Smugglers and a Tahitian Princess in Spanish California by Merle Blasjo

During the Spanish period of California, ships from Spain brought much-needed manufactured items and materials to the missions and settlers trying to become established in this pristine territory. The ships received cash and a few products in return. One of the products finding good trading value was sea otter pelts taken in the shores and islands of the coasts from present Baha California to Alaska. These pelts were traded in China, where wealthy residents would pay up to $2500 (equiv. USD today) because of the luxurious fur, having 100,000 hairs per square inch. This unusual density is the otter’s means of temperature control.

HMS Pandora sinking (courtesy Wickipedia)

Spain forbid ships of other nations from trading with its colonies; however, because of the distance from the homeland and other priorities, The visits of trading ships were considered inadequate by the locals. Smuggler trade developed to make up for this shortage. Ships from United States, Britain, and Russia participated in this illicit trade. Also, Spain was heavily engaged with its war with France and an uprising in its colonies and unable to patrol this distant area with its warships.

An American trader whose activities ranged from legitimate trading to poaching and smuggling was George Washington Eayrs from Boston. In 1806, Eayrs sailed his trading vessel, Mercury, to the west coast of North America. Trading began in the Pacific Northwest, where fabric, clothing, tableware, and tools were exchanged for sea otter pelts. Then, anchored at Morro Bay, Eayrs traded in San Luis Obispo. Since this area was a Spanish territory, trading by an American ship clearly violated Spanish law.

Later, Eayrs brought Mercury into Refugio Bay, where the smuggler-friendly Ortega family welcomed him. Here, the mission fathers used Chumash to hunt sea otters, having learned the value of these pelts in trade. According to ship’s records, Eayrs conducted trade with La Purisima, Santa Ines, and Santa Barbara missions, delivering goods and commodities in exchange for cash and sea otter pelts.

Having filled the hold of Mercury with otter pelts, Eayrs sailed to Canton, China, where he traded the pelts for tools, furnishings, fabrics, and other goods needed by the California settlers. On his return, he stopped at Tahiti, where he took a Tahitian teenage girl on board as his companion. Peggy Stewart was an orphan of George Stewart, a mutineer crewman of the HMS Bounty, and the daughter of a Tahitian chieftain. Peggy sailed with Eayrs for six years.

Back on the coast of North America, Eayrs used the goods purchased in China to trade for more otter pelts in the Spanish territories and the Russian territories in the northern part of Alta California and Alaska. In the Russian territories, a United States-Russian contract permitted him to trade legally. Eayrs’ illegal trade with the Spanish colonies continued as he built his supply of pelts. In 1810, he again sailed to Asia, this time visiting China and India conducting successful trades.

He continued his quest for otter pelts in preparation for another trading trip to China. In early 1813, Peggy bore a daughter who would stay with her mother aboard the Mercury. Also, this period followed devastation that the 1812 earthquake lashed on the three Santa Barbara missions. The missions and settlers urgently needed supplies acquired by the Mercury. He sailed into Refugio Cove, where he had access to the three missions.

While there, a crew member spotting a sailing vessel on the horizon determined it to be Spanish. The wind had died, making escape impossible. Soon a boat appeared alongside the Mercury from the Spanish vessel Flora and announced that as the ship was a privateer, they were taking the Mercury as a prize (a legitimate capture because Mercury was assumed to be engaged in smuggling). Eayrs filed protests first in Santa Barbara and later in San Diego, claiming he was not a smuggler but that the pelts and merchandise on board were from trading in the Russian colonies. In San Diego, authorities confiscated the Mercury and removed much of the cargo and ordered Eayrs to report to higher authorities in San Blas in Baja, California. The orders prohibited Peggy and the infant daughter from accompanying him. It was the last that he would see of his companion and child.

Protests and appeals to the authorities continued for years. Finally, in 1842, a judgment was awarded Eayrs for nearly $97,000 for the unlawful confiscation of the ship and cargo. At that time, Mexico had won its independence from Spain, but the Mexican treasury was nearly depleted. Historians consider it unlikely that Eayrs received any of the judgment.

But what of Captain Eayrs’ mate and child? They were left at the presidio in the care of a young Spanish officer, Jose de la Guerra, who later became prominent in Santa Barbara. He arranged for baptism into the Catholic faith for Peggy and her daughter, Maria. Later, he received orders to transfer to Santa Barbara, where he would become commandant of the presidio. His wards integrated into the Santa Barbara Spanish community. Peggy married Jose Secondino Ortega, a member of a prominent family. Jose died at a young age after six children were born. Peggy lived the latter part of her life in Santa Barbara and, at her death, was buried in the Santa Barbara mission. Her daughter Maria moved to San Luis Obispo, where she was married and raised a family whose descendants can be traced to the present time.

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