“By the close of the summer I had . . . acquired some knowledge of the character and habits of the people, as well as of the institutions under which they live.”
This document, written by Richard Henry Dana Jr., is a chapter from his book Two Years before the Mast, published in 1840. Dana was a sailor for two years during his recovery from measles, and during that time he kept a diary of his observations of life aboard ship and in the areas he visited. In the preface to the book, Dana explains that his purpose in writing is to show what life is like for the average sailor and to fill what he saw as a void in maritime literature. According to his own words, he did his best to relate events as he saw them, without interpreting them or evaluating the morality of those individuals he met. This specific chapter (chapter 21), “California and Its Inhabitants,” shows what life was like for Mexicans and American Indians living in California at the time Dana visited, in 1834. It is one of the few surviving primary sources from before the gold rush.
After the California gold rush began in 1848, people rushed to the West Coast in order to “strike it rich”; many documents about California life during this time exist because of the increase in population. Reliable sources about daily life and customs before the gold rush, however, are scarce. One of the only remaining documents is that of Richard Henry Dana Jr. Dana was an outsider, a sailor raised on the East Coast with no ties to the local people, which makes his account even rarer. In the preface to Two Years before the Mast, Dana even states that his intention in writing his account is to provide an unbiased recording of local cultures as he encountered them. While biases can never be totally removed from a person’s recollection of an event, Dana does his best not to pass too much judgment on local people, which helps historians gain a better understanding of the time period and the relationships between different cultural groups.
This excerpt gives details about the Mexican, Spanish, Anglo, and native residents of California, the establishment of the Jesuit missions and presidios (Spanish military garrisons) that governed California and its inhabitants, and the changes in power and culture from the 1600s to Dana’s visit in 1834. The hierarchy of power in the territory, which was originally in the hands of the Jesuits, was given to Mexican administradores after Mexico’s independence from Spain in 1821. Even though the administradores technically governed California, there was no formal system of law in the territory, or at least no immediate system of justice—those who governed California were often far away in Mexico. Since the people of California could not rely on the Mexican government to help them, they frequently took matters into their own hands. American Indians, the lowest social group, who were made to be serfs of the missions, were treated the most harshly.
Richard Henry Dana Jr. was born in 1815 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to Richard and Ruth Dana. Dana was a dedicated student, even though illness sometimes required that he leave school. During his academic life, he was exposed to many influences, such as the preaching of Reverend Nehemiah Adams and participation in protests at Harvard College. Dana was following in his father’s and grandfather’s distinguished footsteps when he entered Harvard. In his third year of school, however, he came down with the measles, and one of the side effects was a severe loss of vision. While he recovered, he decided to leave school and became a sailor, and then a fur trader for a brief time in California. In the two years he spent aboard ship, Dana maintained a diary chronicling his experiences and observations of the people he met. Upon his return to Massachusetts in 1836, Dana reenrolled at Harvard and finished his degree, became a lawyer, married Sarah Watson, and eventually opened his own law office in Boston. During this period, he revisited his diary and published his observations and experiences under the title Two Years before the Mast.
Dana’s work strongly reflects his experiences as a young man at sea. He would sail again in 1859, this time around the world as a passenger. His trip took him once again to California, which he wrote about in “Twenty Fours Years After,” published in later editions of Two Years before the Mast. Many of Dana’s clients were seamen, and he became known for his staunch defense of their rights, especially against captains and shipmasters. He also defended the rights of several fugitive slaves and became involved in the anti-slavery Free Soil Party, which was founded in 1848. This began his political career, which culminated in his appointment as United States district attorney by President Abraham Lincoln; he served in this role during the Civil War. One of his cases at this time, argued in front of the Supreme Court in 1863, concerned the seizure of property at sea during wartime. Dana was a recognized expert of maritime law.
When President Andrew Johnson came to office, Dana resigned as district attorney and went back to his private law practice. He also served in the Massachusetts legislature from 1867 to 1868. Dana was considered for an appointment as a US ambassador and a nomination for senator in the 1870s, but he had his own views and did not stray from them, which prevented him from acquiring either position. He retired from American politics and moved to Italy in order to work on a book about international law. He died in Rome in 1882, shortly after starting his work. Although remembered as a relatively minor figure of the nineteenth century, Dana’s literary contribution provides a rare look at a common seaman’s life and life in California before—and after—the drastic changes made by the gold rush (1848–1855).
Richard Henry Dana begins Two Years before the Mast with a preface in which he informs his audience that he is trying to write a true account of his experiences and life in the places he visited, focusing on California in this excerpt. What people experience and share with others is always affected by their own morals and opinions, so learning the truth about historical events is difficult, at best, and requires readers to separate facts from the overtones conveyed in the text. Dana wrote “California and Its Inhabitants” in order to help relay information about life in California in 1834 to an audience who had never seen it for themselves. This period of time was fraught with tensions between the ethnic groups who populated California and the institutions that controlled the land and the people. Dana helps to illustrate those tensions and does his best to maintain a neutral tone, but his own values are still present in his writing and have to be examined separately from the text.
