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Visiting California in 1859 with Richard Henry Dana, Jr.


As long as the book "Two Years Before the Mast" is, it's one of those books that I wish was longer. And specifically I wish that Richard Henry Dana Jr. had written more about his revisit to California 24 years later. Of course, no matter how much he would have written, I would have wanted more. That's why I love books like that. Warning: spoilers! California changed from 1835 to 1859.

When Dana was 20 years old, in 1935, he took a couple of years of from college to spend time as an ordinary working sailor on a ship that sailed to the then-practically unknown coast of California. Two Years Before the Mast meant that he spent two years on the ship - "before" is an old-fashioned way of saying "in front of", which is where he spent his time on the ship from 1835 to 1836. It's a fascinating view of California, when it still belonged to Mexico, which he describes in wonderful detail.

In 1859, Dana went back on a "sentimental journey" and was surprised by what he saw. It had only been twenty-four years, but in that time the San Francisco Bay had gone from being mostly just a empty place to being a booming city, with hotels, restaurants, lights and life. Of course, 1859 San Francisco would seem old-fashioned and quaint to our eyes, but when you see it through his eyes you get a strong feeling of how much had changed, and how modern it was.

Business was booming there on what used to be a sleepy little coast. He mentions that Monterey, which he considered very beautiful, had been passed over by the new wealth, and in fact Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, and San Diego hadn't changed much. The big change was in San Francisco!

He described Santa Barbara as still looking like a sleepy little Mexican town in 1859, with mostly adobe buildings, and few more modern ones. The Mission was there, as it still is today, of course, and it must have been a very beautiful sight, as is it is now, with the little town at its feet and the mountains behind.

Los Angeles, which went by the name of El Pueblo when he was twenty, is still described by Dana as being 30 miles away from San Pedro, where his ship docks. The full name of Los Angeles, by the way, in case you never heard it is "El Pueblo de Nuestra SeƱora la Reina de Los Angeles". Once it became an American town, in 1849, the English-speaking people slowly moved away from calling it "El Pueblo" to calling it "Los Angeles", and then with the "a" sound for the "o", and the soft g, as it's pronounced today. That is, instead of "LOs AnGeles", "Las Anjelis".

And in 1859 there still wasn't much happening in San Diego, although he sees that there's no longer traces of the old places where he used to prepare hides.

It's a nice sentimental journey, and if you've read "Two Years Before the Mast", the 24 years after is fun to go back to the future!

Thank you for visiting California with me, and Richard Henry Dana, Jr.!

Image at the top of this post: Richard Henry Dana, Jr. looking probably how he looked in his forties. By the way, Dana Point is named after him.

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