Richard Henry Dana Jr. was born August 1, 1815 into one of the first families of Cambridge, Massachusetts. He attended Harvard College but left Harvard in 1834 to enlist as a common sailor on a voyage around Cape Horn to the then-remote California on the brig Pilgrim, returning to Massachusetts two years later. Having trouble with his vision after a bout of the measles, he thought the trip might help his failing sight.
He kept a diary during the voyage, and after he returned he wrote Two Years Before the Mast based on his experiences. The term "before the mast" refers to sailor's quarters—in the forecastle, in the front of the ship, the officers dwelling near the stern. His writing evidences his later social feeling for the oppressed.
After his sea voyage, he returned to Harvard, completing his education and becoming a famous lawyer and expert on maritime law, many times defending common seamen. Later he became a prominent abolitionist, helping to found the anti-slavery Free Soil Party in 1848. He died in Rome on January 6, 1882.
It is interesting to note that Dana's son, Richard Henry Dana III, married Edith Longfellow, the daughter of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Also, the point and city of Dana Point, California (located about halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego) is named for him.
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