The Maritime Heritage Project

World Harbors from The Maritime Heritage Project in San Francisco.

Ship Captains in the Port of San Francisco



Captain Edgar Wakeman

1818 to 1875

Edgar Wakeman was born in Green Farms, Fairfield County, Connecticut to the town's champion wrestler, and while his life at sea spanned 40 years, approximately ten years were spent on land as he tested other ventures, including panning for gold and farming.

Captain Wakeman was between 10 and 12 years of age when he left a note for his mother at his home in Connecticut, boarded the sloop Mary and paid 50 cents for passage to New York. He was a story teller from the time he could talk and within a short time of docking, he had a job.

When the opportunity presented itself, he strolled the waterfront at the foot of Wall Street. During one outing in 1834, he saw the ship Peruvian, which was to set sail around the world. He presented himself to the captain, was signed on, and spent most of his life at sea. On that first voyage, the Peruvian put in at Valparaiso and then Callao where no liberty was given. And after a 57-day run, they anchored in Manila and then Batavia where many of the crew died. They sailed to the Island of Java, the Straits of Sunda . . . He lived through a tiger bite, sailed through cyclones . . .   

"First trip at sea to Valparaiso/Callao. Disposed of cargo and sailed for Manila. 57 days at sea. "After a long, hard time in Manila, sailed for Batavia on the Island of Java . . . thru the China Sea, where we saw great sea-snakes like eels, but more dormant, lying on the surface of the water . . . I learned to count in Malay, in receiving coffee . . . "

By the time Wakeman was 20, he was chief mate on one of the Liverpool packets of the Black Ball line. He shipped in the Mediterranean and in the West Indies. In Havana he killed a Cuban who attacked him with a knife.

Wakeman sailed to Denmark, Russia and Norway before being wrecked on the Isle of Guernsey in December 1837. Half of his crew perished, but Wakeman came ashore safely in a sealskin suit, complete with hood. Making his way to New York, he was soon bound out as mate on the brig Forrester for the West Indies.

One voyage to Liverpool on a large ship. Transferred to Black Ball Line. (He was not yet 20 at this time). Several more voyages to Liverpool, then up the Mediterranean.

Back to New York, then to West Indies, Denmark, Russia.

December 1837: English Channel. To Guernsy. "Then brigantine Forrester to the West Indies: Havana, Puerto Rico where we loaded tobacco and sailed for Breman, Germany. Captain Wakeman was somehow involved with a fight on shore and the release of American sailors. The police tried to arrest him, but failed. They left for New York with starch, boxes of dolls, sand for ballast, and a load of Dutch passengers.

Somewhere in here they sailed into Harwich on the East Coast of England where they were the first American's to be seen there. They left for Ipwich, and were found drifting and were rescued by the brig Freighter. Sailed into Castle Garden.

Captain Wakeman then sailed up the Mississippi to Vicksburg where he witnessed duels and smuggled specie along the Tabasco River. He spent two years in the Mexican War carrying dispatches in a "pretty armed schooner for the Commodores Kelly and Perry. I took a prize schooner called the Relampego," which means "lightning."

He traded at many ports, mainly Tabasco. He rescued a prisoner by the name of "Le Pap," and escaped to New Orleans. There he fitted the Relampego for California and left with 50 passengers. Because of additional needed repairs, he was stranded at Key West where he worked at dismantling and repairing ships until he made enough to refit his schooner. For six months he traded in Mexican ports.

Back in New York, he signed onto the New World to take her to California. However, the New World was being impounded for debts owed by its owner and was boarded by the Sheriff. Captain Wakeman literally took over the ship, brought on a crew, convinced the Sheriff that they had to test the engines to remove rust. They sailed away while being chased around the Horn and into Panama. At Panama, he realized the money he could make by bringing on immigrants to San Francisco (at $300-$500 per person). He again escaped authorities and sailed into San Francisco, arriving July 11, 1850.

He spent two years running the New World between San Francisco and Sacramento and touring Northern California's beautiful wildlands.

By 1851, he was back at sea as captain of the S.S. Independence, 800 tons, and sailing for Vanderbilt's Nicaragua Line.

