"Two Years Before the Mast"

Richard Henry Dana

Study Questions

  1. According to Dana, what kind of treatment do the Indians receive under the Spanish missions compared to under the civil Mexican government?
  2. What is the underlying argument Dana makes by describing California's government as "an arbitrary democracy, having no common law."
  3. What is the significance of his description of the Yankee vigilantes?
  4. What is his opinion of California's Mexican population?
  5. What is the significance of his final paragraph in which he describes California as a virtual paradise?

Vessels began to come into the ports to trade with the missions and receive hides in return; and thus began the great trade of California.  Nearly all the cattle in the country belonged to the missions, and they employed their Indians - who became, in fact, their serfs - in tending their vast herds.  In the year 1793, when Vancouver visited San Diego, the missions had obtained great wealth and power....On the expulsion of the Jesuits from the Spanish dominions, the missions passed into the hands of the Franciscans, though without any essential change in their management.  Ever since the independence of Mexico, the missions had been going down; until, at last, a law was passed, stripping them of their possessions, and confining the priests to their spiritual duties, at the same time declaring all the Indians free and independent rancheros.  The change in the condition of the Indians was...only nominal; they are virtually serfs, as much as they ever were.  But in the missions the change was complete.  The priests now have no power, except in their religious character, and the great possessions of the missions are given over to be preyed upon by the harpies of the civil power, who are sent there in the capacity of administradores, to settle up the concerns; and usually end, in a few years, by making themselves fortunes, and leaving their stewardships worse than they found them.  The dynasty of the priests was much more acceptable to the people of the country, and, indeed, to everyone concerned with the country, by trade or otherwise, than that of the administradores.  The priests were connected permanently to one mission, and felt the necessity of keeping up its credit. Accordingly, the debts of the missions were regularly paid, and the people were, in the main, well treated, and attached to those who had spent their whole lives among them.  But the administradores are strangers sent from Mexico, having no interest in the country, not identified in any way with their charge, and, for the most part, men of desperate fortunes - brokendown politicians and soldiers -  whose only object is to retrieve their condition in as short a time as possible.  The change had been made but a few short years before our arrival upon the coast, yet, in that short time, the trade was much diminished, credit impaired, and the venerable missions were going rapidly to decay....

The government of the country is an arbitrary democracy, having no common law, and nothing that we should call a judiciary.  Their only laws are made and unmade at the caprice of the legislature, and are as variable as the legislature itself.  They pass through the form of sending representatives to the congress at Mexico, but as it takes several months to go and return, and there is very little communication between the capital and this distant province, a member usually stays there as permanent member....

As for justice, they know little law but will and fear.  A Yankee, who had been naturalized and become a Catholic, and had married in the country, was sitting in his house at the Pueblo de los Angeles, with his wife and children, when a Mexican with whom he had a difficulty entered the house and stabbed him to the heart before them all.  The murderer was seized by some Yankees who had settled there, and kept in confinement until a statement of the whole affair could be sent to the governor general.  The governor general refused to do anything about it, and the countrymen of the murdered man, seeing no prospect of justice being administered...proceeded to try the man according to the forms in their own country.  A judge and jury were appointed, and he was tried, convicted, sentenced to be shot, and carried out before the town blind-folded.  The names of all the men were then put into a hat, and each one pledging himself to perform his duty, twelve names were drawn out, and the men took their stations with their rifles, and firing at the word, laid him dead.  He was decently buried, and the place was restored quietly to the proper authorities....

When a crime has been committed by Indians, justice, or rather vengeance, is not so tardy.  One Sunday afternoon while I was at San Diego, an Indian was sitting on his horse when another, with whom he had some difficulty, came up to him, drew a long knife, and plunged it directly into the horse's heart.  The Indian sprang from his falling horse, drew out the knife, and plunged it into the other Indian's breast, over his shoulder, and laid him dead.  The fellow was seized at once, clapped into the calabozo, and kept there until an answer could be received from Monterey.  A few weeks afterward I saw the poor wretch, sitting on the bare ground, in front of the calabozo, with his feet chained to a stake, and handcuff's about his wrists.  I knew there was very little hope for him.  Although the deed was done in hot blood, the horse on which he was sitting being his own, and a favorite with him, yet he was an Indian, and that was enough.  In about a week after I saw him, I heard that he had been shot.  These few instances will serve to give one a notion of the distribution of justice in California.

In their domestic relations, these people are not better than in their public.  The men are thriftless, proud, extravagant, and very much given to gaming; and the women have but little education, and a good deal of beauty, and their morality, of course, is none of the best; yet the instances of infidelity are much less frequent than one would at first suppose....[T]he jealousy of their husbands is extreme, and their revenge deadly and almost certain.  A few inches of cold steel has been the punishment of many an unwary man, who has been guilty, perhaps, of nothing more than indiscretion....With the unmarried women, too, great watchfulness is used.  The main object of the parents is to marry their daughters well, and to this a fair name is necessary....

Of the poor Indians very little care is taken.  The priests, indeed, at the missions are said to keep them very strictly, and some rules are usually made by the alcaldes to punish their misconduct; yet it all amounts to but little....Intemperance, too, is a common vice among the Indians.  The Mexicans, on the contrary, are abstemious, and I do not remember every having seen a Mexican intoxicated.

Such are the people who inhabit a country embracing four or five hundred miles of seacoast, with several good harbors; with fine forests in the north; the waters filled with fish, and the plains covered with thousands of herds of cattle; blessed with a climate than which there can be no better in the world; free from all manner of diseases, whether epidemic or endemic; and with a soil in which corn yields from seventy to eighty fold.  In the hands of an enterprising people, what a country this might be.