Allen Light (c.1805-?)

allenlightIn 1948, workers installing a heater in the Machado Chapel of Old Town discovered two documents buried behind two half-sized blocks of the adobe walls. Both over a century old, the papers revealed the life of Allen Light an African-American mariner who had hunted sea otters, gained Mexican citizenship and guarded the California coastline against American and Native American poachers.

The older of the two documents was issued by a notary public in New York on November 27, 1827 and described Light as “…a Coloured man…aged about twenty-two years old…born in Philadelphia.”1 Popularly known as sailor protection papers, such a certificate could substitute for the “free papers” that states required African-Americans to carry.2

Light reportedly worked as a mariner on the Pilgrim, which arrived in Santa Barbara in 1835.3 He then left his ship to join George Nidever’s sea otter hunting party. Nidever and his companions considered the name ‘Light’ unsuitable for someone with dark skin, and nicknamed him “Black Steward.”4

In part because of heavily depleted otter populations, the Mexican government instituted conservation laws in 1830 and prohibited foreigners from both hunting otters and participating in all coastal trade in Alta California.5 Nidever and Light got around these laws by hunting under the license of Captain William Goodwin Dana, a Bostonian who had migrated to Santa Barbara and acquired Mexican citizenship. In exchange for the use of his license and provisions, the otter hunters gave Captain Dana 40 percent of their catch.6

Hunting parties usually set out in groups of three canoes, each containing a gunman and two rowers. Once an otter was spotted, the hunter would stand at the head of the boat and shoot,7 aiming for the head to keep the precious pelt intact. Allen Light’s excellent marksmanship soon made him famous along the southern California coast.8

Otter pelts fetched as much as $37 apiece in the 1830s,9 leading to fierce battles between rival hunting parties. Americans living in Hawaii refused to pay the 40 to 50 per cent of the otter pelts required for the use of Mexican hunting licenses. Known as contrabandistas, these Americans organized hunting expeditions consisting of one large armed ship (called a brig) and several canoes.

The contrabandistas often hired Native Americans from the Aleutian and Kodiak islands to do the hunting. The brig provided food, armed protection and a home base for the hunters, who paddled out in their canoes tracking otter fields in islands and coves. In their eagerness to obtain more pelts, Native American hunters were known to take furs and supplies from smaller hunting parties. Their American employers supported such raids since they often led to greater yields with less time and effort.10

In 1836, Northwest Native Americans attacked Nidever’s team, which was hunting near Santa Rosa. Allen Light sounded the alarm as six enemy canoes emerged from the morning fog. Frantically paddling to shore, the Kanakas (Hawaiian Islanders)11 leaped out of their canoes, leaving Nidever, Light and two other hunters to face the attackers. Nidever’s party shot at the attackers, killing 3 and wounding several more. The Indians retreated to the accompanying brig, the Convoy, which was captained by the American John Bancroft.

Later in 1836, Nidever and Light interrupted their hunting to sign on as mercenary soldiers in Juan Bautista Alvarado’s revolutionary army. Unwilling to accept the Mexican government’s new centralist constitution, Alvarado marched into Los Angeles, and subdued the city without bloodshed. Alvarado appointed himself governor of California and paid Allen Light between $30 and $40 for his services.12

By 1839, Light had become a naturalized Mexican citizen.13 In January that year, Governor Alvarado ordered an investigation into reports of an unidentified ship seen hunting illegally near Santa Barbara. Light testified that he had seen the same ship, identified as the Llama, tracking otters, two years earlier. The same John Bancroft who had ordered the attack on Allen Light’s hunting party off Santa Rosa Island captained the ship.

Two days later, Governor Alvarado wrote Allen Light, appointing him “principal arbiter of the National Armada, assigned to the branch of Otter Fishing.” Alvarado authorized him to pursue the Llama, using force if necessary, to put it “…at the disposition of the Departmental Government.”14 His letter was the second document discovered in Machado Chapel’s wall.

Ironically, Light may never have had a chance to go after the Llama. Two months before the investigation began, the Llama’s Native American hunters had mutinied, killed Bancroft and looted the ship. By January 13, 1839, the Llama was reported to have landed in Hawaii.15

Light continued hunting sea otters for the next two years sometimes traveling as far south San Juan Capistrano. In 1842, he rejoined two former partners, George Nidever and Isaac Sparks to hunt in Baja California. That autumn the trio arrived in San Diego bearing $4,000 worth of furs.16

Hunting parties from Baja California often bought supplies and sold their furs in San Diego, which may be the reason that Allen Light decided to settle there in the 1840s.17

Records indicate that Richard Freeman, also an African-American, bought a four-room, single story adobe house from Henry Fitch for $96 on February 10, 184718 and lived there with Allen Light. The Freeman-Light House stood on the west side of the plaza beside the Casa de Machado, and was said to have been a grog house or saloon. Light seems to have left town after Freeman died in 1851, since his name was excluded from a federal census conducted in San Diego that year.19

No one knows when or why Light hid his sailor protection and Mexican appointment papers in the wall of his neighbor’s house. Historian David J. Weber speculates that Light might have helped build the Machado-Silvas house in 1843, but there are no records describing Light’s relationship with his neighbors, Jose Antonio Nicosia Silvas and Maria Antonia Juliana Machado.

The couple lived in the Machado-Silvas house through the 1840s. When they sold the house, its new owners covered its adobe walls with wood siding and expanded it to include a saloon, billiard hall and bowling alley. Over the years it was used as a rooming house, restaurant, and art studio.20

By 1948, Casa de Machado had become the Old San Diego Community Church. Workmen who uncovered the Allen Light’s documents passed them on to Lillian Hummer, a church board member simply filed them away. They remained hidden for another 19 years until the building became a part of Old Town State Park in 1967. At that point, Mrs. Hummer retrieved the papers and stored them in her own home before finally turning them over to the Serra Museum’s librarian, Sylvia Arden in 1972.21 Today, after over a century of being stashed in various hideaways, the Allen Light papers may be viewed at the San Diego Historical Society’s Research Archives.

[Biographical sketch by Marivi S. Blanco]

Above image:
Allen Light’s Freedom Papers

1 Directly quoted from Light document.
2 David J. Weber, “A Black American in Mexican San Diego,” Journal of San Diego History, XX (San Diego, 1974), 30.
3 John Burns, “Light Shed on Two Early Californians” San Diego Union Tribune, (San Diego: March 2, 1974)
4 Weber, 31.
5 Adele Ogden, The California Sea Otter Trade 1784-1848, (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1941), 104. Alta California is Upper California, now known as the state of California.
6 See above note 4.
7 See above note 4, 145.
8 “History’s First Black Barbareno,” anon, Santa Barbara Maritime Museum fax, August 6 1972.
9 See above note 5, 133.
10 See above note 5, 120.
11 Hawaiian Islanders were often hired to paddle the canoes for hunters.
12 See above note 4.
13 See above note 5, 113.
14 Translation, San Diego Historical Society.
15 See above note 5, 129-130.
16 See above note 11.
17 In his article, Weber cites Philippe Crosthwaite, who came to San Diego in 1845 and noted that “two Negroes named Allen B. Dight [Light] and Richard Freeman” lived in Old Town that year.
18 Deed of sale – San Diego History Center records.
19 See above note 4, 32.
20 San Diego California’s Cornerstone, Iris H.W. Engstrand, (Oklahoma: Continental Heritage Press, 1980), 39-40.
21 Joe Stone, “’Allen Light Papers’ Recall Negro Pioneer in California” San Diego Union Tribune, (San Diego: June 5, 1972)

Return to Biography.