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A Personal Narrative of Life at Sea


Richard Henry Dana, Jr.

With an introduction and notes by

Homer Eaton Keyes, B.L.

Assistant Professor of Art in Dartmouth College

----Crowded in the rank and narrow ship,--
Housed on the wild sea with wild usages,--
Whate'er in the inland dales the land conceals
Of fair and exquisite, O! nothing, nothing,
Do we behold of that in our rude voyage.
Coleridge's Wallenstein.


Biographical Note
California and her Missions
Bibliographical References
Diagram of Ships
Explanation of Diagram

Two Years Before the Mast
Twenty-Four Years After


Biographical Note

Two years before the mast were but an episode in the life of Richard
Henry Dana, Jr.; yet the narrative in which he details the experiences
of that period is, perhaps, his chief claim to a wide remembrance. His
services in other than literary fields occupied the greater part of his
life, but they brought him comparatively small recognition and many
disappointments. His happiest associations were literary, his
pleasantest acquaintanceships those which arose through his fame as the
author of one book. The story of his life is one of honest and
competent effort, of sincere purpose, of many thwarted hopes. The
traditions of his family forced him into a profession for which he was
intellectually but not temperamentally fitted: he should have been a
scholar, teacher, and author; instead he became a lawyer.

Born in Cambridge, Mass., August 1, 1815, Richard Henry Dana, Jr., came
of a line of Colonial ancestors whose legal understanding and patriotic
zeal had won them distinction. His father, if possessed of less vigor
than his predecessors, was yet a man of culture and ability. He was
widely known as poet, critic, and lecturer; and endowed his son with
native qualities of intelligence, good breeding, and honesty.

After somewhat varied and troublous school days, young Dana entered
Harvard University, where he took high rank in his classes and bid fair
to make a reputation as a scholar. But at the beginning of his third
year of college a severe attack of measles interrupted his course, and
so affected his eyes as to preclude, for a time at least, all idea of
study. The state of the family finances was not such as to permit of
foreign travel in search of health. Accordingly, prompted by necessity
and by a youthful love of adventure, he shipped as a common sailor in
the brig, Pilgrim, bound for the California coast. His term of service
lasted a trifle over two years--from August, 1834, to September, 1836.
The undertaking was one calculated to kill or cure. Fortunately it had
the latter effect; and, upon returning to his native place, physically
vigorous but intellectually starved, he reentered Harvard and worked
with such enthusiasm as to graduate in six months with honor.

Then came the question of his life work. Though intensely religious,
he did not feel called to the ministry; business made no appeal; his
ancestors had been lawyers; it seemed best that he should follow where
they had led. Had conditions been those of to-day, he would naturally
have drifted into some field of scholarly research,--political science
or history. As it was, he entered law school, which, in 1840, he left
to take up the practice of his profession. But Dana had not the tact,
the personal magnetism, or the business sagacity to make a brilliant
success before the bar. Despite the fact that he had become a master
of legal theory, an authority upon international questions, and a
counsellor of unimpeachable integrity, his progress was painfully slow
and toilsome. Involved with his lack of tact and magnetism there was,
too, an admirable quality of sturdy obstinacy that often worked him
injury. Though far from sharing the radical ideas of the
Abolitionists, he was ardent in his anti-slavery ideas and did not
hesitate to espouse the unpopular doctrines of the Free-Soil party of
1848, or to labor for the freedom of those Boston negroes, who, under
the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, were in danger of deportation to the

His activity in the latter direction resulted in pecuniary loss, social
ostracism and worse; for upon one occasion he was set upon and nearly
killed by a pair of thugs. But Dana was not a man to be swerved from
his purpose by considerations of policy or of personal safety. He met
his problems as they came to him, took the course which he believed to
be right and then stuck to it with indomitable tenacity. Yet,
curiously enough, with none of the characteristics of the politician,
he longed for political preferment. At the hands of the people this
came to him in smallest measure only. Though at one time a member of
the Massachusetts Legislature, he was defeated as candidate for the
lower house of Congress, and in 1876 suffered the bitterest
disappointment of his life, when the libellous attacks of enemies
prevented the ratification of his nomination as Minister to England.

