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By Carlos N. Olvera
In a previous column, I shared the history of a fellow shipmate of R.H. Dana’s, Henry Mellus, who left the Pilgrim in California and later became the mayor of Los Angeles. In all, there were 15 crewmen on board the Pilgrim. Two died and one deserted.
On the return voyage, three were transferred to the Alert. Here’s the story of two of those men.
In Chapter 33 of Two Years before the Mast, Dana wrote “I went to the wheel with a young fellow from the Kennebec, Jack Stewart, who was a good helmsman, and for two hours, we had our hands full.”
From the Los Angeles Herald, February 4, 1892, comes this: “Old Jack Stewart who had lived in San Diego 60 years, died last night at his home in Old Town, aged 91 years. Jack Stewart was a historical character, as he was one of the shipmates of Richard Henry Dana, whose Two Years before the Mast has become a classic. Stewart came here with Dana in 1832 (sic) as pilot of the Alert and never left Old Town except on whaling ships. He married a Spanish woman and leaves six or seven children.” R. H. Dana’s son visited with Jack in 1881 and referred to him as “quite a character.”
Another onboard the Alert was Captain Francis A. Thompson, captain of the Pilgrim. It was the absolute authority the captain of the vessel had over the crew that prompted Dana in this direction. His criticism of the crew’s labors was tyrannical. Thompson was not considered a good navigator, and his sailors knew it. His route eastward was some 1,400 miles westward of the usual course, lengthening the journey and putting them in rougher currents around Cape Horn. Some attributed his behavior towards his men as retribution for their lack of confidence.
When Dana III went back over his father’s journey in 1880 (see Chapter 38, Seventy Six Years After in Two Years before the Mast), he met Thompson’s nephew, who was the proprietor of a hotel in Santa Barbara. As the two went for a stroll, the nephew carried a heavy walking stick with him. Dana III wrote, “Could it be he was to wreak vengeance on the son of the man who had exposed his uncle?” But instead the nephew related a family story about how his uncle had tried to take some land belonging to his brothers where he was put in charge. The story ended that the nephew thought that Richard Henry Dana, Jr., had given his uncle perfect justice. Dana’s son also mentions his father’s friend, Hope, who was very ill, and Captain Thompson refused him the medicines he needed to live. It was Dana who got the medicines from the mate for Hope that saved his life. They remained close friends.
The Thompson family was both well-known on the East Coast (Maine) as well as the West Coast (Santa Barbara). Besides his father’s achievements in Maine, his brother in Santa Barbara built the first Monterey-style adobes in California. The family also purchased a portion of the Rancho San Miguel near Ventura and was one of the first ranchers to use power-driven mechanical threshers to harvest bean crops.
Captain Francis Thompson died on July 14, 1837 at the age of 30. He is buried at Pine Grove Cemetery in Brunswick, Cumberland County, Maine, alongside his parents. His father, Alexander, was a veteran of the Revolutionary Army, serving for four years. He later became a selectman for Brunswick for six years.
Richard Henry Dana, Jr., wrote a simple travel journal and perused a career in maritime law because of that experience. He has a statue in Dana Point Harbor recognizing him for his pursuits. Captain Francis Thompson, too, has a monument erected, in a cemetery in Brunswick, Maine. It has been said by many, “There has never been a statue erected to honor a critic.”
“And that’s the way it is” – Walter Cronkite, March 6, 1981
Carlos N. Olvera is Chair of the OC Historical Commission, and Councilman of Dana Point.