A Sailor’s Easter in California in 1835

In 1834-35, Richard Henry Dana, Jr., sailed as a merchant seaman from Boston to Alta California, which was then a province of Mexico. The ship’s arrival in Santa Barbara coincided with the Easter holidays. Dana left a vivid description of the festivities on shore.

Santa Barbara 1865

Santa Barbara from the beach, by Edward Vischer, 1865. Source: University of Southern California Libraries and California Historical Society

Richard Henry Dana, Jr.

Richard Henry Dana, Junior, was born into a prominent Cambridge, Massachusetts, family on August 1, 1815. His father, Richard Henry Dana, Senior, was a poet, essayist and novelist. At the age of 16, Dana Jr. entered Harvard College. In his third year he contracted measles, which led to a lingering eye inflammation that made it impossible for him to continue his studies. Dana decided to go on a sea voyage to restore his health. Instead of opting for a grand tour of Europe, he made the choice – unusual for someone of his background – to become a merchant seaman. He joined the crew of the brig Pilgrim, bound for California. The ship left Boston on August 14, 1834. It dropped anchor in Santa Barbara bay in mid-April, 1835. What follows is Dana’s record of what happened next.

Richard Henry Dana, Jr., spent Easter in California in 1835

Richard Henry Dana, Jr., 1842

Misspending Easter Sunday

“There we found, lying at anchor, the large Genoese ship which we saw in the same place, on the first day of our coming upon the coast. … She was a large, clumsy ship, and with her topmasts stayed forward, and high poop-deck, looked like an old woman with a crippled back. It was now the close of Lent, and on Good Friday [April 17] she had all her yards a-cock-bill, which is customary among Catholic vessels. Some also have an effigy of Judas, which the crew amuse themselves with keel-hauling and hanging by the neck from the yard-arms.

“The next Sunday was Easter, and…it was our turn to go ashore and misspend another Sunday. Soon after breakfast, a large boat, filled with men in blue jackets, scarlet caps, and various colored under-clothes, bound ashore on liberty, left the Italian ship, and passed under our stern, the men singing beautiful Italian boat-songs, all the way, in fine, full chorus. Among the songs I recognized the favorite, ‘O Pescator dell’onda.’ It brought back to my mind pianofortes, drawing-rooms, young ladies singing, and a thousand other things which as little befitted me, in my situation, to be thinking upon.

“Supposing that the whole day would be too long a time to spend ashore, as there was no place to which we could take a ride, we remained quietly on board until after dinner. We were then pulled ashore in the stern of the boat…and with orders to be on the beach at sundown, we took our way for the town. There, everything wore the appearance of a holiday. The people were dressed in their best; the men riding about among the houses, and the women sitting on carpets before the doors. Under the piazza of a pulpería two men were seated, decked out with knots of ribbons and bouquets, and playing the violin and the Spanish guitar. These are the only instruments, with the exception of the drums and trumpets at Monterey, that I ever heard in California; and I suspect they play upon no others, for at a great fandango at which I was afterwards present, and where they mustered all the music they could find, there were three violins and two guitars, and no other instruments.

A child’s funeral

“As it was now too near the middle of the day to see any dancing, and hearing that a bull was expected down from the country, to be baited in the Presidio square in the course of an hour or two, we took a stroll among the houses. Inquiring for an American who, we had been told, had married in the place and kept a shop, we were directed to a long, low building, at the end of which was a door, with a sign over it in Spanish. Entering the shop, we found no one in it, and the whole had an empty, deserted air. In a few minutes the man made his appearance, and apologized for having nothing to entertain us with, saying that he had had a fandango at his house the night before, and the people had eaten and drunk up everything.

“ ‘Oh yes!’ said I, ‘Easter holidays!’

“ ‘No!’ said he, with a singular expression on his face; ‘I had a little daughter die the other day, and that’s the custom of the country.

“At this I felt somewhat awkwardly, not knowing what to say, and whether to offer consolation or not, and was beginning to retire, when he opened a side door and told us to walk in. Here I was no less astonished; for I found a large room, filled with young girls, from three or four years of age up to fifteen and sixteen, dressed all in white, with wreaths of flowers on their heads, and bouquets in their hands. Following our conductor among these girls, who were playing about in high spirits, we came to a table, at the end of the room, covered with a white cloth, on which lay a coffin, about three feet long, with the body of his child. The coffin was covered with white cloth, and lined with white satin, and was strewn with flowers. Through an open door we saw, in another room, a few elderly people in common dresses; while the benches and tables thrown up in a corner, and the stained walls, gave evident signs of the last night’s ‘high go.’ Feeling, like Garrick, between Tragedy and Comedy, an uncertainty of purpose, I asked the man when the funeral would take place, and being told that it would move toward the Mission in about an hour, took my leave.

Mission Santa Barbara in 1856

Mission Santa Barbara in 1856

A horse ride on the beach

“To pass away the time, we hired horses and rode to the beach, and there saw three or four Italian sailors, mounted, and riding up and down on the hard sand at a furious rate. We joined them and found it fine sport. The beach gave us a stretch of a mile or more, and the horses flew over the smooth, hard sand, apparently invigorated and excited by the salt sea-breeze, and by the continual roar and dashing of the breakers. From the beach we returned to the town, and, finding that the funeral procession had moved, rode on and overtook it, about half-way to the Mission.

