Richard Henry Dana’s “Two Years Before the Mast”

Occasionally, people ask how I get my ideas for these weekly posts. Patti and Dave, our very good friends from Santa Barbara, California, stopped by for a quick visit this week on their way north. They recently posed the question, and, ironically, they are the very reason for this week’s post.

Dana Plaque - El Paseo_PS4

A few months ago, Linda and I drove down to Santa Barbara to attend a reception for Patti and her artwork at the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum. Patti is a successful artist and life-long resident of Santa Barbara who is well-known for her work with wood-block prints and mosaics. She has recently been commissioned to provide a large mosaic mural for the museum using ocean themes – thus the museum setting for her recent artist’s reception.

Linda and I thoroughly enjoyed the evening and the dinner with Patti, Dave, and their other friends who attended. The museum, itself, which is located on Santa Barbara’s breakwater, next to the town’s picturesque harbor and wharf, proved to be fascinating, featuring many well-conceived and executed exhibits.

One exhibit that struck my fancy showcased an 1840 first edition of Richard Henry Dana’s classic account of his seafaring experiences, “Two Years Before the Mast.” I had long known about the book and the story related by the exhibit – Dana’s seafaring voyage stopover at Santa Barbara in 1836. I had often seen the old tile-inlay, pictured here, that commemorates his visit.

I was aware of the book’s reputation not only as a vivid journal-account of his two years at sea, but also as a fine example of literary style and storytelling – this from a Bostonian with no literary background, whatsoever. The book is considered an American literary classic as well as perhaps the best seafaring account ever written; my author’s curiosity had long been piqued. Among all of those accolades, the book’s vivid early descriptions of pacific-coast ports-of-call constitute a scarce and valuable resource on life in California under Mexican rule prior to the Mexican-American War of 1846 and the California gold-rush of 1849.

The tile-inlay which is found at El Paseo in de la Guerra Plaza, an historic and small complex of shops and offices in the heart of downtown Santa Barbara, commemorates Dana’s visit to that exact location in 1836. In his book, Dana recounts in fine detail the historic wedding of Ana Maria de la Guerra to Alfred Robinson on January 24, 1836; the wedding reception was held at that very spot. The bride was the daughter of Jose Antonio de la Guerra y Noriega, one of the most prominent Californios in all of the region which is now encompassed by the southern portion of California. Prior to the Mexican War of 1846, this territory was governed by Mexico and, through land grants and purchases, de la Guerra owned some one-half million acres. Alfred Robinson was a commercial agent for Bryant, Sturgis and Company, a Boston firm engaged in the hide and tallow trade with the west coast. Alert, the ship on which Dana was traveling and working was a commercial vessel for that firm that happened to anchor at Santa Barbara at a very propitious time – Robinson’s marriage to Ana Maria de la Guerra – undoubtedly the local social event of the year, if not the decade. Because of the ship Alert’s corporate connection to Robinson, Dana and other crew members had a front-row seat at the wedding reception, held at the de la Guerra house which still stands today, less than a stone’s throw from the tile-inlay marker.


The descriptions of the wedding reception in the courtyard of the de la Guerra home and so many other aspects of Dana’s journey are written with such verve and color that I had to purchase a copy of the book for my library. I was able to find a venerable, nicely printed volume from 1930 – one with an association that resonated with me because my wife is from Santa Barbara, we lived there shortly after our marriage, and I attended graduate school there. Linda’s mother still lives there, and we go back often. Accordingly, Linda and I have a very special affection for the place: Anyone who knows Santa Barbara will understand!

On the front free paper of my book is an inscription in ink:

“Santa Barbara, Cal / August 11, 1932.”

Dana Tecolote_1

On the back inside end-paper is pasted a small, old bookseller’s ticket which reads, “Tecolote Bookshop / de la Guerra Studios / Santa Barbara.” My book was clearly purchased there, in the early thirties. The little Tecolote bookshop was a long-time Santa Barbara institution at that location – within sight of the Dana tile-inlay and just around the corner from the original de la Guerra Casa in whose patio courtyard Richard Henry Dana witnessed and recorded the historic wedding reception. I have several other books in my library containing a Tecolote bookseller’s ticket – books I purchased there in the late nineteen sixties when we lived in Santa Barbara.


