shipwrecked and marooned in the Cape Verde Islands, to being put in charge of a boat in pursuit of a fugitive doctor on San Francisco Bay, to struggling in the gold mines with thousands of other forty-niners, are full of local color and often humor.
It was Captain Hans Heinrich Buhne who piloted the schooner Laura Virginia into Humboldt Bay in 1850, making him the first white settler to bring a ship across the bar. It was an exciting time to be an energetic young man in a virtually untouched land, and Shepherd shows how the enterprising Buhne, starting with nothing, not only made his own way, but also contributed significantly to the new community. We get to experience the establishment of this community from the ground up, from Buhne’s own canvas hotel to the four-story house erected by Elias Howard, who had brought along prefabricated walls on the Laura Virginia.
Buhne tried his hand at several enterprises before ship traffic into the bay made his skills as a pilot indispensable. It is thrilling to read of Captain Buhne’s exploits as a tugboat pilot—he was at the center of countless sea rescues during shipwrecks; and many ship captains would not let anyone but Buhne pilot their ships across the bar. It’s exciting, too, to see him on the streets of Eureka and on the waterfront, conducting business with his contemporaries whose names we’ve come to know—names like Ryan, Duff, Vance, Carson, Russ, Jones, Henderson, etc. While Buhne ultimately enjoyed great personal and material success, his life was not without its tragedies. The author relates the story of Mary Buhne drowning in the bay, within sight -
Marv Shepherd Crossing bar at Humboldt Bay in the Tall Ship,
Courtesy of Photographer, Steve Cousins.
of her Captain husband, in a matter-of-fact yet touching way.
Through Buhne’s life story, we get a full picture of what life was really like in the 1850s to the 1890s, from howbusiness was done to land distribution to the challenges and rewards of daily life. For example, as the proprietor of a store, Buhne successfully competed with the high freight costs of steamers by establishing a packet run of sailing ships between San Francisco and Eureka to carry produce to his store. When he remodeled the public hall on the second floor of his commercial building at 620 Second Street in 1878, the wall paintings he commissioned were hailed as Humboldt County’s first piece of fresco work.
Shepherd’s impressive research and lively writing keep pace with his energetic subject, and give great texture to this biography of a key figure in Humboldt and California history. Additionally, the book contains charts and lists of ships, et al., a great boon to future historians and researchers.
The integrity with which Buhne lived his life can be summed up by the statement of Professor George Davidson of the California Coast and Geodetic Survey, who made the first U.S. map of Humboldt Bay in 1850. Davidson tells us that when Buhne told a story, I was sure that it happened just as he related it without any . . . added prose. The same can be said for Marvin Shepherd’s fine biography. The Sea Captain’s Odyssey fills to perfection a long-empty space on the bookshelf of California history.
by Suzanne Forsyth and Virginia Sparks
Suzanne Forsyth is the editor of the Humboldt Historian; Virginia Sparks is a California historian.
Marvin Shepherd is both a safety and clinical engineer now retired from the University of California Medical Center. This is Marv’s second non-fiction book on events in California history. He and his wife, Patsy, live in Walnut Creek, California.
You can contact me at: Marv@georgiepress.com
I respect and appreciate reader feedback on my books.