Sea Captains: San Francisco 1800s


Captain George M. Totten

Died: August 1, 1857 at Mendham, New Jersey

(Note: During the 1850s, Col. George Muirson Totten was chief engineer of The Panama Canal Railway Company. 

This is a different George M. Totten that Captain Totten mentioned herein.)

From March 1851 through January 1853, George M. Totten was captain of Pacific Mail Co., S.S. Tennessee bringing passengers, mail and gold to/from Panama and San Francisco.

July 24, 1851, Sacramento Daily Union, Sacramento, California

The steamship Tennessee, Lieut. Totten, Commander, will be dispatched to-morrow morning, for the scene of the wreck of the steamer Union. She is to run in at Acapulco and San Diego, to land those who wish to stop at these places, and then proceed and bring the balance of the passengers to San Francisco. The act of Captain Knight, in placing at the disposal of Messrs. Haven & Co. a steamer for the relief of the unfortunates, is highly commended by all parties.

March 16, 1852, Daily Alta California, San Francisco, California

The Loss of the North America.
P.M.S.S. Tennessee, San Francisco Bar
Monday, March 14, 1852

Editors of the Alta California

Gentlemen . I enclose you for publication, if you think fit, an extract from my report to the Company's agent, forwarded in advance of the report itself principally with a view to stay public opinion until Capt. Blethen is heard, regarding the lots of the North America. I do not know the gentleman, but he had heretofore stood very high in reputation as an officer and a careful navigator. I am, in haste, with great respect, Your obedient servant, Geo. M. Totten, U. S. N., Commander of Tennessee.

Click to view additional extracts from Report of Capt. Totten and other sources to the Agent of P. M. S. S. Co., at San Francisco.

In the mid-1800's when commercial fishing and the lumber businesses were in their infancy, the native oyster industry began. Washington Territorial politicians were so impressed with this mollusk they dubbed it the "Olympia Oyster" in the legislature of 1889. Not wanting to leave the source of this tasty morsel, they elected to maintain Olympia as the capitol city of Washington. These tiny oysters were such a delicacy during the Gold Rush days, it took only a short time to overharvest and deplete the beds within San Francisco Bay.

Note: According to one source, Lieutenant Charles Wilkes during the Wilkes Expedition of 1838-1842, named this inlet to honor George M. Totten, one of the expedition's midshipmen. Note: That in Sea of Glory: America's Voyage of Discovery, The U.S. Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842, Nathaniel Philbrick's National Book Award Winner, Joseph Totten was on board, not George M. Totten.

Meeting on Board the Tennessee.

At a meeting of the passengers, held on board P.M.S.S. Co s steamer Tennessee, on the 19th January, 1853, at 10 o clock, A.M., William T. Coleman, Esq., was called to the chair, and Messrs. C. A. McNulty, Benj. A. Brown, Albert Berry, and P. W. Sherman, were appointed vice presidents; Messrs. T. R. Anthony, and J. A. Thompson, were appointed secretaries.

On a motion, the President appointed Messrs. Wm. R. McCally, H. Hazeltine, W. H. Hoy, James C. Stebbins, and John Dows, a committee, to draft resolutions expressive of the sense of this meeting.

The following resolutions were reported by said committee and unanimously adopted:

Resolved, That we feel with more than ordinary force the sense of duty and justice in expressing our high approval of meed of praise to the officers and crew of the ship, for their kindness and courtesy, and for the untiring diligence, in the performance of their whole duty during our late trying scenes on the passage from Panama to San Francisco.

Resolved, That of Capt. Geo. M. Totten, whose police is unsurpassed, and whose ship is a very pattern of cleanliness and order, and whose urbanity and regard, was equal to all. The travelling public cannot have to high an appreciation, and his passengers most heartily approve and commend.

Resolved, That of the Purser Theo. L. Schell, whose gentlemanly deportment won favor from all, and whose correctness in every move and obliging attractions, went so far to make us comfortable.