“Here was as peculiar a sight as we had seen before in the house; the one looking as much like a funeral procession as the other did like a house of mourning. The little coffin was borne by eight girls, who were continually relieved by others, running forward from the procession and taking their places. Behind it came a straggling company of girls, dressed as before, in white and flowers, and including, I should suppose by their numbers, nearly all the girls between five and fifteen in the place. They played along on the way, frequently stopping and running all together to talk to someone, or to pick up a flower, and then running on again to overtake the coffin. There were a few elderly women in common colours; and a herd of young men and boys, some on foot and others mounted, followed them, or walked or rode by their side, frequently interrupting them by jokes and questions. But the most singular thing of all was that two men walked, one on each side of the coffin, carrying muskets in their hands, which they continually loaded and fired into the air. Whether this was to keep off the evil spirits or not, I do not know. It was the only interpretation that I could put upon it.

“As we drew near the Mission, we saw the great gate thrown open, and the padre standing on the steps, with a crucifix in hand. The Mission is a large and deserted-looking place, the out-buildings going to ruin, and everything giving one the impression of decayed grandeur. A large stone fountain threw out pure water, from four mouths, into a basin before the church door; and we were on the point of riding up to let our horses drink, when it occurred to us that it might be consecrated and we forbore. Just at this moment, the bells set up their harsh, discordant clangour; and the procession moved into the court. I wished to follow and see the ceremony, but the horse of one of my companions had become frightened, and was tearing off toward the town; and having thrown his rider, and got one of his hoofs caught in the tackling of the saddle, which had slipped, was fast dragging and ripping it to pieces. Knowing that my shipmate could not speak a word of Spanish, and fearing that he would get into difficulty, I was obliged to leave the ceremony and ride after him. I soon overtook him, trudging along, swearing at the horse, and carrying the remains of the saddle, which he had picked up on the road. Going to the owner of the horse, we made a settlement with him, and found him surprisingly liberal. All parts of the saddle were brought back, and, being capable of repair, he was satisfied with six reals. We thought it would have been a few dollars. We pointed to the horse, which was now halfway up one of the mountains; but he shook his head, saying, ‘No importa!’ and giving us to understand that he had plenty more.

A cockfight in the square

“Having returned to the town, we saw a crowd collected in the square before the principal pulpería, and, riding up, found that all these people – men, women, and children – had been drawn together by a couple of bantam cocks. The cocks were in full tilt, springing into one another, and the people were as eager, laughing and shouting, as though the combatants had been men. There had been a disappointment about the bull; he had broken his bail, and taken himself off, and it was too late to get another; so the people were obliged to put up with a cock-fight. One of the bantams having been knocked in the head, and having an eye put out, gave in, and two monstrous prize-cocks were brought on. These were the object of the whole affair; the two bantams having been merely served up as a first course, to collect the people together. Two fellows came into the ring holding the cocks in their arms, and stroking them, and running about on all fours, encouraging and setting them on. Bets ran high, and, like most other contests, it remained for some time undecided. Both cocks showed great pluck, and fought probably better and longer than their masters would. Whether, in the end, it was the white or the red that beat, I do not recollect, but whichever it was, he strutted off with the true veni-vidi-vici look, leaving the other lying panting on his beam-ends.

A horse race

“This matter having been settled, we heard some talk about ‘caballos’ and ‘carrera,’ and seeing the people streaming off in one direction, we followed, and came upon a level piece of ground, just out of the town, which was used as a race-course. Here the crowd soon became thick again, the ground was marked off; the judges stationed, and the horses led up to one end. Two fine-looking old gentlemen – Don Carlos and Don Domingo, so called – held the stakes, and all was now ready. We waited some time, during which we could just see the horses twisting round and turning, until, at length, there was a shout along the lines, and on they came, heads stretched out and eyes starting; working all over, both man and beast. The steeds came by us like a couple of chain-shot, neck and neck; and now we could see nothing but their backs and their hind hoofs flying in the air. As fast as the horses passed, the crowd broke up behind them, and ran to the goal. When we got there, we found the horses returning on a slow walk, having run far beyond the mark, and heard that the long, bony one had come in head and shoulders before the other. The riders were light-built men, had handkerchiefs tied round their heads, and were bare-armed and bare-legged. The horses were noble-looking beasts, not so sleek and combed as our Boston stable horses, but with fine limbs and spirited eyes. After this had been settled, and fully talked over, the crowd scattered again and flocked back to the town.

