Captain Abel Douglass

Captain Abel Douglass from Lewis and Drydens...
Captain Abel Douglass from Lewis and Drydens…

Abel Douglass was born on Isle au Haut, Maine as part of a seafaring maritime family. Family history states that their origin in Scotland was also connected with maritime seafaring. Spurred by American desires of westward expansion, and searching for opportunity in the California Gold Rush, like many Americans in the mid-19th century, the family traveled to San Francisco, California on the California Packet in 1850. The Douglas family and several dozen other families in Maine contributed to the construction of the California Packet, and under the direction of Captain Kimball they all sailed together to California, where the ship was immediately sold and all families immigrated to various cities in California, many participating in the gold rush. The Douglass family first went to Antioch.

Douglass Cove on Isle au Haut
Douglass Cove on Isle au Haut

The Douglass family first settled in Antioch, then moved to Petaluma, California. Family lore has it that they had a Spanish land grant to their property in Petaluma. They built the first house in Petaluma on what is now Washington Street. The house had been built in Maine and shipped around the Horn and up the Petaluma Slough on a barge. It was connected together with pegs. They also built the American Hotel, the first hotel in Petaluma, and are presumed to have helped build many of the other first buildings in town. The location of the American Hotel is now a small downtown park, Helen Putman Park, in the center of downtown.

American Hotel, Petaluma, California
American Hotel, Petaluma, California
American Hotel, circa the 1950s

In the early 1860s, brothers Abel and Albert Douglass went to San Francisco to seek their fortunes. Abel met James Dawson and traveled to Victoria to join him in the fledgling inside-strait whaling economy of British Columbia. Albert settled in Seattle and established a sailboat rental business on Lake Union.

Dawson and Douglass Whaling established the best record for whaling catches in the next ten years with Douglass serving as the Captain. Douglass became known as a “Down East Scotsman” because of the family’s Scottish heritage – his origin on the east coast – and his family avocation of mariners. Dawson was a pioneer in whaling in the Straits and invented the rocket-propelled exploding harpoon tip. Douglass and Dawson established a whale oil processing station on Cortes Island which they called Whaletown. Later the team split up and Douglas went his own way establishing a record of captaincy in the Straits. Douglass was associated with several schooners in his time, the Kate, May Belle, Arietes, Industry, and Annie C. Moore with Victoria his port of call. The May Belle was named after his favorite niece in Petaluma.

Whaletown docks, 1907. From Whaletown Historical Society
Whaletown docks, 1907. From Whaletown Historical Society

Captain Douglass maintained a longtime common-law relationship with Maria Mahoi (Mary Mahoy, Mahoya), with whom he fathered eight children. They had a house on Salt Spring Island. Many of their descendants still live on the island or in British Columbia. Some of their sons helped Abel with sealing, dog-fish oil and other maritime business in the 1890s.

Maria Mahoi
Maria Mahoi

Captain Abel Douglass was the Ship’s Captain of the Pacific Coast part of the Geological Survey of Canada which surveyed the islands in the Straits. Later Douglass served on sealing ships as a captain.

One of his ships, the May Belle, was seized by the United States in the Fur Seal Arbitration between Great Britain and the United States. The conflict was about which nation owned the waters off the coast of Alaska, and then had rights to hunt seals there. The lawsuit was decided in Paris before an international court consisting of leaders of numerous countries including the King of Prussia. While the lengthy arbitration was being decided, the seized ships rotted away on the coast of Alaska.

After losing the May belle, Abel served on other schooners as a seal hunter. Before the conflict was resolved Captain Abel Douglass died in King County, Washington in 1907. Resolution for British citizens came in 1911, but Douglass was an American and because of complications his family was not paid until the 1930s.

Research Notes

This research began in 2000 in a fit of genealogical exploration of my families from Petaluma, California and Grand Ronde, Oregon. was highly helpful, but what was most helpful were the famous people in my family. Abel Douglass was found by a simple search of the internet. He had been lost to family history for many years, but Tom Koppel wrote a short essay on the internet that contained a few details that led me to believe that Koppel’s historical figure was a good candidate. Contact with Koppel led me to Jean Barman, a Professor at UBC, who was conducting research in the area of my ancestor. She led me to the Salt Spring Island Historical archives. I also connected with distant family members and was able to acquire original letters from Douglass from Eric and Alyne Anderson of Petaluma. I still have the letters. So after a few years, I found many of the important details of the origin of the family, their maritime history, the Petaluma history, and the whaling history. Incidentally, I am not a direct descendant of Abel or Albert, they would be great Uncles. I am descended from their father Robert Douglass. There is more to be said but for now, that is all.

Bibliography (informal) with notes

Anderson, Eric & Alyne, Genealogy of Martha Ellen Tupper; The First Caucasian girl born in Petaluma and descendants, 1620-1995, Dillon Beach, 1995. Contains genealogical information for many generations of the Douglass. Includes stories and photos.

Argus-Courier newspaper. Petaluma, CA. Several issues in the past century have histories and biographies of families from Petaluma, especially the Douglass families. Need exact references.

Barman, Jean. Maria Mahoi of the Islands, New Star Books, 2004 Contains Captain Abel Douglass and descendants from British Columbia. Photos and genealogy, some references and genealogy attributed to David Lewis.

Barman, Jean, Whatever Happened to the Kanakas? “They’re alive and well in British Columbia”. In The Beaver (journal), December 1997/January 1998, Vol. 77:6. Contains Maria Mahoi, Abel Douglass and family.

