2003: Captain Edgar (Ned) Wakeman and the Coho Salmon of the Central California Coast

by Cate Moore on March 9, 2013

By Fabian Alvarado


Captain Ned Wakeman, c. 1851, oil on canvas by William Smith Jewett. The Oakland Museum of California, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Howard Willoughby and Mr. and Mrs. Edgar Buttner (Richard, 1998) .

On September 11, 2002 the Central Coast Forest Association filed a petition with the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to correct the southern boundary of the Central California coho salmon evolutionary significant unit (ESU) on the basis that there is “no evidence or history of native coho salmon” (CCFA, 2002). Shortly thereafter, Frediani (2003), a political activist with the Sierra Club[1], circulated a cheeky critique of the petition based on cursory research and personal communications. Specifically, Frediani professes that coho salmon actually are native to Santa Cruz County coastal streams. In defense of her position she cites a survey by Captain Edgar Wakeman while casting doubt on accounts made by scientists at about the same time. However, a closer look at Captain Wakeman raises serious questions about the validity of his report, and reveals the ridiculous leap of faith necessary to embrace it in favor of explicit investigations by the world’s leading ichthyologists of the time.

In seeking to determine the historical presence or absence of coho salmon south of San Francisco, we are fortunate that several very competent scientists, including Dr. David Starr Jordan (then president of Stanford University), surveyed the area in the 1880s. They repeatedly found no coho salmon south of San Francisco. Numerous publications by Jordan and his assistant, Gilbert, clearly and explicitly attest to the absence of coho salmon south of San Francisco:

“.writers of all degrees of incompetence, and writers with scanty material or with no material at all, have done their worst to confuse our knowledge of these salmon, until it became evident that no exact knowledge of any of the species remained. . only the King salmon [Oncorhynchus tschawytscha] has been noticed south of San Francisco [emphasis added]” (Jordan, 1892) .

“The writer and his associate, Prof. Charles H. Gilbert, have had, under the auspices of the United States Fish Commission, better opportunities to study the different species of Oncorhynchus than had fallen to the lot of any previous ichthyologists. This species [coho salmon, Oncorhynchus kisutch] is not common south of the Columbia, but it is sometimes taken in California [emphasis added]” (Redding, et al., 1894) .

” Only the quinnat [Oncorhynchus tschawytscha] and the dog salmon [ Oncorhynchus keta ] have been noticed south of San Francisco [emphasis added]” (Van Arsdale and Gerber, 1904;Jordan, 1907a) .

Still, some political activists[1] have sought to obscure the record by choosing to only concentrate on the defective reports of Captain Edgar Wakeman. Even some respected fisheries biologists (Gobalet, 2004; Skinner, 1962) have surprisingly chosen to rely upon Captain Wakeman and ignore the scientific record.

Captain Wakeman was born in Westport, Connecticut in 1812. By age twelve he had left school and was working as an errand boy in a store near the docks in New York City. Two years later he began his life at sea, aboard the Peruvian. Over the years he worked his way through the ranks while having a great many adventures all over the world. By the time he reached San Francisco on July 11, 1850, he was a competent and well known ship captain (Wakeman, et al., 1878).

As the gold rush gained momentum, the city of San Francisco soon found that it could not cope with the effects of an exploding population. Crime had reached unprecedented levels and great dissatisfaction was felt with the capacity of the authorities to maintain justice. In May and June of 1851, two fires, believed by some to be the result of arson, spread through the city and killed over one hundred people. When the suspects were found innocent in a court of law, William Tell Coleman, a prominent businessmen, and Samuel Brannan, California’s first millionaire and owner of San Francisco’s first newspaper, decided to take the law into their own hands. On June 10, 1851 they formed the Committee of Vigilance of San Francisco “to watch, pursue, and bring to justice the outlaws infesting the city, through the regularly constituted courts, if possible, through more summary process, if necessary” (Coleman, 1891). Captain Wakeman joined the committee that same night and served as hangman at the committee’s first two illegal executions (Wakeman and Wakeman-Curtis, 1878). Although the true motives of the committee are still hotly debated among historians, the methods of the committee included murder, piracy, grand theft, kidnapping, sedition, and no due process of law. Eventually, after several attempts by the Governor to quell the vigilante committee’s insurrection, the committee voluntarily disbanded (Kuntz, 2002).



