Exploring San Diego from Two Years Before the Mast by Richard Henry Dana Jr. (1840)

In 1834 Richard Henry Dana Jr. left his studies at Harvard College to serve two years as a common sailor—“before the mast”—first aboard the merchant brig Pilgrim, sailing from Boston, around Cape Horn, and on to California, at that time part of Mexico, and returning to Boston aboard the Alert.

After several efforts, we at length fell in with a little Sandwich Island [Hawaiian] boy, who belonged to Captain Wilson of the Ayacucho and was well acquainted in the place; and he, knowing where to go, soon procured us two horses, ready saddled and bridled, each with a lasso coiled over the pommel. These we were to have all day, with the privilege of riding them down to the beach at night, for a dollar, which we had to pay in advance. Horses are the cheapest thing in California; the very best not being worth more than ten dollars apiece, and very good ones being often sold for three and four. In taking a day’s ride, you pay for the use of the saddle and for the labor and trouble of catching the horses. If you bring the saddle back safe, they care but little what becomes of the horse.

Mounted on our horses, which were spirited beasts—and which, by the way, in this country are always steered by pressing the contrary rein against the neck, and not by pulling on the bit—we started off on a fine run over the country. The first place we went to was the old ruinous presidio, which stands on a rising ground near the village, which it overlooks. It is built in the form of an open square, like all the other presidios, and was in a most ruinous state, with the exception of one side, in which the commandant lived with his family. There were only two guns, one of which was spiked, and the other had no carriage. Twelve half-clothed and half-starved-looking fellows composed the garrison; and they, it was said, had not a musket apiece. The small settlement lay directly below the fort, composed of about forty dark brown looking huts or houses, and two larger ones, plastered, which belonged to two of the gente de razón [Hispanicized people]. This town is not more than half as large as Monterey, or Santa Barbara, and has little or no business.

From the presidio, we rode off in the direction of the mission, which we were told was three miles distant. The country was rather sandy, and there was nothing for miles which could be called a tree, but the grass grew green and rank, and there were many bushes and thickets, and the soil is said to be good. After a pleasant ride of a couple of miles, we saw the white walls of the mission, and fording a small river, we came directly before it. The mission is built of mud, or rather of the unburnt bricks of the country, and plastered. There was something decidedly striking in its appearance: a number of irregular buildings, connected with one another, and disposed in the form of a hollow square, with a church at one end, rising above the rest, with a tower containing five belfries, in each of which hung a large bell, and with immense rusty iron crosses at the tops. Just outside of the buildings, and under the walls, stood twenty or thirty small huts, built of straw and of the branches of trees, grouped together, in which a few Indians lived, under the protection and in the service of the mission.

Entering a gateway, we rode into the open square, in which the stillness of death reigned. On one side was the church; on another, a range of high buildings with grated windows; a third was a range of smaller buildings, or offices; and the fourth seemed to be little more than a high connecting wall. Not a living creature could we see. We rode twice round the square, in the hope of waking up someone; and in one circuit saw a tall monk, with shaven head, sandals, and the dress of the Grey Friars, pass rapidly through a gallery, but he disappeared without noticing us. After two circuits, we stopped our horses, and saw, at last, a man show himself in front of one of the small buildings. We rode up to him, and found him dressed in the common dress of the country, with a silver chain round his neck, supporting a large bunch of keys. From this, we took him to be the steward of the mission, and addressing him as “Mayordomo” received a low bow and an invitation to walk into his room.

Making our horses fast, we went in. It was a plain room, containing a table, three or four chairs, a small picture or two of some saint, or miracle, or martyrdom, and a few dishes and glasses. “Hay algunas cosa de comer?” [“Is there something to eat?] said I. “Si, señor!” said he. “Que gusta usted?” [“What would you like?] Mentioning frijoles, which I knew they must have if they had nothing else, and beef and bread, and a hint for wine, if they had any, he went off to another building, across the court, and returned in a few moments with a couple of Indian boys, bearing dishes and a decanter of wine. The dishes contained baked meats, frijoles stewed with peppers and onions, boiled eggs, and California flour baked into a kind of macaroni. These, together with the wine, made the most sumptuous meal we had eaten since we left Boston; and compared with the fare we had lived upon for seven months, it was a regal banquet. After dispatching our meal, we took out some money and asked him how much we were to pay. He shook his head and crossed himself, saying that it was charity—that the Lord gave it to us. Knowing the amount of this to be that he did not sell it, but was willing to receive a present, we gave him ten or twelve reals, which he pocketed with admirable nonchalance, saying, “Dios se lo pague.”[“God bless you.”]

