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Visiting California in 1836 with Richard Henry Dana, Jr.


I discovered the book "Two Years Before the Mast" just last year. It was recommended to me because of my interest in California history, and it's quickly become one of my favorite books of all time.

It's a long book that goes into sometimes tedious details, written in 1836, about the experiences of a young man on a ship that sails to California from Boston. The first time I read it, it was tough going. And the second time it started to make more sense. Now that I have it as an audiobook it's easier for me to sail along with the experience, and if you're interested in what California looked like before it became part of the United States, in 1849, it's wonderful. No, there are no photographs, photography hadn't been invented yet, but the descriptions will take you there.

While you read it, it's good to be familiar with the coast of California. I know a little bit about it, and when somewhere is mentioned that I don't recognize, I pause the book and Google map it. Sail along with me!

I'll skip the part about leaving Boston and sailing all of the way around South America. No Panama Canal in those days! It was pretty awful, and I hadn't thought how bitterly cold the trip would be. And then the ship sails north along the western coast of South America on its way to California.

California belonged to Mexico at that time, and Dana describes it as "the edge of the world". You really do get a sense of its being as if you were on the moon. He starts to worry that he will get stranded there for much longer than he had planned on, and is anxious to return to civilization.

Our first stop is San Diego. Then, as now, there's plenty of room for ships, safely tucked away from the ocean. Not much is going on there in 1836, other than a scattering of people (who of course spoke Spanish), and the business that brought Dana's ship there, hides. That is, the hides of cows that would be sent back to the United States to be processed into things like shoes, etc. In fact, the young Dana spends most of his time in California carrying hides. Hard work!

Carrying hides in California in 1836

The ship stays in what Dana calls the "Canal", which is the channel between the California coast and and the islands of Catalina, and the Channel Islands. The ship stops at San Pedro, which is still a harbor, and casual reference is made to "the Pueblo", which is a few miles inland. The Pueblo is of course LA, and even then Dana describes it as the largest place in California. Every once in a while he refers to it as the Pueblo de Los Angeles, but mostly it's the Pueblo. This is the part of the book that I find most fascinating, as he goes into wonderful detail about the people, and the place.

Sailing along the coast of California in 1836

He does get as far north as the San Francisco bay, and sees a bit of Yerba Buena. There really wasn't much to see there in 1836. The ship then visits Monterey, and you can begin to see how it's all about places along the coast where a ship can anchor for a while. In the course of the trip, Dana learns Spanish. Not much, but probably enough to be unimpressed by the name of Monterey, which simply means Mount King. Everything just seems so much more romantic in Spanish!

He really hates Santa Barbara, as it's a very difficult place to anchor, and the winds that blow makes it treacherous. There were no trees there, as there recently had been a fire. He likes San Francisco, and predicts that someday it will be become a large and important city. And he mentions Point Conception, San Juan Capistrano, and other places that I recognize.

I'm listening to it right now, and each time I discover new things, and explore new places. The two years that he spent there, 1835 and 1836, are just about the best description of California at that time. If you haven't read the book, I highly recommend it. Once you've read it a couple of times, it makes a great audiobook.

Thank you for exploring California with me!

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