Captain Edgar Wakeman, in 1851, presiding as hangman at the illegal executions of John Jenkins (top) and James Stuart (bottom) (Coleman, 1891) .

Wakeman’s involvement with the vigilante committee boosted his popularity among San Francisco’s elite merchant class. On March 8, 1853 the wealthiest businessmen in San Francisco honored Wakeman with a lavish banquet. He was awarded gold and diamonds and was showered in compliments and praise (Wakeman and Wakeman-Curtis, 1878).

By the 1860s Captain Wakeman had attained a considerable degree of fame around the world. Mark Twain, who sailed with Wakeman on December 15, 1866, 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 . . .” (Levy, 2003) .

Two years later, in Panama, Mark Twain described an encounter he had with Wakeman:

“While I was standing in the bar of the Grand Hotel talking with a citizen about Admiral Shubry . , I heard a familiar voice holding forth in this wise:

‘Monkeys! don’t tell me nothing about monkeys, sir! I know all about ’em! Didn’t I take the Mary Ann through the Monkey Islands? — snakes as big as a ship’s mainmast, sir! — and monkeys! — God bless my soul, sir, just at daylight she fetched up at a dead stand-still, sir! — what do you suppose it was, sir? It was monkeys! Millions of ’em, sir! — banked up as high as the cat-heads, sir! — trying to swim across the channel, sir, and crammed it full! I took my glass to see thirteen mile of monkeys, two mile wide and sixty fathom deep, sir! — counted, ninety-seven million of ’em, and the mate set ’em down, sir — kept tally till his pencils was all used up and his arm was paralyzed, sir! Don’t tell me nothing about monkeys, sir — because I’ve been there — I know all about ’em, sir!’

It is hardly possible, but still there may be people who are so ignorant as not to know that this voice belonged to Captain Ned Wakeman, of the steamship America” (Schmidt, 1997) .

[Perhaps Frediani should travel to Trinidad and convince the authorities there to restore this population of ninety-seven million monkeys?]

In 1870 the California Board of Commissioners of Fisheries was created by an act of the state legislature, entitled “An act to provide for the restoration and preservation of fish in the waters of the state” (Redding, et al., 1872). Three Commissioners were appointed to serve without pay during 4-year terms. Their duties were to establish hatcheries to stock and supply streams, lakes, and bays with both foreign and domestic fish, to purchase and import spawn and ova, to employ fish culturists and other needed help, to construct fish ladders, and to distribute spawn and ova to fish breeders. Although the new law also contained provisions for the conservation of fish (Leitritz, 1970), during the first few years of its existence, the California Fish Commission concentrated on introducing about thirty new varieties of fish into the waters of the state (Shebley, et al., 1911). Later, the Commission focused its efforts on the most economically important fish at the time, Chinook salmon, while paying little attention to other species of salmon. In the first fifteen years of the Commission, the state hatched and planted just over 3 million trout, shad and whitefish, while distributing more than 70 million Chinook salmon, which they received from the federal hatchery on the McCloud River (Shebley, 1922).

In an attempt to gain an understanding of the extent of the fisheries of the San Francisco Bay as well as some of the neighboring coastal streams, the California Fish Commission employed Captain E. Wakeman in 1870 to examine and report on their condition (Redding, et al., 1872). Although he was a competent ship captain, farmer, and gold panner, Captain Wakeman was unqualified for such a task and it is unclear why the Commission chose him. As the commissioners were located in San Francisco, it is more than likely that the appointment was given gratuitously as a result of Wakeman’s involvement with the vigilante committee, which was widely supported by San Francisco’s aristocracy.