A dance

“Returning to the large pulpería, we heard the violin and guitar screaming and twanging away under the piazza, where they had been all day. As it was now sundown, there began to be some dancing. The Italian sailors danced, and one of our crew exhibited himself in a sort of West India shuffle, much to the amusement of the bystanders, who cried out, ‘Bravo!’ ‘Otra vez!’ and ‘Vivan los marineros!’ but the dancing did not become general, as the women and the ‘gente de razon’ had not yet made their appearance. We wished very much to stay and see the style of dancing; but, although we had had our own way during the day, yet we were, after all, but foremast Jacks; and having been ordered to be on the beach by sunset, did not venture to be more than an hour behind the time; so we took our way down. We found the boat just pulling ashore through the breakers, which were running high, there having been a heavy fog outside, which, from some cause or other, always brings on, or precedes, a heavy sea. Liberty-men are privileged from the time they leave the vessel until they step on board again; so we took our places in the stern sheets, and were congratulating ourselves upon getting off dry, when a great comber broke fore and aft the boat, and wet us through and through, filling the boat half full of water. Having lost her buoyancy by the weight of the water, she dropped heavily into every sea that struck her, and by the time we had pulled out of the surf into deep water, she was but just afloat, and we were up to our knees. By the help of a small bucket and our hats, we bailed her out, got on board, hoisted the boats, eat our supper, changed our clothes, gave (as is usual) the whole history of our day’s adventures to those who had stayed on board, and having taken a night-smoke, turned in. Thus ended our second day’s liberty on shore.

No danger of a Yankee Catholic

“On Monday morning, as an offset to our day’s sport, we were all set to work ‘tarring down’ the rigging. … After breakfast, we had the satisfaction of seeing the Italian ship’s boat go ashore, filled with men, gaily dressed, as on the day before, and singing their barcarollas. The Easter holidays are kept up on shore during three days; and being a Catholic vessel, her crew had the advantage of them. For two successive days, while perched up in the rigging, covered with tar and engaged in our disagreeable work, we saw these fellows going ashore in the morning, and coming off again at night, in high spirits. So much for being Protestants. There’s no danger of Catholicism’s spreading in New England, unless the Church cuts down her holidays; Yankees can’t afford the time. American shipmasters get nearly three weeks’ more labor out of their crews, in the course of a year, than the masters of vessels from Catholic countries. As Yankees don’t usually keep Christmas, and shipmasters at sea never know when Thanksgiving comes, Jack has no festival at all.” (1)

Dana’s later life

Dana arrived back in Massachusetts in September of 1836, cured of his ailment. He returned to Harvard and completed his degree, and then enrolled in what is now Harvard Law School, from which he graduated in 1839. He was admitted to the bar in 1840. That same year he published a memoir of his California trip, entitled Two Years Before the Mast (the term refers to sailors’ quarters, located in the front of the ship). The book, which among other things documented the abuse Dana and his fellow seamen suffered at the hands of their captain, became immensely popular. Dana’s experience gave him a lifelong sympathy for the oppressed. He became an expert on maritime law and championed the rights of sailors. He was also an anti-slavery advocate, representing fugitive slaves and their rescuers in court. In 1867-68, he served as a member of the Massachusetts legislature. Richard Henry Dana, Jr., died on January 6, 1882, age 66, in Rome.

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  1. Richard Henry Dana, Jr., Two Years Before the Mast (New York, 1899), pp. 137-144.

8 commments on “A Sailor’s Easter in California in 1835”

  • Rudy Jakma says:

    A very interesting story.
    Thank you so much for posting it.
    Happy Easter !

  • John Adan says:

    Charming and refreshing.

  • Cynthia Kulikov says:

    Absolutely fascinating! Thank you so much for posting.

  • John F. MacMichael says:

    “Two Years Before the Mast” is one of the great sea stories and a very valuable record of what life was like for an ordinary merchant seaman. Also one of my favorite books.

    Dana gives us many vivid images of life at sea. One I particularly like is in Chapter One where he contrasts himself as an eager and ignorant novice with an experienced old hand. Dana tells how with the ship rigged and at anchor in Boston harbor he waited anxiously to be called for his first watch. Having been put on watch he diligently walked up and down the ship, keeping a sharp look out. Then when his watch was over, he writes, he was: “…not a little surprised at the coolness of the old seaman whom I called to take my place, in stowing himself snugly away under the longboat for a nap. That was a sufficient lookout, he thought, for a fine night, at anchor in a safe harbor.”

    One thing I still find amazing about the voyage Dana recounts is that it worked economically. Merchants in Boston loaded a ship with trade goods, it was sailed all the way down to and around Cape Horn then up to the coast of California, where for a year or more the goods were traded for cattle hides. Then with a full cargo of hides back around Cape Horn to Boston (where some of the hides were made into shoes and other leather goods, some of which were shipped back out to California). And somehow this whole thing made a profit!

    • Shannon Selin says:

      Thanks, John. It’s a wonderful book, full of fascinating vignettes, like the one you cite. I agree, the economic aspect of those long 19th-century trading voyages is amazing. Keeping the financial accounts must have been quite a job!

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It was now the close of Lent, and on Good Friday she had all her yards a-cock-bill, which is customary among Catholic vessels. Some also have an effigy of Judas, which the crew amuse themselves with keel-hauling and hanging by the neck from the yard-arms.

Richard Henry Dana, Jr.