Sea Captains: San Francisco 1800s

Captain Robert Pearson

Robert Pearson was captain of the Pacific Mail steamship Oregon between Panama and San Francisco during 1849 and 1852.

June 14, 1849, Weekly Alta California, San Francisco, California, U.S.A.

Arrival of the Oregon.


The ocean steamer Oregon, captain R. H. Pearson, arrived in this port from Panama at 7 o'clock yesterday morning, having made the passage in twenty and a half days, stopping at all the intermediate ports. She brings no later intelligence from the United the May mail not having arrived when she sailed. The arrivals of vessels and emigrants at Chagres were not so frequent as for the last few months, and though the isthmus is still quite crowded the influx of emigration is much lessened, and appears to have settled into a steady current. The Oregon brings up three hundred passengers.

He is noted as captain of the steamship John L. Stephens in 1855.

Pacific Mail Steamship Company.

It was not uncommon for passengers to write complimentary letters to Captains expressing their gratitude of a safe journey. The following was sent to Captain Pearson and printed in the Daily Alta California on January 21, 1851:

The passengers of the steamer Oregon, on her recent trip from Panama, have sent us the following letter, expressive of their approbation of the ability of Capt. Pearson, and of the management of the ship under his command:

Steamship Oregon, January 19, 1851
The passengers of the Oregon, during her present trip from Panama to San Francisco, desiring to express to you their thanks for the kindness you have extended to them, have deputed us to make known to you their wishes in that respect. They consider themselves fortunate in having secured so comfortable a ship as the Oregon, and equally fortunate, that she is commanded by one who has shown himself eminently competent to all the duties of his position, and whose conduct as a gentleman is in every respect to be commended. In their names, and for ourselves also, we congratulate you upon the remarkably quick passage we have made, which is in a great measure owing, we are pleased to testify, to the energy and watchfulness which you and those under you in command (to each and all of whom we feel under many obligations) have evinced throughout. In conclusion, we beg you to accept our best wishes for your continued health and prosperity, and express the hope that there is still a long life of usefulness and honorable distinction before you. (Signed by the passengers).

To Robert H. Pearson, Esq., Commander of the Steamship Oregon.

August 1, 1851, Daily Alta California, San Francisco

PRESENTATION.-- Captain Pearson, of the steamer Oregon has been presented with a massive gold ring of California metal and workmanship, by Gov. McDougal, as a token of esteem and acknowledgment of kindness and attention paid to the family of the latter on their way to California. The ceremony took place on Wednesday evening.

March 26, 1854, Daily Alta California, San Francisco

The Douglass and Pearson Case.

Geo. G. Douglass vs. Robert H. Pearson. A motion for new trial, to set aside verdict of $5,000 in favor of Plaintiff; for false imprisonment on the steamer John L. Stephens.

The undersigned. Jurors, to whom the above entitled cause was submitted, were both astonished and pained on reading the opinion of the Hon. Delos Lake, published in the Alta of the 16th inst, in granting or ordering a new trial in said cause, in the use of the following language:

"There were no circumstances of aggravation in the case, no malice proved nor any physical sufferings on the part of the defendant."


We understand Judge Lake left on this day for the Atlantic States on the steamer Golden Gate, one of the steamers of the Pacific Mail Steamship Company, who are the employees of the defendant. And we exceedingly regret the pronouncement of the above opinion just on the eve of his departure. The opinion does the most gross injustice to us as jurors, as well as Judge Heslep, the counsel of Mr. Douglass. We were told by Judge Heslep in his opening, that he would advance no proposition or principle of law that would not be sustained by his Honor, Judge Lake. And in his closing argument he most religiously fulfilled the pledge, for we say that any principle advocated by him was given in charge to us by his Honor, Judge Lake, and it was upon that charge, and the clear and powerful argument of Judge Heslep, that led us to the result now charged, as being induced by the "IMPROPER CONSIDERATIONS URGED BY PLAINTIFF'S COUNSEL." We do not pretend to know the law, and if the improper considerations (legal) were permitted by Judge Lake to be urged upon us, which he did without stopping counsel, and the same considerations were reiterated by the Judge in his charge to us, it is certainly his fault, and not ours, and we do most seriously object to being made the scape goat, in furnishing unfounded reasons for new trial.

As regards the malice which Judge Lake says there was no proof, we answer, there was no proof of malice according to the rule given us by him to judge of its existence. And understanding our duties authorized us to judge of the malice alter the imprisonment was established, and that it was the duty of the defendant to negative by proof the presumptions of malic, we were governed in our finding by our convictions, that the imprisonment was malicious, for its alleged cause was untrue, therefore not justified by any rights claimed for the defendant, by virtue of his office of master of the steamer in which he was in command. So strong was the conviction of a majority of the jury in this respect, that a verdict of $10,000 was urged instead of $5,000

We much regret the publication of the opinion of Judge Lake, for he shows himself wanting in dignity as a Judge, in permitting Counsel to urge "improper considerations," to the injury of a suitor in Court, and then expecting that as a reason, to the prejudice of Counsel, and ourselves as Jurors, as a reason for granting a new trial, after holding this under consideration for near three months, and deciding the same day on the day before leaving the city.

