Sea Captains searched region before settlers

January 24, 2007 11:00 pm

By Hilary Corrigan

Triplicate staff writer

The land that would become known as Northern California attracted interest from countries besides the United States in the early 1800s.

It also greeted the first American explorers from its watery side years before groups of settlers would trek in from the east.

William Shaler commanded the first American ship to stop on northern California's coast. His Lelia Byrd anchored in Trinidad Bay in 1804.

Born in Connecticut, Shaler worked as a sea captain in the early 1800s and published accounts of his travels, "Journal of a Voyage between China and the Northwestern Coast of America," according to historical information from the University of Texas. He would die in Havana during a cholera epidemic in 1833.

In a piece published in the "William and Mary Quarterly," University of Virginia history professor J.C.A. Stagg refers to the author, merchant, diplomat and writer as "a shadowy figure in the annals of early American foreign policy."

Shaler visited Algiers, Cuba and Mexico under U.S. presidents James Madison and Andrew Jackson — either spreading American ideas, acting as more of a spy, or both.

He had expected California to become part of Mexico, then pointed to Russia's possible maritime interest in the state for trade along the coast south to Chile. Partly to block any Russian or French expansion, he urged the United States to annex California and form the country's Pacific coast.

Another American explorer came across the region by boat in 1806.

Working for Russia by hunting sea otters for the Russian American Company fur trade, Jonathan Winship discovered Humboldt Bay. He noted many Native American inhabitants of the region, surveyed the waterway and compared it to San Francisco's.

Winship anchored the O'Cain in Trinidad Bay and returned in following years to collect more sea otter pelts from the northern California coast.

Maritime interest in California would wane as the sea otter fur trade dropped off. The interest in northern California would pick up again in the 1840s, coming from the east by land.

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