium during the Gold Rush. Bandini opened a general store in San Diego to build Gila House, a hotel that he expected would bulge with travelers heading for the mines. The travelers went through without stopping in San Diego. Thereafter Bandini fortunes began to fall into Yankee hands.
Family hands, it turned out. Bandini had given his oldest daughter in marriage to a Boston trader older than himself, Abel Stearns. Not a prize to look at even before a furious customer slashed his upper lip with a knife, Stearns was called “Horseface” by his friends. Down the years, he covered his father-in-law’s minor debts. When Bandini did not pay import duties on cattle herded up from his estates in Baja California, Stearns paid. After statehood, the U.S. government established a land commission to sort out the ownership of casually granted titles. The process was rigged against the rancheros, who lacked the cash to pay for court proceedings that a corrupt American judiciary allowed to drag on, even in cases where rancheros had obvious claims. Finally, when the $10,000 note came due, Bandini turned to Stearns to assume the debt. Stearns did, having all the while computed interest at an average rate of about seven percent. By 1858, Bandini owed him $32,000.
An August 19, 1859, three days before Dana’s return to San Diego, Bandini discharged his debt to his son-in-law by executing deeds for his 2000 cattle in California and Mexico, his 300 horses and 300 sheep, his mark and cattle brand, his lands near Chino, and his house in San Diego. The casa that Dana saw during his day’s visit no longer belonged to the Bandinis. Stearns had quickly sold it to a hotelier. In the present day it is Casa de Bandini, the Mexican restaurant.
Now needing to keep his luncheon appointment, Dana left the Machado house to call on the Doyles. “Nice people,” Dana noted for posterity, in a memoir. He added nothing more to their identity, but they were probably Manville Doyle, who had opened a livery business in 1855, and his wife.
After lunch he obtained a horse and rode up the valley to the mission, just as he had done on his liberty day. He found it much changed. “All gone to decay,” he wrote in his journal. “Large gardens – now only cactuses & willows & few olive trees. Aqueduct in ruins. Buildings dilapidated. Barracks for U.S. troops close by, abandoned and in ruins.”
The transfer of the prosperous mission estates from the Catholic Church to the Mexican state had already begun at the time of Dana’s first visit, but its effects had not yet taken hold. A few of the rancheros, belatedly aglow with the Enlightenment values of natural human rights, values that had played a part in the previous century’s American revolution, saw themselves as liberators of the “neophytes” who had been brought within the mission’s thrall. But native peoples, who had been taught iron-smithing, baking, weaving, husbandry, viticulture, and the musical notation of Gregorian chants, had not been taught by the padres to read, and their liberators had no intention of doing so.
In the case of Mission San Diego, near present day Jack Murphy Stadium, there were 3000 square miles of pasturage to be parceled out. The Mexican state gave the Luiseno clans short shrift. Four townships were established in the region for various Luiseno, where they were to govern themselves, grow their crops, forge tools, and create their own economies; but these townships quickly collapsed, leaving the people to subsist by raiding the herds and flocks they had previously tended. Without the virtual slave-labor of the neophytes, the mission fell into disrepair, its bells, chalices, statuary and vestments sent to Mission San Luis Rey for safekeeping or scattered in the founding of parishes as distant as Arizona.
After California statehood, cavalry took up quarters in one of the mission’s wings. The museum in the present-day mission primly notes this quartering with the display of an excavated whiskey bottle.
By the time Dana made his revisit in 1859, the cavalry had already moved to New San Diego. There being nothing to see except ruins, he soon made his way to New San Diego too, running his horse through the dry river bottom as he and Stimson had done as young men. Then they had just drunk their first wine in months at the mission’s generous table. He wrote in his book:
The fine air of the afternoon, the rapid rate of the animals, who seemed almost to fly over the ground, and the excitement and novelty of the motion to us, who had been so long confined on shipboard, were exhilarating beyond expression, and we felt willing to ride all day long.
Now he rode at a full gallop once more – out of nostalgia and because he had a steamer to catch.
At dusk the Senator’s accommodating captain stopped again in the stream to allow Dana to go ashore at La Playa for one last look around. He collected some shells for souvenirs and saw a Kanaka fishing on the beach.
Dana’s fortune had turned for the better, though he did not know it then. His public career would continue to prove disappointing. In 1861, still in debt, he reluctantly turned down an opportunity to replace an ailing congressman. He would later lose an election for the office, and political enemies would thwart his most sought-after appointment as ambassador to England. But his finances would improve to the point where he could at last enjoy some satisfied repose.
In 1860 he was appointed U.S. District Attorney for Massachusetts. His acumen alone would not have made it a lucrative position, but the Civil War did. To enforce its blockade of the South, the Union allowed for Confederate cargo, captured at sea, to be sold in Union ports and the proceeds divided between the government and the victorious captain. The U.S. district attorney also shared in the prize. Because the hard-working Dana disposed of the prize cases faster than the district attorneys in New York and other ports, captains brought their cargoes to Boston. Dana’s income soared from $6000 to $20,000 a year.
An equally gratifying result was Dana’s successful defense of the Union blockade before the U.S. Supreme Court, at the time, a key legal victory for the war. It singled Dana out for the thanks of President Lincoln.
Meanwhile, Dana had begun to realize the benefits of acquiring a perfect law partner. His name was Francis Parker; it was he who had lent Dana funds for his recuperative voyage. Any trial lawyer would appreciate the qualities that Parker brought to the firm. He was a frugal bachelor with modest personal expenses and practically no life outside the office. He dunned clients without compunction. He avoided litigation himself, screened unprofitable cases, and had social connections that attracted profitable ones. Going beyond the pale, he managed Dana’s personal holdings in Cambridge and during the post-war boom led him to realize $147,000 on 30 acres of hereditary Dana salt marsh.
With these riches came bequests from relatives: $20,000 from spinster aunts and $10,000 on the death of his brother. In 1868 he regained ownership of Two Years Before the Mast, which he reissued with an added chapter, “Twenty-Four Years After,” describing his return to California. In his later years, he had repaid his debts, lived in luxury, and retired to the solace of planning one last big book.
But for the moment, it was time to re-board the Senator and leave San Diego for Los Angeles, San Francisco, then onward to Hawaii and the East. He wrote, “A last look – yes, last for life – to the beach, the hills, the low point, the distant town, as we round Point Loma, and the first beams of the lighthouse strike out towards the setting sun.”
Adventure still lay ahead. In San Francisco, he would attend a Roman Catholic Mass and a Jewish Sabbath celebration. On a strenuous mule trip to the valley of Yosemite, completely by chance, he would encounter one of the women he had lived with during his summer on La Playa. She was now a cook in the household of General John Freemont. Dana would even remember her name: Mary. In China, Dana would twice visit a floating brothel, strictly as an observer, accompanied by other Victorian gentlemen.