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How the Shipwreck of an Opium Clipper Changed California

The Point Cabrillo Lighthouse has guarded lumber schooners and trading ships on the Mendocino coast for the past century. The restored head lightkeeper's home opened as a bed-and-breakfast inn last fall.

The Point Cabrillo lighthouse and ocean seen from a bluff near the lighthouse. 

At 9:30 p.m. on July 25, 1850, the 210-ton brig Frolic, a former opium clipper bound for San Francisco with a cargo of silk, chinaware and other goods from China, struck a rocky shelf about 400 yards off the Mendocino coast. The crew abandoned ship and the mortally wounded Frolic washed into a cove just north of Point Cabrillo, where it would eventually sink.

That might have been the end of it. But through a peculiar series of events, the shipwreck turned out to play a key role in the development of California’s economy. The story of the Frolic — which involves the Chinese opium trade, the Pomo Indians, “Two Years Before the Mast” author Richard Henry Dana, Alta California Consul Thomas Larkin, one of the first American residents of Yerba Buena and San Francisco’s most infamous businessman — is one of the most unlikely maritime tales in the annals of California.

As Thomas Layton writes in “The Voyage of the Frolic: New England Merchants and the Opium Trade,” the Frolic was built in Baltimore in 1844 by Boston’s Augustine Heard & Co. to engage in the lucrative opium trade with China, which was legal at the time.

That trade had begun in the late 18th century, when British ships started carrying opium from India to Canton (now Guangzhou), receiving millions of dollars of silver in payment. After monopolizing the opium trade for decades, in 1838 the British began allowing American ships to carry opium from India to China.

The fastest ships made the most money, so the Heard company commissioned Baltimore’s Gardner shipyard to build a “Baltimore clipper,” a class of ships renowned for their speed, called the Frolic.

The Frolic’s captain, Edward Faucon, had made three voyages to California from 1829 to 1835 on Boston ships engaged in the hide-and-tallow trade. On his last voyage, Faucon made friends with a 19-year-old Harvard freshman named Richard Henry Dana, who was to immortalize him as the benevolent skipper in his classic “Two Years Before the Mast.”

When the hide-and-tallow trade began to decline in 1837, Faucon embarked on a new career in the China trade. In 1844, the Heard company hired him to helm the Frolic on opium runs from India to Canton.

In the next two years he captained three voyages, dropping off opium and receiving tons of silver bullion in return. But in 1847 steamships began carrying opium more cheaply than sailing ships, and the Heard company started looking for other commodities to trade.

Its golden opportunity — literally — came in spring 1848, when gold was discovered in California.

In January 1849, two pioneering and wealthy California businessmen, Jacob Leese, the second American resident of Yerba Buena, and Thomas Larkin, former U.S. consul to Mexican California, purchased a brig called the Eveline. They dispatched it to China with $24,000 to purchase a cargo and return to California, where payment could now be made in gold, not hides. Leese himself sailed on the ship as its purchasing agent.

When the Eveline docked in Canton, John Heard, head of the Heard operation in China, eagerly seized the opportunity to buy its cargo so the company could get into the booming California market. He was not disappointed — the cargo his agents secured earned huge profits. After that success, Heard dispatched his company’s Frolic on an equally lucrative voyage to California, and soon made plans to repeat it the next year. On June 10, 1850, laden with silks, chinaware and even a portable house, the Frolic departed Hong Kong for San Francisco with 26 officers and crew.

The voyage was uneventful until the ship approached the Mendocino shoreline. Relying on an outdated chart, Faucon did not realize his course had taken him dangerously close to the coast.

On the night of July 25, the Frolic crashed against rocks. After Faucon and his crew escaped, the ship was washed into a cove, just 100 feet from shore and in shallow water — its cargo easy pickings for whoever came along.

The first to come along were Pomo Indians, who carried away large quantities of pottery and other goods. A year later Indian women were seen wearing elegant silk shawls from Canton, and pottery fragments were found in Indian villages.

Word of the wreck soon spread, leading to more pillaging. In 1851, a government agent described visiting an American pioneer’s house on the Russian River, close to 100 miles from the shipwreck site. It was a crude building, the agent said, made of poles, clay and tule, on whose earthen floor “stood huge china jars, camphor trunks, and lacquered ware in abundance, the relics of some vessel that had been wrecked on the coast during last spring.”

The most consequential visitor to the wreck of the Frolic, however, appeared when there was nothing left to remove.

When San Francisco entrepreneur and Bodega Bay sawmill owner Henry Meiggs learned about the wreck in August 1850, he dispatched a trusted employee, Jerome Ford, to see if anything could be salvaged. When Ford arrived, he found that the Frolic had been completely stripped. But he discovered a far more valuable treasure: the surrounding redwood and fir forest, which no American had ever seen.

After Ford returned and told Meiggs about the mighty groves of trees he had stumbled upon, Meiggs started a sawmill there in 1852. A small town grew up around the sawmill, which was briefly called Meiggsville before becoming Mendocino City. It was just as well it changed its name, since “Honest Harry” Meiggs failed to live up to his name, absconding in 1854 to South America after embezzling $800,000 from San Francisco’s coffers.

Meiggsville was the first city on the Mendocino coast and became the first focal point of the Pacific coast lumber trade.

The wreck of the Frolic turned out to be boon for all concerned. Its owners made more money from an insurance payout than the ship was worth. And the Frolic was indirectly responsible for kicking off what was to become one of California’s leading 19th century industries.

(Gary Kamiya is the author of the best-selling book “Cool Gray City of Love: 49 Views of San Francisco,” awarded the Northern California Book Award in creative nonfiction. )

2 Comments

  1. Jim Armstrong December 19, 2020

    A “boon for all concerned” seems a stretch.
    I enjoyed the story, though.

  2. lauracooskey December 27, 2020

    Thank you for this story. I read Layton’s “Frolic” book some years ago, and enjoyed this refresher to my memory.

    $800,000 in the 1850s was a helluva chunk of money. Do you know whatever became of Meiggs? Just another escape into South America– no justice?

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