Caldwell, Bill, Islands of Maine: Where America Really Began, Down East Books, 1981. Contains Douglass and Rich family, the story of the building of California Packet and California gold rush.

D’Armond, R.N. & John Lyman, The Sailing Fleet, San Francisco Chronicle, September 7, 1957 – February 25, 1958. Contains additional information about several of Captain Abel Douglass’s and James Dawson’s (partners) schooners.

Hamilton, Bea, Salt Spring Island, Vancouver, 1969. Contains Maria Mahoi, Abel Douglass and family, photos, contextual information.

Heig, Adair, History of Petaluma: A California River Town, Scottwell Associates, 1982. Contains some contextual information about the American Hotel, the appendix contains information about the Douglass family.

Jordan, David Starr, The Fur Seals and Fur-Seal Islands of the North Pacific Ocean: Part 1, Part 3, GPO 1898. Contains information about Abel Douglass and his sealing schooner, and his involvement in an international sealing conflict between Canada and the United States.

Kahn, Charles, Salt Spring, the Story of an Island, Harbor, 1998. Contains Maria Mahoi and Family, photos.

Tom Koppel (1995-03). Kanaka: The Untold Story of Hawaiian Pioneers in British Columbia and the Pacific Northwest. Whitecap Books. ISBN 1-55110-295-1. Contains: Abel Douglass, Maria Mahoi and family.

Munro-Fraser, J. P. Alley, Bowen and Company, History of Sonoma County: Including its geology, topography, mountains, valleys, and streams. Salem, Mass. : Higginson Book Co. Contains information of prominent citizens, Robert Douglass, Evans, American Hotel. Some stories and photos.

Murray, Peter, The Vagabond Fleet: A Chronicle of the North Pacific Sealing Schooner Trade, Sono Nis Press, 1988. Contains information about Abel Douglass and his sealing schooner, and his involvement in an international sealing conflict between Canada and the United States.

National Archives Project Division of Community Service Programs Work Projects Administration, Ship Registers and Enrollments of Machias Maine 1780-1930, Part 2, 1942. Contains original ship ownership registry for the California Packet.

Pratt, Charles, Here on the Island: Being an account of a way of life several miles off the coast of Maine, Harper and Row, 1974. Contains Douglass and Rich family history.

Rinehart, Katherine J., Petaluma A History in Architecture, Images of America, Arcadia Publishing, 2005. Misses details about family history in architectural planning in Petaluma, and information about the first Petaluma Hotel, the American Hotel built by Robert Douglass and family.

Rowe, William Hutchinson, The Maritime History of Maine: Three Centuries of Shipbuilding & Seafaring, Norton, 1948. Contains story of California Packet.

Schmitt, F. P., C. de Jong, and F. H. Winter. 1980. Thomas Welcome Roys: America’s Pioneer of Modern Whaling. University Press of Virginia. Chapter 12, “One Last Try,” p. 168-179. Roys was the whaler who invented the exploding-Rocket propelled whaling spear, he experimented in the Straits of Georgia in competition with Dawson and Douglass company. Roys was never able to match the take of the competition and eventually moved elsewhere. The book contains significant info on the Dawson and Douglass company.

Selwyn, Alfred R.C., Geological Survey of Canada, Report of Progress for 1874-75, 1876. Contains biographical account of the Canadian geological survey and how they hired Abel Douglass and his ship to ferry them around the coast of British Columbia.

Simpson, Dorothy, The Maine Islands in Story and Legend, Lippincott Company, 1960. Contains Douglass and rich families.

Toynbee, Richard Mouat, Snapshots of early Salt Spring and other favoured islands, Mouat’s Trading, 1978. Contains photos of the island.

Throckmorton, Arthur L., The Role of the Merchant on the Oregon Frontier: The Early Business Career of Henry W. Corbett, 1851-1869, The Journal of Economic History, Vol. 16, No. 4 (Dec. 1956), pp. 539-550 Contains information about the California Packet.

Victoria Colonist Newspaper, Victoria B.C., 1860-1880. Microfilm copy, Abel Douglass whaling, and daily ship arrivals and departures. Stories of whaling successes, conflicts, competitions, and ship’s names. Also contains the first reference to Abel Douglass arriving in Victoria from California.

Wasson, George S., Sailing Days on the Penobscot, Marine Research Society, 1932. Contains information on the thorofare and story of building the California packet.

Watts, Edith Spofford, Deer Island, Maine, From Pre-History to the Present, 1997. Contains Douglass and Rich histories.

Webb, R. L. 1988. On the Northwest: Commercial Whaling in the Pacific Northwest 1790-1967. University of British Columbia Press. Chapter 4, “Glancing Blows,” p. 115-141. (have not seen this yet)

White, Howard, ed., B.C. Whaling: The White Men, Raincoast Chronicles First Five, Harbour Publishing 1976. Contains information on whaling and the contribution of Douglass and Dawson’s company.

Tom Koppel articles, Koppel has published some on the Internet.

Lewis & Dryden’s Marine History of the Pacific Northwest: An Illustrated Review of the Growth and Development of the Maritime Industry, from the Advent of the Earliest Navigators to the Present Time, with Sketches and Portraits of a Number of Well Known Marine Men. 1895. With info on Abel Douglass, including his schooners, and the only extant picture of Abel. Mentions that Abel was a Scotsman.

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