Allen Light, a 19th century Black mariner


Lights papers
(copy)
Date: 
Thu, 1805-01-24

*The birth of Allen Light in 1805 is celebrated on this date. He was a Black sea mariner.

Born in Philadelphia he arrived in Santa Barbara, CA about 1830. Light hunted sea otters, gained Mexican citizenship and guarded the California coastline against American and Native American poachers. In part because of heavily depleted otter populations, the Mexican government instituted conservation laws in 1830 and prohibited foreigners from both hunting otters and participating in all coastal trade in Alta California.

George Nidever (a sea otter hunter) and Light got around these laws by hunting under the license of Captain William Goodwin Dana, a Bostonian who had migrated to Santa Barbara and acquired Mexican citizenship. In exchange for the use of his license and provisions, the otter hunters gave Captain Dana 40 percent of their catch. Hunting parties usually set out in groups of three canoes, each containing a gunman and two rowers. Once an otter was spotted, the hunter would stand at the head of the boat and shoot, aiming for the head to keep the precious pelt intact. Allen Light's excellent marksmanship soon made him famous along the southern California coast.

Later in 1836, Light signed on as mercenary soldiers in Juan Bautista Alvarado’s revolutionary army. Unwilling to accept the Mexican government's new centralist constitution, Alvarado marched into Los Angeles, and subdued the city without bloodshed. Alvarado appointed himself governor of California and paid Allen Light between $30 and $40 for his services. By 1839, Light had become a naturalized Mexican citizen. In January that year, Governor Alvarado ordered an investigation into reports of an unidentified ship seen hunting illegally near Santa Barbara. Light testified that he had seen the same ship, identified as the Llama, tracking otters, two years earlier. The same John Bancroft who had ordered the attack on Allen Light's hunting party off Santa Rosa Island captained the ship.

That same year the Governor appointed Light “principal arbiter of the National Armada, assigned to the branch of Otter Fishing.” Light continued hunting sea otters for the next two years sometimes traveling to San Juan Capistrano. In 1842, he decided to settle in San Diego. Records indicate that Richard Freeman, also an African-American, bought a four-room, single story adobe house from Henry Fitch for $96 on February 10, 1847 and lived there with Allen Light. The Freeman-Light House stood on the west side of the plaza beside the Casa de Machado, and was said to have been a grog house or saloon. Light left San Diego in 1851.

In 1948, workers installing a heater in the Machado Chapel of Old Town discovered two documents buried behind two half-sized blocks of the adobe walls. Both of the papers revealed the life of Allen Light. The older of the two documents was issued by a notary public in New York on November 27, 1827 and described Light as “a Colored man aged about twenty-two years old, born in Philadelphia." Commonly known as sailor protection papers, such a certificate could substitute for the "free papers" that states required Blacks to carry.

The Freeman-Light House became a part of Old Town State Park in 1967. Today, after over a century of being stashed in various hideaways, the Allen Light papers may be viewed at the San Diego Historical Society's Research Archives.

Reference:
San Diego Historical Society
P.O. Box 81825, San Diego, CA 92138

Person / name: 

Light, Allen