Taking leave of him, we rode out to the Indians’ huts. The little children were running about among the huts, stark naked, and the men were not much better; but the women had generally coarse gowns, of a sort of tow cloth. The men are employed, most of the time, in tending the cattle of the mission, and in working in the garden, which is a very large one, including several acres, and filled, it is said, with the best fruits of the climate. The language of these people, which is spoken by all the Indians of California, is the most brutish and inhuman language, without any exception, that I ever heard, or that could well be conceived of. It is a complete slabber. The words fall off of the ends of their tongues, and a continual slabbering sound is made in the cheeks, outside of the teeth. It cannot have been the language of Montezuma and the independent Mexicans.

Here among the huts we saw the oldest man that I had ever seen, and indeed I never supposed that a person could retain life and exhibit such marks of age. He was sitting out in the sun, leaning against the side of a hut, and his legs and arms, which were bare, were of a dark red color, the skin withered and shrunk up like burnt leather, and the limbs not larger round than those of a boy of five years. He had a few grey hairs, which were tied together at the back of his head, and he was so feeble that, when we came up to him, he raised his hands slowly to his face, and taking hold of his lids with his fingers, lifted them up to look at us, and being satisfied, let them drop again. All command over the lids seemed to have gone. I asked his age, but could get no answer but “Quien sabe?” [“Who knows?”] and they probably did not know the age.

Leaving the mission, we returned to village, going nearly all the way on a full run. The California horses have no medium gait, which is pleasant, between walking and running; for as there are no streets and parades, they have no need of the genteel trot, and their riders usually keep them at the top of their speed until they are tired, and then let them rest themselves by walking. The fine air of the afternoon; the rapid rate of the animals, who seemed almost to fly over the ground; and the excitement and novelty of the motion to us, who had been so long confined on shipboard, were exhilarating beyond expression, and we felt willing to ride all day long.

Coming into the village, we found things looking very lively. The Indians, who always have a holiday on Sunday, were engaged at playing a kind of running game of ball, on a level piece of ground, near the houses. The old ones sat down in a ring, looking on, while the young ones—men, boys, and girls—were chasing the ball and throwing it with all their might. Some of the girls ran like greyhounds. At every accident, or remarkable feat, the old people set up a deafening screaming and clapping of hands. Several blue jackets were reeling about among the houses, which showed that the pulperias [stores] had been well patronized. One or two of the sailors had got on horseback, but being rather indifferent horsemen, and the Spaniards having given them vicious horses, they were soon thrown, much to the amusement of the people. A half dozen Sandwich Islanders, from the hide-houses and the two brigs, who are bold riders, were dashing about on the full gallop, hallooing and laughing like so many wild men.

It was now nearly sundown, and S— and myself went into a house and sat quietly down to rest ourselves before going down to the beach. Several people were soon collected to see “los Ingles marineros,” [“the English sailors”] and one of them—a young woman—took a great fancy to my pocket handkerchief, which was a large silk one that I had before going to sea, and a handsomer one than they had been in the habit of seeing. Of course, I gave it to her, which brought us into high favor, and we had a present of some pears and other fruits, which we took down to the beach with us. When we came to leave the house, we found that our horses, which we left tied at the door, were both gone. We had paid for them to ride down to the beach, but they were not to be found. We went to the man of whom we hired them, but he only shrugged his shoulders, and to our question, “Where are the horses?” only answered, ”Quien sabe?” but as he was very easy, and made no inquiries for the saddles, we saw that he knew very well where they were.

After a little trouble, determined not to walk down—a distance of three miles—we procured two at four reals apiece, with an Indian boy to run on behind and bring them back. Determined to have “the go” out of the horses, for our trouble, we went down at full speed and were on the beach in fifteen minutes. Wishing to make our liberty last as long as possible, we rode up and down among the hide houses, amusing ourselves with seeing the men as they came down (it was now dusk), some on horseback and others on foot. The Sandwich Islanders rode down and were in “high snuff.” We inquired for our shipmates and were told that two of them had started on horseback and had been thrown or had fallen off and were seen heading for the beach, but steering pretty wild, and by the looks of things, would not be down much before midnight.

The Indian boys having arrived, we gave them our horses, and having seen them safely off, hailed for a boat and went aboard. Thus ended our first liberty day on shore. We were well tired, but had had a good time, and were more willing to go back to our old duties. About midnight, we were waked up by our two watch mates, who had come aboard in high dispute. It seems they had started to come down on the same horse, double-backed, and each was accusing the other of being the cause of his fall. They soon, however, turned in and fell asleep, and probably forgot all about it, for the next morning the dispute was not renewed.

From Two Years Before the Mast by Richard Henry Dana Jr.*

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