San Francisco, March 16, 1854

J. H. Barnes, foreman; D. H. Pollock; E. F. Lupton; Chas. H. Sherman; Geo. W. Murray; N. C. Stetson; Chas. H. Mead; Jonathan Wales; J. N. Webster; Augustus A. Fisher; Chas E. Howard

N. B. George W. Sinclair, the remaining Juror, left the State of California on the 13th of February, 1854, consequently his name cannot be appended to the above.

We admit the above, to give the Jury an opportunity to express their views of Judge Lake's decision, but we do not approve of those views. About the middle of June last, Capt. Pearson, when at sea, ordered Douglass to put Ayer, a drunken waiter, in the coal bunkers. Douglass said "I won't be bothered with the man." Pearson repeated the order, and Douglass, turning to Ayer, said "Capt. Pearson orders you to go into the coal bunkers." Ayer refused to go, was abusive, and was put in irons, but Douglass previously went away, giving no aid or comfort to the captain. The next day, Capt. Pearson sent a polite note to Douglass, removing him from the position of engineer, and ordering him to keep his room, and to consider himself in confinement.

On trial it was proved that drunkenness is often punished on steamships, by sending the offender into the coal bunkers, that Ayer was drunk and disorderly, that the chief engineer is under the command of the Captain, and is considered by general custom, and by right, bound to obey such orders as that of Pearson, and that when Ayer disobeyed, he should have seized him and put him into the bunkers, or elsewhere, at the Captain's order. Such is our law reporter's recollection of the evidence given on the trial. Now, it is perfectly clear that if such were the facts, Douglass' conduct was very disrespectful, and from his high position, the second on board, likely to have a very bad effect on the subordination of the other officers and anew. Pearson manifested no passion, used no approborious epithets, and did not send the note until the next day.

Such conduct was surely not very wrong, and yet the jury brought in a verdict of $5,000 and an unjustifiable verdict it appears to us and everyone else. The judge did not charge the jury with having been influenced by improper motives, but by improper "considerations," such as wild declamation about the tyranny of steamship Captains, the unkindness of the P.M.S.S. Company &c. The judge will not, as a general rule, prevent the attorneys from presenting improper considerations, because it would be to hamper the counsel too much. Thus in the Filibuster trial, the attorneys spent four fifths of their arguments on points, which Judge Hoffman charged the jury they could not take into consideration, without violating their oaths. The fling about Judge Lake's taking passage in a P.M. Steamship, will, among those who know Judge Lake's reputation, do less discredit to him, than to those who make it. In a word, we have no hesitation in saying that a court or jury have as much right lo interfere in the management of this or any other private establishment, as to attempt to define the powers or duties of any officer on board of a ship.

The interference of the law, as regards the internal management of a passenger ship, appears to us as having a dangerous tendency one that must inevitably lead to disorganization and mutiny, and excesses of all kinds. The only true principle of safety and comfort, to the mass who travel, lies in the undivided power and supremacy of the captain.

July 3, 1856, Sacramento Daily Union, Sacramento, California

Charles P. Duane (Dutch Charley) from Tipperary, Ireland, arrived in San Francisco in 1850. He was outlawed twice by the San Francisco Committee of Vigilance, first in 1851 and again in 1856. His colorful life included rols as politician, fire chief, election rigger, bare knuckle boxer, gambler, saloon keeper, squatter, and gunfighter. His arrests in San Francisco included assault and battery, "riotious conduct," choking and stomping an officer of the law, head-butting an attendant at a dance . . .

Charles P. Duane's Attempt to Return on the John L. Stephens.

When the steamer John L. Stephens arrived at Acapulco, on her upward trip, quite a sensation was produced by the news from San Francisco, and the appearance, shortly afterwards, of the notorious Charles P. Duane. The Stephens left Panama before the Golden Age arrived there, and therefore first heard of the social regeneration going on here by the exchanges received at Acapulco, and it may be imagined how strong the impression made upon the passengers must have been when Charley himself came on board, the observed of all observers. It seems that he had either been put on, or had escaped from, the Golden Age, and had determined to return to San Francisco at all hazards. He so expressed himself, but was told by the oflicers of the ship that they would not bring him. We are indebted to Mr. Theodore L. Schell, Purser of the Stephens, for the facts which we now offer to our readers, in relation to Charley's unsuccessful attempt to return.