Resolved, That of the unstopping, untiring and efficient 1st officer, Mr. Peter H. Dowlie, who sacrificed his quarters and his comforts for the relief of the sick, we feel we cannot speak too highly. But it is of Dr. McNaughton, the Surgeon of whom we would most particularly make mention. We have never witnessed deeper devotion to duty, greater alacrity in attending to the calls of the sick, or more unceasing exertions to relieve their distresses. For several days he saw no sleep, and was ever found at the side and administering to the wants of the afflicted; personal pr?ration was the consequence, and he was alike temporarily a fellow sufferer; but his nerves again brought him to his feet, and he has throughout unflinchingly stood at his post.

For such men we feel we cannot say enough; they may meet with embarrassments and the virulence of disease may sometimes baffle them, but their energy and assiduity will eventually bear them out in triumph.

Resolved, That these proceedings be published in the San Francisco, Sacramento, Stockton and Marysville papers, and that the officers of the meeting present a copy of the same to the officers of the ship.

Signed, Wm. T. Coleman, President

September 1, 1857, Sacramento Daily Union, Sacramento, California

Lieutenant Geo. M. Totten, of the United States Navy, died at Mendham, N. J., on Saturday August, Ist. Lieut. Totten had been in the Navy for a period of about thirty years, during which time, up to the commencement of his last illness, he was actively employed.

He served with Wilkes in the United States Exploring Expedition, and commanded the U. S. wooden-hulled, sidewheel gunboat Water Witch during the Mexican war. In both these positions he acquitted himself to the entire satisfaction of his respective commanders.

He afterwards obtained a furlough, and was for some time in command of the Pacific Mail Steamship Company's steamer Tennessee, running between Panama and San Francisco. While thus employed he won the good opinion of both the Company and the traveling public. He was compelled to leave the Company's service in consequence of ill health, and at the time of his death had just returned from Pennsacola, where he had been serving as First Lieutenant of the Navy Yard at that place.

Lieut. Totten was the son of Gen. Totten of the United States Engineers, and he leaves a wife (daughter of the late Col. Gamble, of the Marines,) and two children to mourn his loss; numbers of warn and attached friends unite with them in their sorrow.

Before the Wind, Charles Tyng.Sea Captains. Before the Wind: The Memoir of an American Sea Captain, 1808-1833An American Sea Captain.
Charles Tyng
Tyng (1801-1879), who rose from cabin boy to captain and prosperous merchant, wrote this account of his early sailing days in later life. In 1996, this memoir was found by his great-great-granddaughter, Susan Fels, who edited the 419-page handwritten manuscript. An unruly boy sent to live in various homes by his rather forbidding father, Tyng first shipped on a merchant vessel at the age of 13. He hated it. But he loved his second voyage and soon became one of the youngest captains in the American merchant fleet. As Tyng tells of voyages around the world carrying cargoes of bullion, tea, linseed oil, molasses and other items to Holland, China, Cuba and other destinations, he writes with understatement, modesty and a deadpan humor that might or might not be intentional.

Tales of the Seven Seas:
The Escapades of Captain Dynamite Johnny O'Brien
Tales of the Seven Seas.
Tales of the Seven Seas, Dennis Powers.Tales of the Seven Seas. Dennis M. Powers
Captain Dynamite Johnny O'Brien sailed the seven seas for over sixty years, starting in the late 1860s in India and ending in 1930 on the U.S. West Coast. He sailed every type of ship imaginable, but this book is more than the story of Captain O'Brien's incredible feats. Tales of the Seven Seas is about sailing where danger and adventure coexists on a daily basis. Smell the salt in the air and hear the ocean's rush as a ship plows its way through heavy seas with hardened men, leaking seams, and shrieking winds. These true stories are about tough times and courageous men in distant places, from the Hawaiian Islands to the Bering Sea, from the waning days of sail to the age of steamships.