As a result of employing Captain Wakeman, the California Commission obtained what seems to be a highly inaccurate and unreliable report of coho salmon in San Gregorio Creek and Pescadero Creek. In addition to his tendency to contradict himself, it is not known how much of his survey was based on secondhand accounts. For instance, Wakeman describes Purisima Creek as a “fine clear water trout stream” and in the same breath gives accounts of the same stream as “wholly unfit for use, [the polluted water] not only kills the fish, but is dangerous to the cattle” (Redding, et al., 1872). According to Skinner (1962) with the Department of Fish and Game, “The inference from his description is that the streams had once been very productive of silver salmon and steelhead trout but at the time of his survey were greatly degraded” (Skinner, 1962). Thus, his accounts that “From October to March, a wagonload of these beautiful fish, weighing from two to thirty pounds, are taken daily” from Pescadero Creek are probably nothing more than secondhand fish stories. Furthermore, it should be noted that a typical farm wagon of the time was capable of hauling well over 1000 pounds of fish. If Wakeman’s accounts were accurate, one spawning season would yield 150,000 pounds of fish. With an average weight of 10 pounds per fish, this stream would have had to support a run of at least 15,000 fish, a ludicrous figure. As a matter of comparison, yearly fish trap counts of steelhead at the Mad River Fish Hatchery have averaged just over 3,000 fish, while coho salmon counts at the Trinity River Fish Hatchery have averaged fewer than 4000 fish (Staff, 2003).

Wakeman’s tendency towards exaggeration is further evidenced by his statement that these “beautiful fish” were sold locally at seventy-five cents per pound (Redding, et al., 1872). Taking inflation into consideration, $0.75 for a pound of salmon in 1870 would be the equivalent of $14.98 in 2003 (Halfhill, 2003). During the 2003 salmon season, wild salmon were selling in Santa Cruz for $3 to $7 per pound (Staff of Life, 2003). The absurdity of Wakeman’s claim is further illustrated by the following excerpt taken from the California Fish Commission’s eighteenth biennial report published thirty-four years after Wakeman’s survey:

“During the months of April, May and June, the fishermen on the Sacramento River received as high as 7 cents per pound for their [salmon] catch. .during the spring and summer of 1903, fresh salmon by the carload were shipped from Sacramento City direct to New York City, also to Boston, Chicago, and other Eastern cities, where the Sacramento River salmon has established a market value of its own selling from 30 to 40 cents per pound” (Van Arsdale, et al., 1904) .

Wakeman’s most obvious mistake is his assertion that the silver salmon frequenting San Gregorio Creek and Pescadero Creek return to sea after spawning (Redding, et al., 1872). Needless to say, that coho die shortly after spawning is an undisputed fact.

Above and beyond everything else, Captain Wakeman and his sources were probably guilty of misidentification. Certainly it had not been and would not be the first time silver salmon were confused with Chinook salmon or steelhead trout. According to Ramon E. Wilson, one of the California state fish commissioners of the 1890s,

“A very interesting question is that relative to how many different varieties of trout inhabit these waters [California coastal streams]. Anglers are not at all decided on the point. Many contend there are several, such as rainbow, salmon, and brook trout; others that there are only two, and swear constantly by salmon and brook, while still others insist that there is only one variety, and that it is a direct descendent of the large salmon trout [steelhead] which ascend the streams in March or April to spawn. A submission of the matter to ichthyologists has generally confirmed the latter judgment” (Wilson, 1891) .

As Dr. Livingston Stone, founder and superintendent of the United States Baird Hatchery on the McCloud River, aptly pointed out, “A good deal of confusion and misapprehension is caused also by the same name being applied in different places to fishes of widely different quality” (Throckmorton, et al., 1875). Dr. Carl H. Eigenmann, in a survey of the food fishes in California, stated, “unfortunately there is a confusion of names due to localities and variation in the species of this family [Salmonidae] which is frequently misleading” (Eigenmann, 1890). Of the silver salmon, which he correctly identified as Oncorhynchus kisutch, he asserted, “.many are doubtless confounded with the young of the Quinnat [Chinook].” (Eigenmann, 1890). Similarly, ichthyologists Jordan and Gilbert (Jordan, et al., 1876) confirmed, “as a food fish [ O. kisutch ] ranks with the young of O. chouicha [chinook salmon], which it much resembles”. Evidently coho salmon were difficult to identify for people far more qualified to do so than Captain Wakeman or the fishermen he spoke with.

Ultimately, there is no logical reason (unless it conforms to a predetermined political agenda) to blindly accept the unprofessional report of a self-contradictory, fish savvy sailor with a reputation for telling tales – especially when it conflicts with the unequivocal reports of the world’s leading ichthyologists of the same era.

