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author of one of America's most famous accounts of life at sea
Richard Henry Dana was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on August 1, 1815. He attended Harvard College for a time, but vision troubles brought about by a bout of measles forced his early withdrawal.
In 1834, hoping that a sea voyage would aid his failing eyesight, Dana shipped out of Boston as a common seaman aboard the brig Pilgrim, bound for the Pacific. After sailing around Cape Horn, the Pilgrim visited a number of settlements in California (then still a part of Mexico). He returned to Massachusetts as a deckhand aboard the Alert two years later. Two Years Before the Mast is based on the diary Dana kept while at sea. First published in 1841, it remains one of America's most famous accounts of life at sea. The book contains a rare and detailed account of life on the California coast a decade before the Gold Rush revolutionized the region's culture and society. It also describes the lives of sailors in the ports, as well as the daily life of the Hispanics, Native Americans and Europeans of California. Dana also wrote The Seaman's Friend (1841), a handbook which includes a section on maritime law.
After completing his Harvard education in 1837, Dana became a leader of the American Bar, an expert on maritime law, and a life-long advocate of the rights of merchant seamen. He was also an anti-slavery activist, helping found the Free-Soil Party in 1848, and was an opponent of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850.
In 1859, Dana visited Cuba while its annexation was being debated in the U.S. Senate. He documented this trip in the book To Cuba and Back.
During the Civil War, Dana served as United States District Attorney, and successfully argued before the Supreme Court that the United States government could rightfully blockade Confederate ports. After the war he served as a U.S. counsel in the trial of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. He served in the Massachusetts State Legislature from 1867 to 1868. In 1876, his nomination as Ambassador to Britain was defeated in the Senate by political enemies.
Richard Henry Dana died in Rome, Italy, on January 6, 1882. He is buried in that city's Protestant Cemetery.
Dana's son, Richard Henry Dana III, married Edith Longfellow, daughter of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
Dana Point, California, located about halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego, is named in his honor.
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This page was last updated on 04/30/2017.