Daily Alta California, July 27, 1851
DINNER TO CAPTAIN WAKEMAN--The friends of Capt. Wakeman, commander of the new opposition steamer Independence, contemplate giving him a public dinner, and intend holding a meeting at the California Exchange this evening, for the purpose of arranging the preliminaries. Captain. W. has been favorably known to the public of San Francisco and Sacramento for a length of time, and borne a very high reputation as a seaman and a citizen. His connection with the recent action of the very large body of our fellow citizens composing the Vigilance Committee, has brought him somewhat into notice and caused him to be condemned by that small portion of the community opposed to their acts. In allusion to this subject, we have received the annexed communication. MESSRS. EDITORS: Permit me to make a suggestion through your columns. It is in reference to Capt. Wakeman, of the steamer Independence. A number of his personal friends are desirous of testifying, previous to his departure, their esteem and regard for him by inviting him to partake of a "parting bite" with them; not that there actually needs any further expression of opinion to increase the estimation in which he is held by those who know him intimately, but simply that it might be gratifying to his feelings to meet them socially before leaving them, after a residence of a year among them. With reference to his position as commander of one of the finest boats in these waters, it may not be out of place to remark that the establishment of an opposition line, may justly be regarded as a precursor of good to California, in that it will lessen the expense, and consequently increase the amount of travel hither. To Capt. Wakeman, therefore, as to one instrumental (however indirectly) in ensuring the success of such an enterprise, I humbly think that a slight testimony of the nature alluded to, would serve to convince him that he has the best wishes and good opinions of many here to stimulate him in his exertions, as well as an evidence o the confidence reposed in him as a man, a thorough, practical seaman, and a frank, open-hearted fellow. It is hardly necessary for me, I trust, to remark that this is a spontaneous suggestion, made without any previous consent, or even knowledge of his, by one who, though a comparative stranger, esteems him as a "diamond in the rough.

FLAG TO CAPTAIN EDGAR WAKEMAN.--Captain Edgar Wakeman was presented with a very splendid signal flag, on board of the Independence, yesterday. The usual formula of presentation was observed, and the affair went off with great eclat. The flag is a very elegant one, with the inscription of the words &Vigilance& and &Eureka,& one above and the other below a large lone star. The device is, of course, significant of the recipient’s recent action in concert with the citizens, and is exceedingly appropriate.

The following remarks were made at the presentation by G.A. Woodworth, Esq., Chairman of the Committee appointed to perform the pleasing task:

Capt. Wakeman: Sir—Your friends and associates, citizens of San Francisco, a multitude of whom you now see here assembled, have seen fit to confer upon me this honor, and make me the happy medium to convey to you their fervent expressions of kindly feeling and brotherly affection. In expressing to you the sincere and honest promptings of every heart now throbbing around you, it becomes likewise my pleasing duty to present to you in their behalf this slight testimonial of their kind regard and their just appreciation of your manly virtues and your modest worth. Accept it then, Sir, in the spirit which has prompted its award. It bears in itself no real intrinsic value, but I know it will possess in your eyes a worth inestimable, coming as it does directly from the hearts of those who love you.

This flag, designed by your friends as your private signal, bears for its leading motto a sentiment deemed peculiarly appropriate for one placed in your position, and a sentiment which should be a guiding motto through life for us all. This, with the motto of our golden State combined in union on the flag, which is now entrusted to your keeping with confidence by your fellow citizens, who know of no one more capable of defending it. The pleasure afforded your friends in thus having an opportunity of expressing to you their feelings of esteem and affection is somewhat alloyed by the existing necessity which obliges us for a time to part with you; but we trust, soon to have the happiness of again welcoming you among us.

Allow me the pleasure also, Sir, to offer you my hearty congratulations on this happy occasion and to express to you the warmest assurances of my individual regards.

Captain Wakeman replied as follows:

Mr. Chairman—The beautiful flag presented by you on behalf of the citizens of San Francisco to myself, for my private signal, calls forth feelings which I cannot find words to express. Suffice it to say, that I feel proud of the honor conferred upon me. I never in my whole life have done an act for the save of reward; it is the purpose of human life to discharge our relative duties without such expectation. Both by sea and land, I have endeavored to play my part conscientiously. I shall ever bear in mind with pleasure this estimation of my character, and trust that in all my acts I may deserve it. As the beacon light to the mariner when nearing land, to guard his frail barque from danger, so may this testimonial prove to me as a beacon when dangers or temptations beset me. It will serve me, if ever permitted to retire from the busy scenes of life, to remember with gratitude the citizens of San Francisco. Although placed in command of the steamer Independence, and consequently obliged to plough the waves of &old Ocean,& still I am with you. I humbly hope, winds proving propitious, and no ill betiding me, to exhibit ere long your gift, MY SIGNAL, at the fore-topmast head of the Independence as she enters the Golden Gate of the Bay of San Francisco. In the meantime, I wish you much peace, happiness, and prosperity. May we oft meet again.