The de la Guerra house today with its patio courtyard – much as it was then


The above photo by Carleton Watkins shows the Santa Barbara Mission/Church (Queen of the Missions) as it appeared in 1876. It was here that the de la Guerra / Robinson wedding was held on January 24, 1836, and it was here that the patriarch of the family, Jose Antonio de la Guerra y Noriega was buried in the church crypt after his death in 1858.

The following are excerpts from Dana’s description of the wedding and the reception which apparently went on for two or three days:

“Sunday, January 10th [1836]. Arrived at Santa Barbara, and on the following Wednesday, slipped our cable and went to sea, on account of a south-easter. Returned to our anchorage the next day.”

“Great preparations were making on shore for the marriage of our agent [Alfred Robinson], who was to marry Donna Anneta De…”

“On the day appointed for the wedding, we took the captain ashore in the gig, and had orders to come for him at night, with leave to go up to the house and see the fandango. Returning on board, we found preparations making for a salute. Our guns were loaded and run out, men appointed to each, cartridges served out, matches lighted, and all the flags were ready to be run up. I took my place at the starboard after gun, and we all waited for the signal from on shore. At ten o’clock the bride went up with her sister to the confessional, dressed in deep black. Nearly an hour intervened, when the great doors of the mission church opened, the bells rang out a loud, discordant peal, the private signal for us was run up by the captain ashore, the bride, dressed in complete white, came out of the church with the bridegroom, followed by a long procession.”

“Just as she stepped from the church door, a small white cloud issued from the bows of our ship, which was in full sight [from the mission steps], the loud report echoed among the surrounding hills and over the bay, and instantly the ship was dressed in flags and pennants from stem to stern. Twenty-three guns followed in regular succession, with an interval of fifteen seconds between each when the cloud cleared away, and the ship lay dressed in her colors, all day. At sun-down, another salute of the same number of guns was fired, and all the flags run down. This we thought was pretty well – a gun every fifteen seconds – for a merchantman [ship] with only four guns and a dozen or twenty men.”

“After the supper, the gig’s crew were called, and we rowed ashore, dressed in our uniform, beached the boat, and went up to the fandango. The bride’s father’s house was the principal one in the place, with a large court in front, upon which a tent was built, capable of containing several hundred people. As we drew near, we heard the accustomed sound of violins and guitars, and saw a great motion of the people within. Going in, we found nearly all the people of the town – men, women, and children – collected and crowded together, barely leaving room for the dancers; for on these occasions no invitations are given, but everyone is expected to come, though there is always a private entertainment within the house for particular friends. The old women sat down in rows, clapping their hands to the music, and applauding the young ones. The music was lively, and among the tunes, we recognized several of our popular airs, which we, without doubt, would have taken from the Spanish.”

What prompted Richard Henry Dana, a young, privileged descendent of early colonial settlers to set sail as an apprentice sailor on a merchant vessel as opposed to a booking a comfortable, luxury cruise?  Undoubtedly, his independent spirit and restless curiosity drove him. His journey began from Boston on August 14, 1834 and ended two years later. His descriptions in the book based on his voyage journal vividly describe the terror and the beauty of the sea. Herman Melville, another author who was no stranger to nautical tales, wrote, “But if you want the best idea of [the treacherous] Cape Horn, get my friend Dana’s unmatchable Two Years Before the Mast.”

Whether standing in the courtyard of the de la Guerra house or gazing at the tile-inlay just around the corner of the complex, the scenes Dana describes seem so believable, almost touchable. That story has rattled around in my head for a long time; it took our recent visit to Santa Barbara for Patti’s reception and the museum exhibits we saw that evening to trigger my desire to finally put it on paper.

These blog posts of mine often result from the confluence of many diverse currents all converging to produce an idea. This post is typical of that process!

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