Mendocino Redwood Company

The Wreck of the Frolic

Ironically, the story of redwood logging in Mendocino County begins not on land but on sea! It has all the elements of a good modern tale—foreign lands, clashing ambitions, drug deals, even life-and-death struggles.

Ever since her Baltimore launching in 1844, the Frolic had made her reputation and her profits as an opium clipper between China and India. By 1850 she was no longer a proud ship nor a profitable investment. Just a year earlier, she had weathered a typhoon enroute to Shanghai. Only one day out to sea, the crippled Frolic had to be towed to Hong Kong where storm damage and dry rot were repaired. Three months later she sailed to Bombay to pick up one last cargo of opium, returning to China on May 21, 1850. By then it was clear to one of her owners, John Heard, that the Frolic had finally been outrun by time and the new steamships that were plying the opium sea routes.

While the Frolic had lost her competitive edge in the opium market, Heard believed she could still bring a good price in California, where she could make short runs up and down the coast. He was planning to sell her there if everything went well on her last voyage from the China seas. Later, as it happened, Heard would reconsider. The California Gold Rush had created a new consumer frenzy as thousands made their way to the land of gold and dreams. Even as the Frolic's cargo was being assembled in Hong Kong, Heard learned that his profits on an earlier consignment to California via the Eveline was at least 75% on every item and, in some cases, upwards of 200%. Writing to his uncle Augustine, the head of the firm, John Heard said that if all went went well on this California sailing, it might be in their "interest" to keep the Frolic for this "line of business".

On June 10, 1850, the Frolic left Hong Kong bound for San Francisco. This time her cargo consisted of Chinese silks, porcelains, and paintings; silverware; camphor trunks; Edinburgh ale; ivory fans; jewelry; game boards; combs; umbrellas; and other goods for eager California shoppers. At her helm was a 43-year-old captain that had sailed her since her maiden voyage—Edward Horatio Faucon. While still a young man, Faucon had been immortalized as the “good captain” by Richard Dana in his 1840 memoir Two Years before the Mast.

After an uneventful trip of 6 weeks and 6000 miles, Faucon was within 100 miles of San Francisco. It was a seemingly clear moon-drenched night. About 9:30 pm on July 25, the first officer spotted breakers up ahead. Faucon’s first reaction was “It’s impossible.” There wasn't time for a second thought. The Frolic struck a large rock about a half mile north of Point Cabrillo. Her rudder snapped, her hulled cracked, and she began to take on water. Faucon gave the order to lower two lifeboats.

Six crewmen remained on board the Frolic, apparently clinging throughout the night to her rigging. Faucon headed further down the coast with the two boats and the remainder of the crew. By daylight, Faucon and his men had reached a beach about six miles south of the wreckage near the mouth of Big River. Faucon decided to hike inland looking for Indians that might be able to help him and his men. When he found no one, he returned to the beach. Most of the crew decided to take their chances on land. Their decision might have been prompted by the fact that one of the lifeboats had begun to leak.

With two officers, four oarsmen, and a sick Hindi sailor, Faucon guided the sturdier boat south, closely following the coastline. By August 4, he and his crew reached San Francisco. Not unlike today, he was promptly intercepted by a reporter and interviewed.The next day, the local newspaper ran a story about the wreck, including estimates of the lost cargo. In the following spring of 1851, Henry Meiggs. a wealthy, fast-dealing entrepreneur, sent Jerome Ford, the superintendent of his sawmill in Bodega Bay, to look for the Frolic. Meiggs was interested in whether the Frolic's cargo could be salvaged. By the time Ford got to the location of the wreck, there was nothing left. Between Frolic’s survivors and the Pomo Indians, all the debris had been picked from the surf and beach.

A former Vermont woodsman, Ford looked around and spotted something a lot more valuable than salvage—towering redwood trees. Upon his return to San Francisco, Ford told Meiggs about his find. After Meiggs listened to Ford’s reports of giant trees and money to be made, he ordered a "sawmill" from back East and then bought a ship, the Ontario, to sail the ready-made mill up north. With Ford's help, Meiggs established the first sawmill on the northern California coast at the Mendocino Headlands in 1852. Apparently Ford purchased the land from William Kasten, who had already claimed squatter's rights .In some accounts, Kasten, a German immigrant, had been a survivor of the Frolic. Rather than ending up in the California gold fields, he became one of the original settlers of Mendocino.


Image Credit

Illustration of Frolic by S. F. Manning.

Secondary Source

Layton, Thomas N. The Voyage of the Frolic, Stanford University Press, 1997.

Museum Resource

The Mendocino County Museum in Willits, CA has been designated the official depository for Frolic artifacts by the California Legislature.



 Mendocino Redwood Company - Ukiah, California