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 occasion was immortalized in Richard Henry Dana’s book 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 & Company, the leading American firm in the hide and tallow trade with California. Robinson became a commercial agent for the company and got to know many of the great ranchero families.
One of these rancheros was José de la Guerra, long-time comandante of the Santa Barbara Presidio and one of the largest landowners in Alta California. Robinson also made the acquaintance of one of his daughters, Ana María, also known as Anita. Late in 1834, he wrote to her father to ask for her hand in marriage in a style common to the period:
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 wedding dawned, Santa Barbara was entertaining another Bryant, Sturgis & Company 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.
Dana and other crew members attended, as did literally the entire town, to be wined and dined and dance to the music of violins and guitars. One custom in particular caught Dana’s eye, which should sound familiar today:
The great amusement of the evening … 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.
The party lasted three days. The Pilgrim weighed anchor soon after. The Robinsons moved to Boston in 1837, then returned 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, he initially received from his publisher all of $250 and 25 free copies of the volume. Only after 1868, when copyright reverted to him, did he see a further return. Two Years Before the Mast remains a steady seller to this day.
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Michael Redmon, director of research at the Santa Barbara Historical Museum, will answer your questions about Santa Barbara’s history. Write him c/o The Independent, 122 W. Figueroa St., Santa Barbara, CA 93101.