San Francisco Shangaiers 1886-1890

In 2005 Mystic Seaport Museum received, in database form, information gathered from a rare source, the ledger book of 19th century shipping master James Laflin. A copy of this ledger is accessible through the J. Porter Shaw Library, San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park ; that institution has had the foresight with the services of volunteer Bob Francis to input most of the data in James Laflin’s whaling ledger (dated from 1886-1890) into a database uploaded by Mystic Seaport Museum into It’s website.

By the mid-1880s, the center of whaling activity had shifted from New Bedford to San Francisco. More than two dozen whaling vessels set out each year from San Francisco’s piers, along with numerous schooners in search of seals and otter. Every man who shipped out, save the captain and certain mates, shipped through James Laflin between 1881 and Laflin’s death in 1905. Every man’s name is recorded in Laflin’s pages, and every shanghaier signed that ledger when he or she received their due bill.

One of the biggest discoveries is that retail clothiers on the waterfront received a larger proportion of payments of sailors’ advance wages than did saloon keepers. Sailors’ boardinghouse keepers were paid the largest amount. Not only did almost one third of all advances in 1886-7 go to retail clothiers, those payments went primarily into the hands of two men—Louis Levy and Gussie Stein.

Levy used newspaper “Help Wanted” ads to recruit young men for whalers. In 1890 Walter Noble Burns responded to such an ad for “the adventure of the thing,” but he was not shanghaied. Burns wrote a book, A Year with a Whaler, documenting his experiences. At the end of the voyage, under Captain William T. Shorey, Burns ran from the whaling bark Alexander, and never set foot on a whaler again.

Harry “Horseshoe” Brown leads the list in 1890, receiving 182 of the 1,169 advances, for 16 percent of all advances and $9,310, 13 percent of the total of $71,066.55 paid out by Laflin in 1890. In today’s dollars, Brown got over $180,000. A few short years later he had wasted his money and, despondent over his change in fortunes, he murdered his wife and committed suicide.

James Laflin received the salutation of captain in later life, a term of respect for long-time inhabitants of San Francisco’s waterfront. Captain James Laflin died June 14, 1905, at the age of 73.

– Bill Pickelhaupt