1851: Daily Alta California, October 5, 1851

RESIGNATION OF CAPT. WAKEMAN.--Yesterday a somewhat serious difficulty occurred in connection with the steamer Independence. It seems the agent here proposed to lower the wages of the men, stewards, &c. on board the boat. Much dissatisfaction of course arose among the officers and men on account of this. We are informed that they all refused to sail under diminished pay, and took their chests ashore. Capt. Wakeman deemed the step taken by the agent improper, and ordered his baggage ashore also. This was about nine o'clock yesterday morning. When the passengers on board, about seventy-five in number, learned that Capt. Wakeman had left the vessel, they went on shore also, and demanded their passage money back. After a few hours consideration and argument, it was decided that the rates of wages should remain unaltered, and the whole disaffected party returned to the steamer. This happened about one o'clock, and accounted in part for the steamer not leaving punctually at the hour named.

Daily Alta California, March 9, 1853

THE WAKEMAN TESTIMONIAL--SAILING OF THE NEW ORLEANS.--A very large assemblage of the citizens of San Francisco last evening testified their respect and esteem for Capt. Edgar Wakeman by tendering him an elegant entertainment at the Lafayette Restaurant and presenting him with some costly and appropriate testimonials of their regard on the occasion of his departure in the steamer New Orleans, which sails today for Australia. Capt. Wakeman is favorably known to this community as one of its most enterprising and public spirited citizens, as well as an accomplished navigator, and the best wishes of the community go with him on his voyage. During the evening, Mr. F.A. Woodworth presented the substantial testimonials in the following language:

In behalf of a large number of your fellow citizens of San Francisco, it becomes my pleasing duty to tender for your acceptance these testimonials of their sincere regard and esteem and their just appreciation of your many noble qualities as a man -- your abilities as a skillful and experienced navigator, and your generous devotion to the cause of public safety as a citizen.

In the time of common danger you were among the first to content for, and manually support the great moral principle, that "self preservation is the first law of nature," and though none regretted more sincerely than yourself the painful necessity of appealing to this "higher law," none were more faithful and fearless in the discharge of the repugnant but imperative duties attending it. The moral good which has resulted therefrom is too apparent to us all to need any further comment, and allow me to assure you, sir, that your fellow citizens of San Francisco duly appreciate the value of the services you have performed and the purity of motive which governed our in the performance.

You are now about to embark on a long, and perhaps perilous voyage, and many months must elapse before we can again welcome you in our midst, but while tossed in your frail bard upon the bosom of the deep, the prayers of many grateful hearts -- of wives, mothers and children, will be offered up for your safety and protection. We part with you with feelings of deep and sincere regret, but with the liveliest feelings of pleasure we commend you to the kind offices and regards of all good men wherever you may go.
Accept then these few mementos from your friends in San Francisco, and allow me at the same time to express to you my warmest feelings of personal regard. Wishing you a safe, prosperous voyage, I trust we shall soon have the pleasure of welcoming your return.

Capt. Wakeman replied:

Allow me to return to you, sir, and to the gentlemen in whose behalf you have addressed me, my sincere and heartfelt thanks for the overwhelming honors you have seen fit to confer upon me. My feelings, sir, are too big for utterance, and I am fearful that my lips cannot give expression to the promptings of my heart. When I look around upon this numerous assemblage, and see the character and standing of the gentlemen composing it, and when I look at the rich and costly presents which have just been tendered me, it seems to me, sir, that I must be in a dream, for it is difficult for me to believe that any conduct on my part should have merited such reward as this. I have been nearly all my life, sir, a sailor, and have ploughed the ocean in every quarter of the globe, since I was thirteen years of age. I have had but little opportunity for the cultivation of refinement, but God has placed within my breast all the feelings of a I>man and I am sure you will believe me, sir, when I tell you that those feelings are beyond the power of words to express to you.

I can only thank you, gentlemen, with my whole heart and soul, for this unexpected, and I am fearful, undeserved manifestation of your kindness. I shall treasure these valuable tokens most sacredly to the last moment of my existence, and shall hand them down to my children and my children's children as household gods. And now, gentlemen, in taking leave of you, permit me again to thank you, and to assure you that I shall ever look back to the present moment as the proudest and happiest of my life.

1854: Married and his wife joined him at sea aboard the Surprise and the Sea Bird to the Sandwich Islands, then back to San Francisco where he sailed the Pacific between the City and Nicaragua. In the North Pacific aboard the 1800 ton Adelaide, in which he had a part interest, his daughter Adelaide Seaborn Wakeman was born. She died before a year was out. The next voyage was from San Francisco to Peru to load guano, then through to New York. This voyage was done in 38 days and the Adelaide was again loaded for San Francisco. His daughter, Minnie, was born at sea and stayed with them for three voyages around Cape Horn and it was Minnie that ultimately edited his Log.

