Manjiro in California

Captain William Whitfield and his wife took Manjiro in, treated him like a son, and sent him to school, where he excelled. Then when he was nineteen years old, Manjiro went to sea once again aboard an American whaling ship. For three years, from 1846 to 1849, he sailed the Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific Oceans as the Franklin, commanded by Captain Ira Davis, searched for whales.

At one point in their voyage, as the ship sailed close to Japan, Manjiro spotted a group of Japanese fishing boats. Captain Davis gave his permission for a boat to be lowered, and  eagerly Manjiro approached the fishermen, hoping to be taken home. But fearing the authorities, the fishermen would not even speak to him, let alone take him on board. He returned to his ship.

Captain William Whitfield of New Bedford, Massachusetts, looking every inch the whaling ship captain.

Captain William Whitfield of New Bedford, Massachusetts, looking every inch the whaling ship captain.

Later the whaler docked in Honolulu, where Manjiro’s companions had been left when he went on to New Bedford with Captain Whitfield. One of the men had died, but three were left, working as servants and hoping for the day that they could return to Japan. Manjiro consulted with them about how they might someday make the return voyage.

By the time the Franklin reached New Bedford in September 1849, the entire nation was talking about the discovery of gold in California. Manjiro saw his chance. If he could get to California and strike it rich, he would have the money he needed to return to Japan and his mother.

He signed on board a lumber ship bound for California. Such was the competition for passage to California that Manjiro worked for no wages as part of the crew, and paid $25 besides for the privilege.

Arriving in San Francisco, Manjiro wasted no time in making his way by steamship to Sacramento, and then by foot to the goldfields. He found a job working for $6 a day digging for gold. After a month he bought his own tools and went off to try his luck.

Two months of panning gold in a mountain stream, and Manjiro had what he figured would be enough. Living frugally, he avoided the gambling dens and dance halls and kept a close watch on his pile. He took his gold to San Francisco and traded it for $600 in coin. Then he bought passage on a steamship bound for Honolulu. He was homeward bound.

Next time: What Kind of Welcome Awaits?

P.S. I first discovered the story of Manjiro when I read Rhoda Blumberg’s book for young readers: Shipwrecked: The True Adventures of a Japanese Boy (2001). Two adult books on his experiences are The Life and Times of John Manjiro, by Donald R. Bernard (1992) and The Man Who Discovered America, by Hiskazu Kaneko (1956).

Manjiro’s adventures have also been fictionalized in Heart of a Samurai, a novel for young readers by Margi Preus (2011), and Manjiro: The Boy Who Risked His Life for Two Countries, a picture book biography by Emily Arnold McCully (2013).

About nancyleek

Nancy is a retired librarian who lives in Chico, California. She is the author of John Bidwell: The Adventurous Life of a California Pioneer.
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