Without an understanding of California’s history, Dana’s work has no context and loses its impact. While he does spend a significant portion of his chapter explaining the history of California, the validity of this information should be questioned. One can do so by reviewing other primary sources for comparison, to help piece together the most accurate account of Californian history. The main sources to look at from this time period are accounts recorded by Jesuit and Franciscan monks for their Spanish overseers. There is also, in a rare example, an account about the arrival of the Spanish written by a Luiseño American Indian named Pablo Tac (1822–1841), who was born and educated at Mission San Luis Rey (Gutierrez and Orsi, 197–198). The history includes information about the mission as well as the life of the Luiseño. Through the information provided in such records, readers can trust that Dana’s retelling of the local history is as accurate as he was able to produce.
California has been inhabited for approximately fourteen thousand years and was first colonized in the sixteenth century by Spain, but it was a slow colonization, mostly controlled by Spanish missionaries. As Dana states in the second paragraph of his chapter, California was fertile and rich in resources, which made it very attractive for explorers, missionaries, and traders. Soon after the Jesuits came to California, the Spanish Crown set up presidios, or garrisoned forts, in nearby areas in order to provide protection. The presidios, the towns, and the missions worked together to consolidate Spanish control in its territories; however, these buildings were only built and maintained because the American Indians who lived there were forced into working for the Spanish, becoming serfs, as Dana calls them.
Once Mexican independence was achieved in 1821, life in California was altered, as Spanish domination fell away and the new Mexican government took control. Especially affected were the priests, who were stripped of their power and possessions. Dana tells most of this history in accurate detail; it was likely relayed to him through oral stories and the memories of the people he met. Something Dana includes, which is an invaluable part of this primary source, is the views of the people from whom he learned this history. When he begins his section on the Mexican administradores, Dana adds the opinions of the “people of the country.” Because administradores lacked a permanent connection to the missions of California and to the local area, they did not care about what state they left the land and the people in when they returned to Mexico. This disregard for the local and native populations resulted in a decline in the overall well-being of the territory and its inhabitants, in turn leading to an increase in unrest and tension between the ethnic groups. Dana reveals this unrest while detailing his own experiences in the territory in 1834, nearly fifteen years after the introduction of the administradores.
Since the beginning of Spanish movement into California, tension existed between the native population and the colonizing population. Dana describes these changes several times in his work, beginning with the earliest movement of the Spanish into California. The Jesuits took it upon themselves to leave Spain and “to Christianize and enlighten the Indians.” The belief that native populations need to be converted to Christianity is a common theme of this time period. European powers in general felt that civilization came through Christianity, and, therefore, colonized peoples were expected to convert. But even after conversion, the native populations were not considered to be the same social status as the Spanish, or even the Mexicans. The “civilized Indians,” as Dana calls them, were better off than the uncivilized who made up the serfs, but they were still treated as inferior to anyone with European bloodlines.
Even throughout the changes in government and leadership during the nineteenth century, the American Indians were not really affected, because they were essentially always on the bottom of the social hierarchy. Dana comments on this fact after noting that the priests lost their power to the administradores after the Mexican Revolution. While everyone else’s quality of life suffered, the American Indians went on much as they had before. The government in California, however, was unstable at best. Because of the loose structure of control under the administradores, and the frequent turnover as they returned to Mexico, laws were created and ignored on a regular basis.
Justice at this time was mostly in the hands of the people, which made for dangerous and uncertain times. Dana relates that a Yankee (a mildly derogatory Spanish term for a person born in the United States), could be taken from his house by a Mexican man and murdered over a disagreement, and there would be no official action taken by someone in the government. The only justice that he would gain was if his own countrymen would then take the Mexican into custody and try him themselves, which is not justice so much as vengeance. Dana also reports a story about a man murdered by his wife and her lover. One version he heard said that the Mexicans shot the murderers; in another, the Mexicans did not react, because the incident involved Californians—and nothing was done by the Californians, either. If Dana’s account is to be believed in its entirety, it would show that laws, or rules rather, existed that made violence within an ethnic and social group more acceptable than violence that crossed social strata. This in and of itself would have created tension in a time when people already viewed each other on unequal terms.
American Indians, however, were treated much more harshly. Dana relates one event in which an American Indian man killed another American Indian who had killed his horse; he was immediately taken into custody and, after being imprisoned, was shot for his crime. Dana himself says, “When a crime has been committed by Indians, justice, or rather vengeance is not so tardy.” This statement reveals that Dana, and most likely everyone else, knew this system was heavily weighted against the American Indians, but nothing was done to correct it. A strong delineation between American Indians and all other people would have to be long standing and quite extreme to produce such a definitive difference in treatment. This pervasive attitude affected Dana as well, as he would have learned much of his knowledge of California from locals while he worked in the fur trade. This comes through quite clearly in the last third of his chapter, in which he talks more about the personalities of the Mexicans and American Indians, revealing his own feelings about these people and his own values and upbringing.