1856: Wakeman joined the Vigilance Committee (this was the second Committee, the first having been established in 1851). He joined as a marshal, taking part in the arrest and execution of the Vigilantes' first victim, John Jenkins. Wakeman was quickly appointed to the command of the Water Police and his tight control of the harbor earned him the title of "Emperor of the Port."

Captain Wakeman obtained copies of passengers lists of arriving vessels and detained and examined their personnel until he was satisfied as to their good character. His Water Police patrolled the Embarcadero, keeping a watchful eye on sailors, ships, storeships and warehouses, and he had a small fleet of boats on the Bay, from skiffs and Whitehall boats to the Revenue Cutter Polk, which was more or less placed at his orders. The Water Police were particularly on the lookout for thieves who were accustomed to slip under the stores built on pilings over San Francisco water lots. They would enter such places of business via trap doors or simply by prying up the floorboards. Men like Charles Minturn, who ran the Senator on the Sacramento River, kept a lot of money in their offices. Sometimes the gold was held in rather flimsy strongboxes, but often was kept from waterfront pirates by no more than a locked door and the thickness of the floor. Watchdogs were neither plentiful nor cheap in 1851, so the Water Police were very necessary to dockside merchants.

When the murderers and thieves of Sydney Town, as the Barbara Coast was then called, had all fled from the city, been transported, or gone underground, the Water Police disbanded and Wakeman resumed his command on the steamer New World on the Sacramento River run. He stuck to his job for only one year, then sought new fields to conquer.

1866: He was a multi-faceted captain and a contemporary of Mark Twain, who sailed from San Francisco in the Opposition Line steamer America, with Captain Wakeman on December 15, 1866. Twain wrote of the Captain:

"I will do him the credit to say that he knows how to tell his stirring forecastle yarns . . . with his strong, cheery voice, animated countenance, quaint phraseology, defiance of grammar, and extraordinary vim in the matter of emphasis and gesture . . . He is a burly, hairy, sunburned, stormy-voiced old salt . . . and is tattooed from head to foot like a Feejee islander . . .

Twain dubbed him Captain "Ned Blakely," in Roughing It, who with his own hands hanged Bill Noakes, after reading him promiscuous chapters from the Bible. Captain "Stormfield," who had the marvelous visit to heaven, was likewise Captain Wakeman; and he appears in the "Idle Excursion" and elsewhere.

The Captain's tattoos included Liberty holding an American flag, a ship under full sail, names of his wife and children on his arms, a figure of Christ on the Cross, and more.

He was also a gentle soul who wrote verse for his family:

Oh, darling, if you only knew
How very sad your papa grew
When all alone on deck he sighs
Through midnight hours with tearful eyes
At eve I'm sure you'd ne'er forget
The one afar, whose eyes are met
With weeping for his child at home
So far across the ocean foam

Yet well I know it still must be
While I'm compelled to sail the sea;
Through weary years I'm doomed to part
From Minnie with an aching heart;
And ev'ry voyage I still must grieve
When my poor Frankie said I leave
While Eddie asks, with eyes so black,
"When shall I look for papa back?

The mother, like an angel, seeks
A parting kiss, but never speaks
As closer to her loving breast
Her infant angel's fondly pressed
Upon its pillow snowy white
It draws its food with all its might
Then falls into a heavenly sleep
And dreams of one upon the deep
O God, protect this little flock,
Bring back their papa safe to dock

And when in time their days be run
Conduct them, with the setting sun
To that dim land where we may be
United through eternity
And till we wake to that blessed time
Dear God protect both me and mine.

1862: He helped break up the ship Sea Nymph which had wrecked off Pt. Reyes, just North of the San Francisco heads. The next five years were spent sailing between San Francisco and Mexico as Captain of the John L. Stephens. The Stephens was captured by Capt Dana off Cape St. Lucas and with clear mind, Captain Wakeman regained control of his ship.

Back to California then to New York to take command of the America.

In 1863, Edgar L. Wakeman was born to Captain Wakeman and Mary Lincoln. When Edgar L. Wakeman came of age, he began wandering the world, but not as a sea captain, rather as a writer. He was published extensively throughout the United States.

November 17, 1869: "Watched the sinking of the sidewheel steamer D.C. Haskins which had been built for Commander Vanderbilt." The Haskins was hit by a hurricane in the Gulf Stream.