Life of a Georgetown Sea Captain, Slocum.Georgetown Sea Captain.The Life and Times of Georgetown Sea Captain Abram Jones Slocum, 1861-1914Abram Jones Slocum.
Robert McAlister
Born at sea on his father's whaling ship in 1861, Captain Slocum learned the seafaring life in New Bedford, Massachusetts as part of the last generation of iron men aboard commercial wooden sailing ships in the Atlantic. His voyages often took him around Cape Hatteras to Georgetown, South Carolina, to load lumber bound for northern cities. He sailed in all seasons, through storms and hurricanes, for twenty years as captain of two schooners, the Warren B. Potter and the City of Georgetown. He was respected in Georgetown, where he wooed his wife. His ship sank in a collision with an ocean liner in 1913, but he survived, only to be lost at sea a year later as captain of another schooner.

The Sea Chart: The Illustrated History of Nautical Maps and Navigational ChartsThe Sea Chart.The Sea Chart.The Sea Chart.
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. John Blake looks at the 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. This handsome work contains 150 color illustrations including the earliest charts of the Mediterranean made by thirteenth-century Italian merchant adventurers, as well as eighteenth-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.

The Rebel Raiders
The Astonishing History of the Confederacy's Secret NavyThe Confederacy's Secret Navy. The Rebel Raiders.
James T. deKay
During its construction in Liverpool, the ship was known as Number 290. When it was finally unleashed as the CSS Alabama, the Confederate gunship triggered the last great military campaign of the Civil War; yet another infamous example of British political treachery; and the largest retribution settlement ever negotiated by an international tribunal: $15,500,000 in gold paid by Britain to the United States. This riveting true story of the Anglo-Confederate alliance that led to the creation of a Southern navy illuminates the dramatic and crucial global impact of the American Civil War. Like most things in the War between the States, it started over cotton: Lincoln's naval blockade prevented the South from exporting their prize commodity to England. In response, the Confederacy came up with a plan to divert the North's vessels and open the waterways, a plan that would mean covertly building a navy in Britain with a cast of clandestine characters.

History of Seafaring.The History of Seafaring: Navigating the World's Oceans Navigating the World's Oceans.History of Seafaring.
Donald Johnson and Juha Nurminen
Royal prestige, intellectual curiosity, and territorial expansion all propelled mankind to undertake perilous voyages across unpredictable oceans. This large and lavishly illustrated volume brings that history to life. From the early Phoenician navigation techniques to the technologies behind today's mega-ships, the greatest advances in shipbuilding are covered, accompanied by hundreds of images, with an in-depth look at navigational instruments (including those used by the Vikings).

Three Centuries of Seafaring: The Maritime Art of Paul HeeThree Centuries of Seafaring: The Maritime Art of Paul Hee.
Rick Carroll, Marcie Carroll (Author, Editors) Three Centuries of Seafaring: The Maritime Art of Paul Hee.
Great moments in seafaring history as depicted by internationally known maritime artist Paul Hee are collected in a handsome new art book, Three Centuries of Seafaring: The Maritime Art of Paul Hee. Old salts and armchair sailors alike--anyone who loves the sea and ships--will delight in this glossy art book, which features more than 150 color images of Mr. Hee's artful works in signature painstaking detail. Scenes range from battles at sea and famous shipwrecks to yacht races and peaceful harbors. Hee, master of past masters, documents not only moments in maritime history but also the artistic styles of three centuries of painters whose work depicts American and British ships of their day, from topsail schooners to the White Squadron.

A significant portion of book sales benefit the North Carolina Maritime Museum. The book is available in two formats: hardbound with glossy dust jacket ($49.95); and a signed, numbered slip-cased hardcover keepsake, commemorating the 300th anniversary of the 1709 founding of Beaufort, NC, ($79.95), home of Mr. Hee and of the museum.

Maritime art of Paul Hee. A self-taught artist and active octogenarian, Mr. Hee grew up by the sea on Long Island and spent World War II in the US Navy before becoming a Miami-based cruise ship executive.

He raced Ferraris and restored a historic ship, then retired to Beaufort to paint in the luminescent styles of past masters and to build classic model ships.

(Image: Bald Eagle, 1852, by Paul Hee.)

The Project

Maritime Nations, Sea Captains, Ships, Merchants, Merchandise, 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; Maritime Library, San Francisco, California.

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