Dana shows some prejudice when speaking about life in California, mainly regarding the mannerisms of the Mexicans and the American Indians. This is not to say that Dana harbored any ill will against any of them personally, just that his writing reflects a common mindset of his time, as well as his own “Eastern superiority,” as it is labeled by Robert Gale in his biography of Dana. Most people at this time, especially the Mexicans and white Americans, felt that they were superior to and more civilized than the native peoples. Dana’s phrasing and word choices show this. His phrasing also shows his distaste for the Mexicans. After Dana talks about the failings of the California justice system—an overall negative judgment against the Mexicans, whom he even calls “hungry, drawling, lazy half-breeds”—he moves to another subject, the personalities and mannerisms of those who live in California.
At the start of this section, Dana calls the Mexican men “thriftless, proud, [and] extravagant” and the women of low morals. He goes on to say that the women’s lack of virtue is balanced by their husbands’ jealousy, which serves to keep the women in check. In the first one hundred words, not a single positive aspect of these people is mentioned, let alone expanded upon. While an overabundance of positive attributes would be equally suspect, the entire lack of them clearly shows how Dana and other eastern Americans viewed the Mexicans. He also expresses the idea that these jealous husbands are overly emotional and reactionary, neither of which are favorable traits, because they use murder to punish a man who commits “nothing more than [an] indiscretion.” His next statement, that parents have only one goal, to arrange good marriages for their daughters, is also explained in a somewhat judgmental tone, even though this was not an unusual circumstance in many places in the world, including England and even Dana’s own upper-class East Coast home. Without trying to understand these ideas in a wider context, Dana condemns the Californian families and their ways of life, even though they are not so different from Dana’s own background. The only positive trait that Dana attributes to the Mexicans is that they do not drink and that he has never seen a Mexican drunk. This passing reference comes only after a paragraph explaining the moral evils of the American Indians.
In his second-to-last paragraph, Dana explains in more detail the character of the American Indians, who up to this point have only been described as serfs and as generally having the same status no matter who ran the missions and presidios. American Indians who lived near the towns were almost completely under the control of the monks and the administadores, and they were also viewed in the harshest light. This control over them was necessary, in the view of Dana and those around him, because without it, their “entire want of any sense of morality or domestic duty” could not be controlled. Adultery and prostitution were apparently not uncommon, nor was drunkenness. Just as with his description of the Mexicans, Dana has no words of praise for the American Indians, nor does he seem to have any pity for them. Even when describing the punishment of “evil-livers,” whipping and physical work, his tone is without any compassion. In his view, it seems, the American Indians were wrong in the way they lived their life and, therefore, whatever punishment is given to them is deserved, or not enough.
Prejudice is evident in nearly every author’s writing, and while it can skew the validity of an account, it also provides necessary information about the social tensions and constructs of the time. California under the priests and administradores was heavily influenced by religion and the morals of the time. This is reflected in Dana’s writing, as he also had a religious background and would view the world through these moral strictures. Nevertheless, for the most part, Dana wrote a thorough account of his time in a foreign land without blurring his experiences with heavy-handed expressions of the evils of any non-Christian groups.
In the decades following the publication of Dana’s book, as early as 1888, people began to misunderstand his intentions and lose sight of the fact that Two Years before the Mast is not a work of fiction. While it is an edited and rewritten version of Dana’s journal, he told the truth of life in California as he saw it. Two Years before the Mast provides information about unknown parts of the world to people who had never been or would never visit, and it does so from the point of view of a common sailor and trader, instead of the more pampered and privileged view—despite Dana’s privileged upbringing. This style of history was not common for years after his publication. Even though it has been reduced to a minor work of literature, Dana’s book set the stage for the major works that followed.
Because Dana was brought up on the East Coast in a well-to-do family, he looked down on some of the inhabitants of California, seeing them as uncultured and uncivilized. But his nature, exemplified by his protection of his fellow students and sailors both before and after his time at sea, shows how he had a more balanced view of the world than many others of his time. Dana shares this uncommon point of view with his audience through his book. While partially critical of Mexicans and American Indians, the chapter has no overwhelming tone of censure or distaste. Dana reflects the local attitudes of the time and, through this, adds to the work’s overall significance and historical impact.
While Two Years before the Mast may not be remembered as a major work of literature, it is a progressive book that reflects the character of the man who wrote it and its own time period. The central themes of the book, to relate facts in the most honest way possible and to inform people about a world they have never experienced, are not confined to this work alone, or even to this genre. Dana was simply notable for bringing honesty and a common viewpoint to a published work concerning one man’s travels. The look at the world of pre–gold rush California and the understanding of the social tensions in the region are almost extras when the work is viewed in this manner. This excerpt is historically significant because of its contribution to an area of history that is lacking in personal accounts. Two Years before the Mast, however, goes beyond what each of its chapters can provide: it opened readers’ minds to a new approach to historical writing.
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