Previous to this he had served his country as United States District
Attorney during the Civil War, a time when the office demanded the
highest type of ability and uprightness. That the government
appreciated this was shown in 1867 by its choice of Dana as one of its
counsel in the prosecution of Jefferson Davis for treason. The
position of legal representative before the Halifax tribunal of 1877,
which met to discuss fishery questions at issue between the United
States and Canada, was given him no doubt in part because of his
eminent fitness, in part as balm for the wound of the preceding year.

But whatever satisfaction he may have found in such honors as time and
ripening years brought to him, his chief joy and relaxation lay in
travel. When worry and overwork began to tell upon him, he would betake
himself to shore or mountains. Upon several occasions he visited
Europe, and in 1859 made a tour of the world. At length, in 1876, he
gave up active life and took residence abroad, with the idea of finding
leisure for the preparation of a treatise on international law. He was
still engaged in collecting his material when, on January 6, 1882,
death overtook him. He was buried in Rome in the Protestant Cemetery,
whose cypresses cast their long shadows over the graves of many
distinguished foreigners who have sought a last refuge of health and
peace under the skies of Italy.

Such a career as his would seem far enough from being a failure. Yet,
in retirement, Dana looked back upon it not without regret. As a
lawyer, he had felt a justifiable desire to see his labors crowned by
his elevation to the bench; as an active participant in public affairs,
he had felt that his services and talents rendered him deserving of a
seat in Congress. Lacking these things, he might have hoped that the
practice of his profession would yield him a fortune. Here again he
was disappointed. In seeking the fulfillment of his ambitions, he was
always on the high road to success; he never quite arrived.

It is remarkable that, having written one successful book, Dana did not
seek further reward as a man of letters. Two Years before the Mast
appeared in 1840, while its author was still a law student. Though at
the time it created no great stir in the United States, it was most
favorably received in England, where it paved the way for many pleasant
and valuable acquaintanceships. The following year, Dana produced a
small volume on seamanship, entitled The Seaman's Friend. This, and a
short account of a trip to Cuba in 1859, constitute the sole additions
to his early venture. He was a copious letter-writer and kept full
journals of his various travels; but he never elaborated them for
publication. Yet, long before his death, he had seen the narrative of
his sailor days recognized as an American classic. Time has not
diminished its reputation. We read it to-day not merely for its
simple, unpretentious style; but for its clear picture of sea life
previous to the era of steam navigation, and for its graphic
description of conditions in California before visions of gold sent the
long lines of "prairie schooners" drifting across the plains to unfold
the hidden destiny of the West.

California and her Missions

It is not easy to realize that, during the stirring days when the
eastern coast-line of North America was experiencing the ferment of
revolution, the Pacific seaboard was almost totally unexplored, its
population largely a savage one. But Spain, long established in
Mexico, was slowly pushing northward along the California coast. Her
emissaries were the Franciscan friars; her method the founding of
Indian missions round which, in due course, should arise towns intended
to afford harbor for Spanish ships and to serve as outposts against the
steady encroachments of Russia, who, from Alaska, was reaching out
toward San Francisco Bay.

Thus began the white settlement of California. San Diego Mission was
founded in 1769; San Carlos, at Monterey, in 1770; San Francisco, in
1776; Santa Barbara, in 1786. For the general guardianship of these
missions a garrison, or presidio, was in each case provided. It was
responsible not only for the protection of the town thus created, but
for all the missions in the district. The presidio of San Diego, for
example, was in charge of the missions of San Diego, San Gabriel, San
Juan Capistrano, and San Luis Rey. So, likewise, there were garrisons
with extensive jurisdiction at Santa Barbara, Monterey, and San

The Indians in the immediate vicinity of a mission were attached
thereto by a sort of gentle enslavement. They were provided special
quarters, were carefully looked after by the priests, their religious
education fostered, and their innate laziness conquered by specific
requirements of labor in agriculture, cattle raising, and simple
handicrafts. It was an arrangement which worked well for both parties

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