Tom Layton

Pioneering Archaeologist & Frolic Authority

Reclaiming the Past

Tom Layton
Two decades after linking obscure, Chinese ceramic fragments to an historic shipwreck saga, San Jose State professor Thomas Layton continues to recast North Coast and California history. His two masterful books highlight what the past means today and how it determines our values and choices.

Sailing into his third book on the Frolic, Tom Layton is rightly astonished at the eye-popping reception, breadth and impact of his work, transcending academic origins. Wide ripples already include books, lectures, new school curriculum, permanent museum exhibits, a theatrical dramatization, and local Frolic Shipwreck Ale. Future proposals envision traveling exhibits, a documentary film, even an annual “Frolic Festival” on the coast to celebrate the rich legacy.

Making Shock Waves

Yet Layton’s astonishment would not surpass the shock Captain Faucon felt when his brig Frolic, fog-shrouded on a moonlit 1850 summer night, collided against a rocky reef visible from Point Cabrillo Preserve, a new California State Park. While the Frolic’s finale was simply a forgettable mishap in Faucon’s distinguished career, the Gold Rush-era shipwreck created huge shock waves that made Point Cabrillo a fascinating intersection for powerful cultural and commercial collisions.

Had the Frolic arrived routinely in San Francisco, the North Coast would have escaped development for years. Had Faucon not trusted explorer George Vancouver’s misleading maps, showing land still 50 miles away, or had distant hills not given false assurances, the captain would have reduced speed rather than cruise with topgallants and topsails set. But most extraordinary of all, had Layton not stumbled over fragments of broken pottery contaminating a new-found study site, who else would have linked the Pomo to distant commerce and unearthed this remarkable story?

Abandoned Pomo Village

In fact, it was 1984 and Layton was hunting for unsullied, mid-19th century field sites when locals guided him and student crew to an abandoned Mitom Pomo Indian village 15 miles west of Willits, Mendocino County. On the first day of exploration, students discovered Chinese porcelain and green glass (some purposely “flaked” for sharpness) with no good reason to be there. This modest cache sparked a complex mystery that took Layton over a decade to solve, with continuing insights repaying all his persistence, ingenuity, and good fortune.

Certainly, the Frolic wreck changed the life of the Pomo forever, disrupting resident tribes as new settlements and population surged, fueled by a lumber bonanza. Layton explains the key to the shipwreck by pinpointing the engine at work: the driving ambition of 19th Century American commerce, unifying “New England merchants, Baltimore clippers, opium traders and, finally a rich cargo of Chinese goods bound for Gold Rush San Francisco” (Voyage of the Frolic, p. 22).

A Ground-Breaking Effort

According to maritime historian James P. Delgado, the Frolic triumph breaks new ground, not only from the unique “Native American interaction,” but because Layton was the first who “really looked at a wrecked vessel, analyzing and presenting it in such a broad fashion. Citing Layton’s trend-setting “collaborative effort among scholars, wreck divers, community groups and public agencies,” Delgado sees implications “for both scholarship and historic preservation. It provides a chance for local people to explore their own history by using the Frolic as a touchstone in time” (from Mark Rawitsch’s Journey of the Frolic, p. 7-8).

And indeed Layton depended greatly on local wisdom to unravel the first puzzle: where, when, and why had Chinese ceramics arrived in California, related in his highly readable Voyage of the Frolic: New England Merchants and the Opium Trade. Dana Cole, a forester at Jackson State Forest, recalled similar looking ceramics at “pottery cove” near Caspar, today’s Point Cabrillo Preserve. When the artifacts matched perfectly, Layton had found the all-important “port of entry” – a shipwreck. But which one?

Hitting Pay Dirt

Layton hit pay dirt at Mendocino’s Kelley House Museum when Dorothy Bear remembered an anonymous donation by a diver, from whom Layton eventually learned the name of the wrecked ship, reported by an 1850 SF newspaper, and its captain, origin (China), and home port (Boston). Bear also recalled Jerome Ford (of Ford House, Mendocino), who traveled overland to Mendocino in 1851 to attempt salvage of a newly-wrecked vessel and instead saw Pomo women wearing bright silk shawls. In fact, the ship, resting a stone’s throw from shore, was discovered and salvaged that summer by Pomo people, but the terrible cultural devastation that followed offset the temporary boon. A century passed, until the 1960s, when sport divers rediscovered the wreck and brought to the surface the next set of revealing clues.

Five Years of Interviews

It took Layton five years to interview and win the trust of 15 amateur divers, overcoming dicey legal issues of unauthorized recoveries. In the process, he amassed donations of valuable artifacts (many in local museums) that began to portray the ship and cargo. Aside from 6000 bottles of Edinburgh ale, the Frolic cargo was an emporium: camphor trunks, colored silks, lacquer ware, inset marble-topped tables, gold jewelry, 21,000 porcelain bowls, candied fruits, silver tinderboxes, a pre-fabricated house, toothbrushes, napkin rings, combs, gaming pieces, and brass weights (for measuring).

Layton took pains to bring all the details into focus, as where the Frolic originated (Bombay, India) and did considerable research at Harvard University, which houses the records of the ship owners, Augustine Heard & Co. Finally, 13 years after a chance finding of puzzling fragments, Layton revealed why a speedy, Baltimore-built (1845) clipper brig, outdated by steam power after serving five years in the opium trade, keyed a complex story encompassing a “world system.” It was a chronicle that linked the Pomo with Cantonese artisans, Boston merchants, Baltimore shipbuilders, Bombay Opium suppliers, Chinese smugglers protected by the British Navy, and Gold Rush miners.

The Human Story

Layton’s great achievement underscores the human story and decision-making – how ordinary people make extraordinary history. In his Voyage’s final section, “Who Owns the Past,” Layton challenges conventional archaeological categories by addressing the multiplicity of origins and the equally diverse, wildly unexpected consequences. This expansive view both of history and archaeology led to his second book, Gifts from the Celestial Kingdom: A Shipwrecked Cargo for Gold Rush California. While ostensibly describing the lost cargo, Layton uses poignant, novelistic vignettes to recreate the worldviews of key players: Pomo people, merchants, Chinese manufacturers, seamen, divers, and the “reinvented” archaeologist obliged to transcend his own inherited categories. A third book, on the extended generational ripples across time and geography, especially for the story’s key Asian-American families, is in the works.

Impacting New Generations

Layton’s great lesson is that history matters, as individual decisions by energetic people produce dramatic impacts on their own lives and others’, both current generations and those yet to come. The Frolic quest now extends beyond narrative plot and claims iconic status, a telling chapter of how a coastal part of the “west was won.” Layton’s “touchstone in time” illuminates the continuity of history when decisions and results from one age send shock waves that wash over subsequent peoples and places.