By Carlos N. Olvera
It is obvious Richard Henry Dana Jr. did not sail alone. He returned to Boston and became a well-known author, statesman and lawyer, but what of his fellow crewmates? Did they just go to sea to never be heard of again?
Some did. There was the man known as George Ballmer –actually spelled Bellarner –a seaman from Boston, “an active lad and willing seaman.”
He was climbing the main mast with halyards around his neck when he fell (Two Years Before the Mast, by R.H. Dana Jr., chapter VI). He did not know how to swim and with heavy clothing and the extra weight he sank to the bottom. This dramatically affected Dana as he mentioned that his empty bunk in the forecastle was a constant reminder. But let’s review some of the others who just got on the Pilgrim for an experience, Henry Mellus for example.
Born August 4, 1816 in Dorchester, Mass., Henry Mellus came to the California coast for the first time on the brig Pilgrim as an apprentice to the hide trade business. He was 18 years old and Dana’s classmate at Harvard University. When Pilgrim reached Monterey in 1835, at the request of Alfred Robinson, Mellus was transferred from the ship to become a clerk.
Mr. Robinson, from Boston, was an agent and “supercargo” for Bryant & Sturgis, who owned the Pilgrim. A supercargo is a person employed by the owner of the cargo aboard as defined by maritime law.
Not unlike Dana’s father who knew the movers and shakers in Boston, many young boys of known families would be placed on board ships to get some experience and learn of the shipping trade. Mellus was no exception. He returned to Boston in 1837 with Robinson. He again made it to the California coast in 1839 on the California as assistant supercargo making port in San Francisco. He became a successful merchant and teamed up with William Howard, an old friend from his early teenage years in New England.
In 1845 he formed the company of Mellus & Howard and ended up buying the failing Hudson Bay Co. just prior to the gold rush. In 1846 he married Anita Johnson of Sonora, Mexico. She was the sister in law to his brother Francis—a California state assembly member and Los Angeles County Supervisor. Two years later, Mellus left the Bryant & Sturges agency and took his new family back to Boston. They returned to the California coast in 1850 arriving in Los Angeles. It was then that Howard bought out Mellus’ ownership.
Henry Mellus later became the owner of the Pacific Salt Works in Redondo Beach from the bankrupt company of Johnson & Allanson in 1858. The site of the salt lake is State Historical Landmark No. 373. Mellus then helped open a reading room in 1859 on Spring Street in LA.
On December 26, 1860, Mellus died during his term as Los Angeles’ eighth mayor. He served from May 9, 1860 until his death. At the time, the population of LA was 4,399. His obituary declared him “one of the pioneers of California.”
While mayor, on October 8, 1860, the telegraph line from Los Angeles to San Francisco was completed and the first message sent from Los Angeles was by Mayor Mellus to the President of the Board of Supervisors of San Francisco.
In Two Years Before the Mast Dana mentioned that Mellus was not available for work on the sails when they reached the California coast due to the rheumatism in his feet (chapter VIII). When they reached Monterey, Mellus was taken out of the forecastle and made supercargo’s clerk (chapter XIII) since he was well-qualified from prior experience as a clerk in a counting house in Boston. This was made necessary due to his rheumatism (chapter XXX), which made Dana later refer to him as an indifferent sailor.
In Dana’s return to the California coast, he mentions in an 1859 letter to his wife, he had dined with Henry Mellus and his brother Frank. But Dana’s memories of Henry characterized him as “not being successful in commercial life.” Maybe character is judged by the friends you keep.
Carlos N. Olvera is Chairman of the OC Historical Commission and mayor of Dana Point.