Richard Henry Dana Jr. (August 1, 1815 - January 6, 1882) was an American lawyer and politician, and author of the book Two Years Before the Mast.
He was born into one of the first families of Cambridge, Massachusetts, grandson of Francis Dana, and attended Harvard College. Having trouble with his vision after a bout of the measles, he thought a voyage might help his failing sight. Rather than going on a Grand Tour of Europe, in 1834 he left Harvard to enlist as a common sailor on a voyage around Cape Horn to the then-remote California, at that time still a part of Mexico. He set sail on the brig Pilgrim (180 tons, 86.5 feet long), visited a number of settlements in California (including Monterey, San Pedro, San Juan Capistrano, San Diego, Santa Barbara, and Santa Clara), and returned to Massachusetts two years later as a deckhand on the Indiaman Alert, after making a winter passage around Cape Horn. He set foot back in Boston in September 1836.
He kept a diary, and after the trip wrote Two Years Before the Mast based on his experiences. The term "before the mast" refers to sailor's quarters -- in the forecastle, in the front of the ship, the officers dwelling near the stern. His writing evidences his later social feeling for the oppressed.
After his sea voyage, he returned to Harvard, completing his education in 1837. He subsequently became a lawyer, and an expert on maritime law, many times defending common seamen. Later he became a prominent abolitionist, helping to found the anti-slavery Free Soil Party in 1848. In 1859 Dana visited Cuba while its annexation was being debated in the U.S. Senate. He visited Havana, a sugar plantation, a bullfight, and various churches, hospitals, schools, and prisons, a trip documented in his book To Cuba and Back.
During the American Civil War, Dana served as United States District Attorney, and successfully argued before the Supreme Court that the United States Government could rightfully blockade Confederate ports. From 1867-1868 Dana was a member of the Massachusetts legislature, and also served as a U.S. counsel in the trial of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. In 1876, his nomination as ambassador to Britain was defeated in the Senate by political enemies, partly because of a lawsuit for plagiarism brought against him for a legal textbook he had edited.
Dana died of influenza in Rome, and is buried in that city's Protestant Cemetery.
His son, Richard Henry Dana III, married Edith Longfellow, daughter of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The point and city of Dana Point, California, located on the Pacific coast about halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego, is named for him.