This April puts us five years short of the 300th anniversary of the publication of Robinson Crusoe. Daniel Defoe's popular novel about an island castaway is thought to have been inspired by the experiences of Scottish sailor Alexander Selkirk, who voluntarily stranded himself in 1704 on Mas a Tierra (meaning: closer to land), one of the Juan Fernandez Islands approximately 400 miles west of Chile. This small Pacific outpost, known today as Robinson Crusoe Island, also provides a direct link to early California lore as well as 1850s Mendocino County history.
The cast of California characters is as unique and baffling as anything Defoe could have invented. We must start with Richard Henry Dana Jr. During the sea voyages that produced Dana's renowned Two Years Before the Mast, Dana, as a merchant seaman on the brig Pilgrim, took note of a penal colony inside the caves of Selkirk's island.
By the time Two Years Before the Mast was published in 1840, the prisoners on Mas a Tierra had risen up and killed their soldier guards. The inmates sailed to mainland Chile where most were tracked down and shot.
Dana's writing described brutality aboard the Pilgrim nearly the equal of a prison. In spite of that Two Years Before the Mast proved an inspiration to other young men. In Herman Melville's White-Jacket the author states, “If you want the best idea of Cape Horn, get my friend Dana's unmatchable Two Years Before the Mast. But you can read, and so you must have read it. His chapters describing Cape Horn must have been written with an icicle.”
Two Years Before the Mast also provoked an educated young man of 21 named J. Ross Browne to go to sea — signing on with the whaling ship Styx (could a vessel possess a more portentous name?). Browne sailed as far as Zanzibar before he left the ship disgusted by the behavior of the captain. Browne supported himself in Zanzibar for months entertaining locals and consulate members with his humorous sketches and flute playing. After his return to the US the voyage on the Styx provided material for his first book, Etchings of a Whaling Cruise, with Notes on a Sojourn on the Island of Zanzibar, published in 1846. Browne worked in Washington DC until his wanderlust beckoned again. He secured an appointment as Revenue Service Agent for the Pacific Coast and in late January 1849, he took passage on the sailing ship Pacific, bound for San Francisco.
During the voyage, the Pacific's captain proved such a tyrant (Do you see a recurring pattern here — it's a wonder there weren't more shipboard mutinies) that he was removed by government officials when the ship docked at Rio de Janeiro. With a new captain at the helm the Pacific navigated Cape Horn successfully, but becalmed near the Juan Fernandez Islands. Ever the romantic, J. Ross Browne commandeered a longboat and with ten others rowed to Mas a Tierra where Selkirk had been marooned 145 years before. On the leeward side of the isle Browne discovered another ship anchored, the Brooklyn.
We will return to Mas a Tierra. But first let's jump ahead into the 1850s. Some readers will remember J. Ross Browne as the government agent who investigated the Mendocino Indian Reservation at Fort Bragg in the late 1850s. Browne first encountered the north coast Pomo and subsequently the reservation while on a months-long trek with the so-called “Coast Rangers,” a couple of handfuls of politicians, artists, and writers. The Coast Rangers were led by John Coffee Hays, one of the original Texas Rangers who fought with Sam Houston against Mexico then battled Indians. He was so feared and/or respected by the Comanche that one of their chieftains, Buffalo Hump, sent a present to the Hays household upon the occasion of the birth of Hays' son.
After the Gold Rush, Hays made his way to San Francisco early enough in 1850 to be elected the first sheriff of San Francisco County (in those days the San Mateo area was also part of one large San Francisco County). For months Hays had to do his sheriffing without a jail. Prisoners were ball and chained below deck on the brig Euphemia, anchored at the wharf that today is the intersection of Battery and Sacramento Streets. Besides trying to raise funds for a traditional jail Hays had to contend with the Committee of Vigilance, a group of citizen vigilantes so powerful that once a jail was constructed the vigilantes lured Hays out of town then marched en masse on the jail, removed two prisoners, and hung them in a public square. The most prominent citizen among the members of the Committee of Vigilance was businessman Sam Brannan.
Sam Brannan was a New York Mormon church leader of the 1840s. Lacking enough money to travel overland to the Mormon enclave of the time, Nauvoo, Illinois, Brannan and more than 230 east coast Mormons pooled their funds to charter a 450 ton Yankee trading ship to take these Latter Day Saints to San Francisco. The name of the ship: the Brooklyn. That's right, the same ship that J. Ross Browne would spot at Mas a Tierra.
If it wasn't for Alexander Selkirk we might not have Defoe's Robinson Crusoe. That book in turn inspired Richard Henry Dana Jr. to go adventuring at sea, stopping at Mas a Tierra. Dana's Two Years Before The Mast pushed John Ross Browne onto the briny. On his way to the Pacific Coast, he too was drawn to Selkirk's hideaway. Brannan's vessel of Mormon pilgrims put in to the same island on the way to San Francisco. Without the undo pressures of Brannan's vigilantes, John Coffee Hays might not have retired early from sheriffing San Francisco, but he did, which left him ample time to lead the Coast Rangers on bear and buck hunting parties in Mendocino County. Without those Coast Ranger forays and the chronicles of J. Ross Browne the God-awful history of the Mendocino Indian Reservation might have slipped beneath the waves of history undetected.
Two postscripts: Sam Brannan was permanently excommunicated by the Mormon church not long after he arrived in San Francisco.
Beware of taking historians at face value. J. Ross Browne's primary biographer claimed that Browne was on Mas a Tierra at the same time as Sam Brannan. In actuality they were there three years apart. However, it was the very same Brooklyn that Browne saw anchored in Mas a Tierra's leeward bay. The Brooklyn was making a second voyage to California, laden with hundreds of 49ers.