Fall 1870: From page 294 of Captain Wakeman's log: "In the Fall of 1870, I gave up farming (in Northern California) and, returning to the Bay, I soon after occupied myself in fitting for sea the steamers of W.W. Webb's new line upon the Australian route. After sending off the Nevada and Nebraska, Captains (James H.) Blethen and Hardy I went down in the Moses Taylor, Captain Bennett to act as superintendent of the line at Honolulu and to arrange for coaling stations, etc., upon the islands."

When the Nebraska returned from Australia and the Moses Taylor from San Francisco, my duties again called to to the dock.

Back on the West Coast

In September 1861, Captain Wakeman brought the steamer Panama from Crescent City, Eureka and Trinidad into San Francisco. His passengers: Hon G. M. Hanson, Hon A. A. Sargent, Hon. A. Wiley, lieut. P. S. Johnson, C. V., W. Turney, H. H. Hopkins, A. C. Hopkins, Cyrus Willard, Mrs. C. A. Powers, T. S. Campbell, J. A. Lord (Wells Fargo & Co’s Messenger), and 27 others (not noted in newspaper clippings).

On December 1862, he brought the SS Oregon from Mazatlan and ports on the Gulf of California into San Francisco. Memoranda: Sailed from San Francisco, Nov. 15th at 4 o'clock P.M.; arrived at Mazatlan Nov. 26, 2:20 A.M.; discharged freight and passengers and sailed Nov. 26th for Guaymas and La Paz; left Mazatlan Dec. 8th for San Francisco. Left in port, at Mazatlan, H.B.M.S. ship Tribune, and Danish ship Mazatlan, discharging. In Guaymas, American barque Fanny Major.

Consignees: Barron & Co, $36,000; Rodgers, Meyer & Co. $13,000; Thomas Bell, $2,316.75; T. Lemmen Meyer, $8,000; Zeil, Berthau & Co., $2,150; J. E. Rene, $1,000; H. Hansmann, $1,000; Adelsdorfer Bros, $3,000; S & S M Holderness, $1,500; Order, $1,787; Stephen Card, $4,000. Total $73,753.75. 126 pkgs merchandise to order.

Passengers: Dr. J. P. Thomas, Francisco Cortez, J. F. Schleiden, Dwight Frarg, Mrs. Richardson and 4 children, J. D. Bostwick, Mrs. General Langberg, B. Price, wife and servant, F. Holderness, Fortunato Ariola and son, Mrs. J. Ybarra, E. Moore, Dr. Dinelage, wife and child, A. A. Vantine, Charles Souza, F. Cocis, L. Irelan, F. G. Cadiergo, W. H. Hilton, Broome Smith, F. C. Walker, P. T. Torrence, B. S. Dudley, F. Davids, G. S. Steward, H. Drinkman, F. Walkter, W. H. Cleveland, Adam Maurer, F. Gonzales, Mrs. Wm. Smith, Mrs. R. Branman, Mrs. J. Crown, Francis Crown, A. L. Enfert, D. W. Jones, J. S. Harper, L. Sloclan.

August 8: At 9:30 dropped into a quarter boat with one man off the harbor of Pago Pago, Island of Tutuila, without a deviation, or detention of five minutes on the steamer Nevada.

June 29, 1872: Took command of Mohongo and arrived in Honolulu. Captain Wakeman here had a seriously debilitating illness from where he never completely recovered.

March 1873: Left on Mohongo for New Zealand and returned in May.

October 1: Sailed on the Montana with a crew of "Mongolians."

November 15, 1873: Left San Francisco on Newbern, Captain Metzger, for Cape St. Lucas and on November 28, we sailed up the Colorado River on the Colorado for Yuma, Arizona.

January 10: Sailed on the Newbern from Arizona to La Paz and in was pearl fishing along the coast, bringing in $200,000 worth of pearls and shells.

March 21, 1874: "Grenada," under Captain Seabury to Panama.

1875: The Captain was ill and retired by this time.

Editor's Note: During the late 1800s and early 1900s, one Captain Wakeman was travelling the world writing for newspapers, including a trip to Malta where he published for the Syracuse Standard which was published Sunday, March 6, 1892.

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"Master Under God"

Captains exercised absolute authority at sea and so were dubbed "Master Under God" by early insurance writs, agreements with ship owners and passengers and the Board of Trade.

The captain is responsible for its safe and efficient operation, including cargo operations, navigation, crew management and ensuring that the vessel complies with local and international laws, as well as company and flag state policies.

All persons on board, including officers and crew, other shipboard staff members, passengers, guests and pilots, are under the captain's authority and are his ultimate responsibility.

On international voyages, the captain is responsible for satisfying requirements of the local immigration and customs officials. Immigration issues can include situations such as embarking and disembarking passengers, handling crew members who desert the ship, making crew-changes in port, and making accommodations for foreign crew members.

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