– Fabian Alvarado

[1] Knee-jerk decisions based on emotions and pseudoscience benefit no one including the species these activists purport to be saving. This deceitful strategy has already splintered the environmental movement many times in the past. As the Sierra Club is slow to understand, deceptive tactics serve only to alienate the majority of environmentalists who value truth and science over litigious intimidation. If the truth is your enemy, you have already lost the battle.

CCFA (2002). Petition to Correct the Southern Boundary of the Central California Coho ESU, Central Coast Forest Association.

Coleman, W. T. (1891). The San Francisco Vigilance Committees. California Military History . T. C. S. M. Museum, California State Military Department. 2003. http://www.militarymuseum.org/SFVC.html .

Eigenmann, C. H. (1890). “The Food Fishes of the California Fresh Waters.” Biennial Report 11, 1888-1890 (11): 53-65. Sacramento. California. Dept. of Fish and Game.

Frediani, J. (2003). Coho Salmon South of San Francisco Bay: Indigenous or Not?, Citizens for Resonsible Forest Management. 16 May 2003. <http://www.crfm.org/CohoSCWCarticle.pdf>.

Gobalet, K. W., P. D. Schulz, T. A. Wake and N. Siefkin (2004). “Archaeological Perspectives on Native American Fisheries of California, with Emphasis on Steelhead and Salmon.” American Fisheries Society.

Halfhill, T. R. (2003). Tom’s Inflation Calculator. San Jose, Tom R. Halfhill. 10 November 2003. http://www.halfhill.com/inflation.html.

Jordan, D. S. (1892). “Salmon and Trout of the Pacific Coast (biennial report).” Biennial Report 12, 1891-1892 (12): 44-58. Sacramento. California. Dept. of Fish and Game.

Jordan, D. S. (1907a). Fishes . New York,, H. Holt and Company.

Jordan, D. S. and C. H. Gilbert (1876). Notes on the Fishes of the Pacific Coast of the United States . Washington ;.

Kuntz, L. (2002). A Listing of the Crimes of the San Francisco Vigilance Committee, www.ecosyn.com . 2003.http://www.ecosyn.us/A_Vigilante_Story/_A_Vigilante_Story.html .

Leitritz, E. (1970). A history of California’s fish hatcheries, 1870-1960 . Sacramento,, Dept. of Fish and Game.

Levy, D. A. (2003). The Maritime Heritage Project. D. A. Levy. San Rafael, California. 2003.http://www.maritimeheritage.org/captains/wakeman.html .

Redding, B. B., et al. (1872). Biennial Report 1, 1870-1871. Sacramento., California. Dept. of Fish and Game.

Redding, J. D., et al. (1894). Biennial Report 13, 1893-1894. Sacramento., California. Dept. of Fish and Game.

Richard, C. (1998). California’s Untold Stories: Gold Rush! Oakland, Oakland Museum of California. 2003.http://www.museumca.org/goldrush/art-wakeman.html .

Schmidt, B. (1997). Mark Twain Quotations, Newspaper Collections, & Related Resources. 2003.http://www.twainquotes.com/index.html .

Shebley, W. H. (1922). “A History of Fishcultural Operations in California.” California Fish and Game Quarterly 8(2). San Francisco. California Fish and Game Commission.

Shebley, W. H. and J. L. Gillis (1911). History of the California fish and game commission .

Skinner, J. E. (1962). An historical review of the fish and wildlife resources of the San Francisco Bay area . Sacramento?

Staff (2003). Yearly Hatchery Reports. J. Urrutia. Sacramento, Department of Fish and Game.

Staff of Life (2003). Meats and Fish Department. Santa Cruz.

Throckmorton, S. R. and L. Stone (1875). Biennial Report 3, 1874-1875. Sacramento., California. Dept. of Fish and Game.

Van Arsdale, W. W. and W. E. Gerber (1904). Biennial Report 18, 1903-1904. Sacramento., California. Dept. of Fish and Game.

Wakeman, E. and M. L. Wakeman-Curtis (1878). The log of an ancient mariner : being the life and adventures of Captain Edgar Wakeman . San Francisco, A.L. Bancroft.

Wilson, R. E. (1891). “Trout Fishing in California.” Overland Monthly and Out West Magazine 18(105).

Copyright © 2009, Central Coast Forest Association

{ 0 comments… add one now }

Leave a Comment