Today in trade history, I’m going back to my roots. On October 20, 1835, the American trading vessel Pilgrim anchored in a Mexican harbor, and on October 21, its crew went ashore to do business. The local community was a diverse mix of Mexican ranchers, descendants of Spanish missionaries, and the native Acjachemen tribe, whose economy began and ended with cows. When trading ships like the Pilgrim came to ports all over the coast, pretty much all they were looking for was cattle hides, tallow, and other cow-related products. The bluffs around this port, however, were so steep that the sailors just tossed the hides over the cliffs onto the beach below like giant leather frisbees, getting a few caught halfway down. The captain, not wanting to lose money, heroically demanded one of his men climb down the cliffs to free them. The sailor who did so, Richard Henry Dana, went on to write one of the best records of that region and its trade that exists, a book entitled Two Years Before the Mast. The city that now sits on that harbor is named Dana Point in his honor, and the neighboring city of San Juan Capistrano is my hometown. The Mexican cattle ranching haven was California.
There are two reasons this story is important and not just self-indulgent. One is that despite Dana being a raging leftist who wrote his book as an honest account of the miseries of shipboard life for a common crewman, the American people happily missed the point entirely in favor of the romanticism of a foreign land, thus setting the stage for The Grapes of Wrath and The Real Housewives of Orange County. The second reason is that the story is a nice illustration of why America has nothing to fear from Latino influence. There has never been an America with California in it that did not include Latino influence.
You’ve probably never heard of the California Hide Trade, but it is the reason California’s major cities became major. The Hide Trade lasted just a couple of decades as the Mexican ranchers flourished, extended from Boston to Peru to Alta California to Hawaii to China, and included trade assists from the British and Russians. Foreign sailors and traders often settled and intermarried with local Mexican and indigenous groups, linking up the disparate peoples who would one day build the gayest city in the Western Hemisphere (excepting maybe Rio).
The list of interesting things about this trading route is endless. One Boston company (Bryant, Sturgis & Co., which owned the Pilgrim) so dominated the hide and tallow trade that the local name for the United States was “Boston.” American ship captains made evading Mexican tariffs into an art form, primarily through bribing the hell out of the tariff collectors and competing with each other for who could get away with paying the least. And the pelts of cute little Californian otters were so popular in Canton that the otter population got drastically reduced, so good one, China.
The Pilgrim sailed the Hide Trade route carrying Richard Henry Dana, who was not your typical sailor. Son of a prominent Cambridge family and a Harvard boy, he betrayed some nascent hippie tendencies when he supported a student protest as a freshman and received a six-month suspension in return. In his junior year, he contracted measles and suffered vision loss. Instead of doing a rich boy tour of Europe to recover, he let his hippie flag fly and joined a two-year voyage out of Boston, around South America, up to California and back again. He resolved to live the life of a common sailor and see what it was like.
Turns out, it sucked. The hours were long, the conditions were horrible, and the food was legendarily bad. The story of the ship captain pressuring crew to climb down cliffs and retrieve cow hides for his own gain illustrates how little sailors’ lives were worth, but during the voyage Dana also witnessed a crewmember getting severely beaten by a superior, and had an activist epiphany. He returned to Harvard, got his law degree, and spent the rest of his life defending common sailors in court and helping found the anti-slavery Free Soil party. Publishing Two Years Before the Mast was supposed to help the cause, and in some ways it did. But much like Upton Sinclair later found, the reading public often decides all on its own what it will be interested in, and in Dana’s case, the reading public was roughly 1,000 times more interested in the pretty coastline and shiny, shiny gold of California than they were in the rights of ship crews. And who can blame them?
Kids who grew up in or next to Dana Point generally know a little bit about this. Most of us were taken to see Dana’s statue in the harbor as a field trip, some were made to read Two Years Before the Mast by an ambitious English teacher. A few were hardcore and spent a weekend bunked up in the replica of the Pilgrim that floats in Dana Point Harbor today, a kind of educational hazing service the Harbor offers in order to give 6th graders a taste of what it was like to be a sailor back then. In general though, the legacy of Dana in Dana Point is very much adventure and cowhides, and very little labor rights advocacy.
Dana’s accounts of Mexican California, not coincidentally, make it sound pretty American. Its economy was basically an American cowboy fantasy. When Mexico secularized the missions, it promised to give half of the Church’s land and property to the Native Americans, but mostly did not do any of that. Immigration policy in Alta California was more or less “if you can get here, you can stay (but getting here’s the hard part)”. What’s more American than all of those things?
The reason we share so many similarities is that we share a complicated history, which really kicked off with trade. Every street name in my hometown is in Spanish for a reason, but it doesn’t make the place any less American, as this weirdness can prove. Anyone who complains about the Spanish language in America or the rising numbers of Latino Americans should remember the California Hide Trade, and find something better to be worried about.