Sailing into the past can be an education

Star of India

You can teach history to a child or you can let the child live it.

The San Diego public schools have a unique program in which elementary school students spend an evening aboard a 150-year-old sailing ship called the Star of India, which is docked in the harbor downtown.

Last night my grandson and his mother took part. One feature of the outing calls for each child to receive a letter from someone written as if it were the year 1851 and the child is joining the ship’s crew in San Diego for a voyage to San Francisco, where he will have to decide whether to stay aboard for further sailing adventures or jump ship and make for the gold fields along the American River like the earlier Forty-niners.

The ship at the time was called the Euterpe.

This is my letter, which I sent as a pdf with a cursive font:


June 1851, Salt Lake City

Dear grandson,

I pray this missive reaches you before you disembark for the port of San Francisco, as you have a rather momentous decision facing you and I wish to confuse your contemplations with facts and speculations.

Your father wrote some weeks ago that you plan to join a crew aboard a sailing vessel bound for that booming port city to the north, possibly the Euterpe when it docks, and you are said to be torn between staying aboard for the planned voyage to the Sandwich Islands or even the Far East or jumping ship and making for the placer gold riches up along Sutter Creek.


I am penning this missive from Salt Lake City in the Utah Terriorty whilst en route to a burgeoning little community on the edge of the Sierra Nevadas and the shores of Lake Bigler, which I am informed is one of the most beautiful Alpine lakes God ever dug into the granite of this continent. They call the community Mormon Station, because its current denizens are largely of that faith, though I am told on good authority that they welcome we heathens.

As I write, the news and the rumors are swirling. Of course, my original intentions were to continue on into theCalifornia gold country via mountain pass, perhaps the ill-fated Donner Pass that claimed the lives of so many dauntless pilgrims. The word in the boarding houses here is that the placer claims are rapidly playing out along the American River and the claim jumping cut throats rule the roost and prices are so steep that one would starve before panning enough dust to buy a can of beans.

Meanwhile, there was a minor gold discovery 100 miles south of here a couple of months ago, giving rise to the hope still more veins have yet to be discovered in the unexplored and uncharted mountains and valleys of this benighted territory. We know it will not be easy making the trek, as we have all been warned by the journals of explorers such as Jedediah Smith, John C. Fremont, Kit Carson and Peter Skeen Ogden — Ogden wrote that his party had to eat most of their horses because grazing and game and water were of such short shrift. But the trails are better laid out now and there are decent maps showing where to find water and grazing.

Perhaps I make too much of the rigors and risks of such passage, as these days there is even a scheduled stage coach from Salt Lake to Sacramento. Ah, the luxuries of modernity.

This is a round-about way of suggesting that if you are heart-set on seeking your fortune by prospecting for gold and/or sliver, you should consider heading a little further east, perhaps to Mormon Station, where I plan to leave a note for you with the proprietor in any case to let you know my whereabouts should you be so inclined.

As for the prospects of remaining aboard the Euterpe, or whatever vessel where you toss down your kit, I strenuously suggest you take a few hours to pursue the pages of Richard Dana’s tome about his life aboard a sailing ship. It was published 10 years ago and is widely in circulation. It is called “Two Years Before the Mast.”

May I attest to its accuracy, having misspent a few years of my youth rolling on the bounding Main, and I do mean rolling. On making port after rounding Cape Horn I was sorely tempted to throw an oar over my shoulder and hike inland until someone asked, “What’s that?”  Old jibe, sorry, grandson.

Also, consider from whence you are venturing compared to where you are bound. Dana describes the port in San Diego as “a small, snug place, having very little trade, but decidedly the best harbor on the coast.” Why leave paradise at all, boy?

Compare that to his harrowing accounts of rounding the horn in gales “blowing like scissors and thumb-screws” with nothing between you and the South Pole but a few 40-foot waves and having to climb the mast to furl a few whipping sails that could slam you all the way to Fiddler’s Green. Also, believe you me, you’ll soon gag at the very mention of hard tack, salt pork and boiled potatoes washed down with brackish water when the small beer ration runs out as you wallow in a doldrum. That the gamut, gales and doldrums.

Illustration for Dana book

I have taken upon myself to copy a few lines from Dana’s account as he describes the joys of sailoring far better than I: “Double gaskets were passed round the yards, rolling tackles and other gear bowsed taut, and everything made as secure as it could be. Coming down, we found the rest of the crew just coming down the fore rigging, having furled the tattered topsail, or, rather, swathed it round the yard, which looked like a broken limb, bandaged. There was no sail now on the ship, but the spanker and the close-reefed main topsail, which still held good. But this was too much after sail, and order was given to furl the spanker. The brails were hauled up, and all the light hands in the starboard watch sent out on the gaff to pass the gaskets; but they could do nothing with it. The second mate swore at them for a parcel of `sogers,’ and sent up a couple of the best men; but they could do no better, and the gaff was lowered down.”

So, grandson, the choice you have in your contemplated endeavor may well be of the Hobson’s variety. I’ll not deign to recommend one path forward over another, but merely lay out the facts — and rumors — as I have first-hand experience as well as a fine-tuned sense for separating wheat from chaff among the gossipmongers.

With that said, I look forward to our paths crossing somewhere along the way of our destinies and toasting what I pray will be our good fortunes.

Yours sincerely for good trekking or calm sailing,

Grandfather Tom

p.s. I think ol’ Tom Jefferson was right when he wrote from Paris while ambassador there that the better course would be to avoid Cape Horn altogether and dig a canal across the Isthmus of Panama, which the Spaniards were already considering doing at the time.

p.p.s. Of course, if this letter finds you in time to allow it in your schedule, please pass along my greetings and salutations to your adoring parents.


I did not include my recommendation for the best sidearm with which he should equip himself lest that cause palpitations among the squeamish who might glimpse it. But in case you wonder, that would be a Walker Colt, not one of those cursed Allen pepperbox six-barrel revolvers that had a tendency to fire all barrels at once with some rather deleterious effects.

Also, in case you are wondering, Lake Tahoe at the time was called Lake Bigler, but the name was changed after the Civil War because California Gov. John Bigler was an ardent secessionist.

Mormon Station is now the town of Genoa, the oldest settlement in what is now Nevada, but then was a part of the Utah Territory.



This is a video of such a field trip to the Star of India from a couple of years ago:

Heave ya ho, matey.


6 comments on “Sailing into the past can be an education

  1. txhoosick says:

    I don’t think it is birthed, but berthed. Darn spell czeck.


    From: 4TH ST8 Reply-To: 4TH ST8 Date: Thursday, June 2, 2016 at 11:20 AM To: David M Casey Subject: [New post] Sailing into the past can be an education

    Thomas Mitchell posted: ” You can teach history to a child or you can let the child live it. The San Diego public schools have a unique program in which elementary school students spend an evening aboard a 150-year-old sailing ship called the Star of India, which is birthed”

  2. Changed to docked. Thanks.

  3. Fascinating…thank you!

  4. nyp says:

    Great letter. And I have very fond memories of reading “Two Years Before the Mast.”

  5. Anonymous says:

    What a gift! Words from a loving grandfather. Thomas, you brought a tear to my eye remembering my own.


  6. Anonymous says:

    And the part about this being sent in cursive made me think about this. Starting at :30

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