Duane came on board, saying that he wished to return to San Francisco; that he had been unjustly sent away from there; that he had no money, but wanted to get back at all risks. He was told that he could not return; the ship would not carry him. He said that he could get money from persons on board who knew him, and in part effected an arrangement to pay his passage, and in manufacturing some sympathy among a portion of the passengers, but was again told that he could not have a passage, that he could not be brought back for any consideration. He then disappeared, and when the ship was ready to start again was nowhere to be found. A search was instituted, but Charley was not forthcoming; and it being supposed that he had returned on shore, the ship proceeded on her way. When she had got out to sea, Mr. Schell, the Purser, who had, meanwhile, been getting shaved in the barber's shop, went to his state-room, and found that Duane was sitting there, at his ease. He immediately informed Capt. Pearson of the affair, who had Duane brought before him, aud told him that he should he considered a "stow-away," and be treated accordingly.

Duane said that he wanted to come back to San Francisco; that he could not live and hold up his head in any other place; that if he could not live in San Francisco, he wanted to die, and that if the ship would only carry him back, he would again deliver himself up to the Vigilance Committee, to be disposed of as the Committee pleased, but not to be sent out of the country. Captain Pearson told him that he would return only at great hazard to himself, and at the risk of creating a great disturbance in the community; that he had already been told he could not return on the vessel; that he could only be considered as a person who had unlawfully secreted himself against the will of the oflicers, and that he would therefore be put off as soon as an opportunity presented itself. Duane, who had some friends on board, talked about resistance, when Captain Pearson informed him that if he spoke a word about resistance, or did not act perfectly submissive, he would be considered a mutineer, and suffer as such.

By this time, however, the vessel was too far from Acapulco to return, and he was therefore allowed to remain subject to be transferred to any proper vessel that might appear, and the Stephens accordingly proceeded on her way. When she arrived in the Gulf of California, the steamer Sonora hove in view, and Capt Pearson gave gave orders that Charley, who was missing again, must be found, if it took a fortnight to do it. The search was commenced immediately, and after it had lasted about a half hour the fox was found stowed away under one of the quarter boats and unearthed. The steamer stopped, and Charley whose feelings and appearance may be better imagined than described, was transferred from one to the other, have first, been duly cautioned against getting on board the Stephens again, after the vessel had refused to carry him.

San Francisco Bay. 1899.

Topographic Map. San Francisco Bay. 1899.

We have thus given an account of one of the most rash and foolhardy attempts to come to California which we have ever heard of. Duane might have been supposed to have more sense than to attempt to return, and his persistence can only be accounted for on the supposition that he was desperate, or that he was encouraged by some of his kidney on board, who could not appreciate the condition of things in San Francisco. Duane's best friends could not wish him back here, and if wise, could not have counselled him to return. His companions were much more prudent in continuing their voyage by the Golden Age, and are doubtless all at Panama, or still further distant.

It is but justice to state that great credit is due to Capt. Pearson for his calm but determined action in regard to the matter. He prudently concluded not to bring Duane to San Francisco, and intended, had he not met the Sonora, or some other proper vessel, to put him off at some port in Mexico or Lower California. There would probably have been no great disturbance had Duane returned, as the Committee would soon have had him in custody, but a great excitement at least has been prevented. It would certainly be highly improper for the Steamship Company to bring a firebrand into our midst, and it makes no difference who or what that firebrand may be.

On January 5, 1857, the steamer John L. Stephens, captained by Robert Pearson sailed from San Francisco for Panama.

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The U.S. Coast Guard issues all Captain Licenses for U.S. Ports.
Note: Other countries have different regulations, i.e. the RYA (Royal Yachting Association), conducts certification for Britain and Ireland. As of 2011, they did not recognize the USCG certification; certification through their courses was required.

Master Unlimited is a licensed mariner in ultimate command of a vessel any gross tons. The captain is responsible for its safe and efficient operation, including cargo operations, navigation, crew management and ensuring that the vessel complies with local and international laws. All persons on board, including officers and crew, other shipboard staff members, passengers, guests and pilots, are under the captain's authority and are his or her ultimate responsibility. The STCW defines the Master as Person having command of the ship.

The Sea Chart
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John Blake
The sea chart was one of the key tools by which ships of trade, transport and conquest navigated their course across the oceans. Herein is a history and development of the chart and the related nautical map, in both scientific and aesthetic terms, as a means of safe and accurate seaborne navigation. 150 color illustrations including the earliest charts of the Mediterranean made by 13th-century Italian merchant adventurers, as well as 18th-century charts that became strategic naval and commercial requirements and led to Cook's voyages in the Pacific, the search for the Northwest Passage, and races to the Arctic and Antarctic.

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Maritime Nations, Ships, Sea Captains, Merchants, Merchandise, Ship Passengers and VIPs sailing into San Francisco during the 1800s.



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Sources: As noted on entries and through research centers including National Archives, San Bruno, California; CDNC: California Digital Newspaper Collection; San Francisco Main Library History Collection; and Maritime Museums and Collections in Australia, China, Denmark, England, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Wales, Norway, Scotland, Spain, Sweden, etc.

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