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Early Mendocino County

As opposed to Robert Frost's two roads diverging in a wood, it is often the convergence of two paths that proves just as unexpected and consequential. I have spent the last weeks of winter and the first days of spring perusing the pages of Moby Dick, a book many of us were forced to read at an age too early for appreciation. The edition I possess contains many annotations, including explanations of long lost slang terms like “sheep-head” (a chatterbox, very talkative person), or “I vum,” meaning I swear or vow. Moby Dick is a lengthy text, over 600 pages in paperback; however, Melville's chapters are numerous and remarkably short, averaging about five pages. This makes a perfect bedtime book, you can always reach the end of a chapter and start anew the next evening.

Melville was creating something literarily unique with Moby Dick, but he was also living out one of the creeds of the Romantic novelists who came immediately before him, that fiction could also tell the truth of a thing. In that vein, Melville's narrator, Ishmael, devotes entire chapters (albeit brief) to subjects such as the erroneous depictions of whales throughout history. You wouldn't think that Melville, writing in New York City and Massachusetts in 1850 through 1851, would lead us to Mendocino County, but he does.

In Chapter 56 of Moby Dick, entitled, “Of the Less Erroneous Pictures of Whales and the True Pictures of Whaling Scenes,” Melville's second paragraph contains this reference, “Some of the Sperm Whale drawings in J.Ross Browne are pretty correct in contour; but they are wretchedly engraved. That is not his fault though.”

"Lancing a Whale"
"Lancing a Whale" from Etchings of a Whaling Cruise

Melville was alluding to an 1846 publication (from Harper & Brothers, Publishers), Etchings of a Whaling Cruise by J. Ross Browne. The author had sailed aboard a whaling ship in 1842. The quality of the writing and drawings contained within Etchings of a Whaling Cruise made his name in the publishing world. The Gold Rush propelled Browne to California in 1849. His Report of the Debates in the Convention of California is the primary source concerning our state's 1849 constitutional convention. The position reportedly garnered him a government wage of $10,000.

J. Ross Browne was born in Beggars Bush, Dublin, Ireland, the son of a newspaper editor who had run so afoul of the British government he had to choose between prison or banishment. Thus, the Browne family found its way to the United States in the 1830s.

After California gained statehood, J. Ross Browne returned to the West as something of a secret agent. Among other assignments, he was employed by the federal government to investigate the goings-on in the newly established California Indian reservations. During the summer of 1858, J. Ross Browne traveled by horseback with California's Superintendent of Indian Affairs Thomas Henley and Indian Affairs Special Agent Goddard Bailey to the Nome Cult Indian Farm in Round Valley then on to the Mendocino Reservation at Fort Bragg. At both locales depositions were taken to ascertain the accuracy of charges being leveled at the reservation system as a whole and at Superintendent Henley in particular.

The depositions boiled down to three serious charges against Henley: 1) that he conspired with cattlemen in Round Valley, including Henley family members, to drive inferior cattle to the coast reservation at Fort Bragg while the government paid top dollar prices for the beef; 2) that Henley allowed Scotsman Alexander Macpherson to construct and run a sawmill within the Mendocino Indian Reservation alongside the Noyo River, both construction and lumber production included the use of Indian labor at wages grossly reduced from the level of pay given to Anglo employees of the mill; 3) that Henley refused to buy farm and garden products, such as potatoes, from local producers. Instead, paying much higher prices to San Francisco merchants and shippers for the same goods. Henley further colluded with the Mendocino Reservation storekeeper to overcharge again once the produce reached Fort Bragg.

J. Ross Browne's conclusion about the Mendocino and Round Valley reservations: “The results of the policy pursued were precisely such as might have been expected. A very large amount of money was annually expended in feeding white men and starving Indians.”

Henley was removed from office; however, he went on to acquire a good deal of acreage in the Round Valley area. Browne continued his traveling, investigating, and writing throughout the Northwest and Southwest. He settled in the Oakland hills and lived until 1875 when he died of an acute appendicitis attack while returning home on the bay ferry. By that time Moby Dick and the rest of Melville's writings were out of print. He died more or less in poverty in September, 1891. If published today, neither Moby Dick or Etchings of a Whaling Cruise would stand much of a chance on “Best Seller” lists dominated by the likes of Kardashian Konfidential.

As for the Native Californians, though it was far from J. Ross Browne's fault, things turned out wretchedly for them.

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