The Grandest Wedding

It was a day to remember, January 24, 1836. That morning, one of the most prominent Americans in Alta California was wed to a daughter of one of the grandest of the California rancheros. It happened in Santa Barbara and the joyous occasion was immortalized in a best-seller of the period, Richard Henry Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast.

The bridegroom, Alfred Robinson, was a Boston native, who began his seafaring career as a boy in 1829. The ship on which he served belonged to Bryant, Sturgis, and Company, the leading American firm in the hide and tallow trade with California. Robinson eventually became a commercial agent for the company and got to know many of the great ranchero families during the course of conducting business.

One of these ranching grandees was José de la Guerra, longtime comandante of the Santa Barbara presidio and one of the largest landowners in Alta California. Robinson also made the acquaintance of one of El Gran Capitan’s daughters, Ana María, also known as Anita. In late 1834, he wrote, in florid prose common to the period, her father to ask for her hand in marriage: For some time I have wished to speak with you regarding a matter so delicate that, in the act of explaining it, words have failed me to express myself as I should in order to reveal the service which only you have the power to grant and to be the author of my felicity … Her attractions have persuaded me that without her I cannot live or be happy in this world, consequently I am begging for her hand …

Your obedient servant, who kisses your hand … As the day of the ceremony dawned, Santa Barbara was entertaining another Bryant and Sturgis trading ship, the Pilgrim. On board was a young, Harvard-educated sailor, Richard Henry Dana. Santa Barbara was the first California port-of-call for the ship. Dana recalled the Robinson/de la Guerra nuptials in his very popular book, published in 1840.

The ship’s captain attended the wedding at Mission Santa Barbara. The groom was 28, the bride was 15. Dana explained what happened as the wedding party left the church: … the bride, dressed in complete white, came out of the church with the bridegroom, followed by a long procession. Just as she stepped from the church door, a small white cloud issued from the bows of our ship, which was full in sight, the loud report echoed among the surrounding hills and over the bay, and instantly the ship was dressed in flags and pennants from stem to stern. Twenty-three guns followed in regular succession …At sundown, another salute of the same number of guns was fired …This we thought was pretty well done …

The reception was held at the Casa de la Guerra, the grand residence of the pueblo’s grandest citizen. Dana and other crewmembers attended, as did literally the entire town, to be wined and dined, to enjoy the music of violins and guitars, to dance. One custom in particular caught Dana’s eye, a custom that should sound familiar:

The great amusement of the evening — which I suppose was owing to its being carnival — was the breaking of eggs filled with cologne or other essences, upon the heads of the company. One end of the egg is broken and the inside taken out, then it is partially filled with cologne, and the hole sealed up. The women bring a great number of these secretly about them, and the amusement is to break one upon the head of a gentleman when his back is turned. He is bound in gallantry to find out the lady and return the compliment, though it must not be done if the person sees you. Confetti-filled cascarones are a staple of our own Old Spanish Days Fiesta celebrations every August. The party lasted three days. At one point Dana and his compatriots were urged to show off their dancing skills:

… to give them an American sailors dance; but after the ridiculous figure some of our countrymen cut, in dancing with the Spaniards, we thought it best to leave it to their imaginations.

The Pilgrim weighed anchor soon after. The Robinsons moved to Boston in 1837, the family eventually returning to Santa Barbara in 1854. Tragically Ana María died the following year, and Alfred never really got over her death. He died in San Francisco in 1895.

Dana became an authority in maritime law and a fervid abolitionist. He remained an avid traveler and died in Rome in 1882. For his best-selling book, Dana initially received from his publisher all of $250 and 25 free copies of the book. Only after 1868, when copyrights reverted to him, did he see a further return from his efforts. Two Years Before the Mast remains a steady seller to this day.

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