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William Shaler and the Lelia Byrd

Captain William Shaler, circa 1805

William Shaler

The first Americans to visit the Los Angeles area arrived on the New England trading vessel Lelia Byrd, captained by ship's co-owner, William Shaler. Shaler and friend and partner Richard J. Cleveland jointly purchased the Virginia-built Lelia Byrd (Shaler prefered to call it Delia Byrd) to enter the sea otter pelt trade in the Pacific. They already had a great deal of seafaring trade experience between them. The Pacific venture was risky, however, mostly because “merchant navigators,” as they called themselves (a polite term for “smuggler”), were prohibited by Spanish authorities from trading on the California coast. The partners calculated that they could surreptitiously scoop up sea otter pelts (the so-called “royal fur of China”) in California from mission padres and Indians in exchange for trinkets, household goods and ribbon. Then they could take their cargo to China to trade for highly profitable porcelain, silk, carved chests and quicksilver. All they had to do was avoid Spanish authorities in California. Shaler assumed the role of ship’s captain and Cleveland that of business manager.

Lelia Byrd, William Shaler, circa 1803

Lelia Byrd engaged in a cannon-duel with Spanish artillery, as it flees from San Diego Bay. Unknown artist, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

In March 1803, Shaler and Cleveland arrived with the Lelia Byrd in San Diego. The ship was promptly seized by Spanish authorities, suspected of trying to smuggle otter pelts from California. Guards were posted onboard the ship to keep it anchored, but, that night, the crew overpowered the guards and even, through a corrupt guard, managed to obtain a cache of otter pelts previously seized from an earlier ship. Shaler ordered his ship to flee under sail with the captured guards as hostage. The ship still had to bypass a Spanish artillery battery on Point Loma at Ballast Point. As the battery's first hostile engagement, it fired on the fleeing ship. In response, the Lelia Byrd returned a broadside from its own three-pounder guns. Despite the artillery duel, no one was injured and the Leila Byrd managed to safely sail out of range of the Spanish guns. When Shaler determined it safe to do so, he had the Spanish hostages taken ashore and freed. The Lelia Byrd sailed off toward Hawaii (then called the Sandwich Islands).

Sea Otter Swims in Monterey Bay

A sea otter, now a protected species, swims in Monterey Bay. Photo by Tania Larson, U.S. Geological Service.

In 1804, after a year of profitable trading in China and Hawaii, Cleveland returned to New England on another vessel and Shaler took the Lelia Byrd for another run along the western North American coast for more sea otter pelts. Keeping in mind that the Lelia Byrd’s last visit in California involved escaping from the law, taking hostages, and engaging in a firefight, Shaler resolved to minimize his profile there and avoid ports with Spanish guns and garrisons.

In the course of this second voyage along the North American coast, the aged, leaking, and ailing Lelia Byrd came to desperately need a long-term safe harbor (safe from Spanish authorities) for repairs. After learning that such a harbor could be found on Santa Catalina Island, on March 14, 1805, Shaler had his ship stop there for a few days to scout the island. On May 1, Shaler returned to Santa Catalina Island and beached the Lelia Byrd on the sand of a bay to make the much needed repairs. The bay was once thought to be Avalon Bay, but is now determined to be present-day Isthmus Cove at Two Harbors. Shaler named the bay Port Roussillon for the Count de Rouissillon, a deposed Polish nobleman who had earlier partnered and voyaged with Shaler and Cleveland. It is the first American name given to a locale in California. On the island, Shaler reported friendly encounters and trading with a band of about 150 native people on the island. Almost six weeks later, on June 12, the Lelia Byrd departed Santa Catalina Island, stopped at San Pedro to resupply (no Spanish guns or garrisons present), and departed there to resume trading in the Pacific. Later that year in Hawaii, no longer confident in the sea-worthiness of the Lelia Byrd, Shaler traded the vessel to King Kamehameha. The ship had crossed the Pacific three times and sailed across more than 20,000 miles of open ocean.

Two Harbors from the Air, Santa Catalina Island

Aerial view of Two Harbors, Santa Catalina Island. Ithmus Cove is at center of lower coastline (island's north side). Photograph by D Ramey Logan [CC BY 4.0], from Wikimedia Commons.

Shaler’s written account of his voyages, Journal of a Voyage Between China and the North-Western Coast of America, Made in 1804, is said to be the earliest, most extensive account of California written firsthand by an American. It was widely circulated and is credited with increasing American interest in California.

Journal of a Voyage Between China and the North-Western Coast of America

Image of first page of Shaler's account. Imaged by Archives.org.

Years later, Shaler went on to serve as a U.S. diplomat in Algiers, Mexico and Cuba.