Richard Henry Dana (1815-1882)

richarddanaRichard Henry Dana, American writer and lawyer, was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts on August 1, 1815. He left his studies at Harvard in 1834 in the hope that a sea voyage would aid his failing eyesight. He shipped out of Boston as a common seaman on board the brig Pilgrim bound for the Pacific, and returned to Massachusetts two years later. Completing his education, Dana became a leader of the American bar, an expert on maritime law, and a life-long advocate of the rights of the merchant seamen he had come to know on the Pilgrim and other vessels.

Dana was an antislavery activist, and in 1848 he helped found the Free-Soil Party. He was a member of the Massachusetts legislature from 1867 to 1868.

Two Years Before the Mast is based on the diary Dana kept while at sea. First published in 1841, it is one of America’s most famous accounts of life at sea. It contains a rare and detailed account of life on the California coast a decade before the Gold Rush revolutionized the region’s culture and society. Dana chronicles stops at the ports of Monterey, San Pedro, San Diego, Santa Barbara, and Santa Clara. He describes the lives of sailors in the ports and their work of hide-curing on the beaches, and he gives close attention to the daily life of the peoples of California: Hispanic, Native American, and European.

Dana’s writing provides a glimpse into San Diego history, describing Old Town as it was in 1835 and the “hide trade” (curing and trimming cattle hides for export) on Point Loma’s La Playa. In 1841 Dana wrote a handbook, The Seaman’s Friend, which includes a section on maritime law, a field in which he became an authority. He was an opponent of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850.

Dana died on January 6, 1882 in Rome.

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