2 Years Before the Mast 
an excerpt
By Richard Henry Dana

The ship being now ready, we covered the bottom of the hold over, fore and aft, with dried brush for dunnage, and having levelled everything away, we were ready to take in our cargo. All the hides that had been collected since the California left the coast, (a little more than two years,) amounting to about forty thousand, were cured, dried, and stowed away in the house, waiting for our good ship to take them to Boston.

Now began the operation of taking in our cargo, which kept us hard at work, from the grey of the morning till star-light, for six weeks, with the exception of Sundays, and of just time to swallow our meals. To carry the work on quicker, a division of labor was made. Two men threw the hides down from the piles in the house, two more picked them up and put them on a long horizontal pole, raised a few feet from the ground, where they were beaten, by two more, with flails, somewhat like those used in threshing wheat. When beaten, they were taken from this pole by two more, and placed upon a platform of boards; and ten or a dozen men, with their trowsers rolled up, were constantly going, back and forth, from the platform to the boat, which was kept off where she would just float, with the hides upon their heads. The throwing the hides upon the pole was the most difficult work, and required a sleight of hand which was only to be got by long practice. As I was known for a hide-curer, this post was assigned to me, and I continued at it for six or eight days, tossing, in that time, from eight to ten thousand hides, until my wrists became so lame that I gave in; and was transferred to the gang that was employed in filling the boats, where I remained for the rest of the time. As we were obliged to carry the hides on our heads from fear of their getting wet, we each had a piece of sheepskin sewed into the inside of our hats, with the wool next to our heads, and thus were able to bear the weight, day after day, which would otherwise have soon worn off our hair, and borne hard upon our skulls. Upon the whole, ours was the best berth; for though the water was nipping cold, early in the morning and late at night, and being so continually wet was rather an exposure, yet we got rid of the constant dust and dirt from the beating of the hides, and being all of us young and hearty, did not mind the exposure. The older men of the crew, whom it would have been dangerous to have kept in the water, remained on board with the mate, to stow the hides away, as fast as they were brought off by the boats.

We continued at work in this manner until the lower hold was filled to within four feet of the beams, when all hands were called aboard to commence steeving. As this is a peculiar operation, it will require a minute description.

Before stowing the hides, as I have said, the ballast is levelled off, just above the keelson, and then loose dunnage placed upon it, on which the hides rest. The greatest care is used in stowing, to make the ship hold as many hides as possible. It is no mean art, and a man skilled in it is an important character in California. Many a dispute have I heard raging high between professed "beach-combers," as to whether the hides should be stowed "shingling," or "back-to-back, and flipper-to-flipper;" upon which point there was an entire and bitter division of sentiment among the savans. We adopted each method at different periods of the stowing, and parties ran high in the forecastle, some siding with "old Bill" in favor of the former, and others scouting him, and relying upon "English Bob" of the Ayacucho, who had been eight years in California, and was willing to risk his life and limb for the latter method. At length a compromise was effected, and a middle course, of shifting the ends and backs at every lay, was adopted, which worked well, and which, though they held it inferior to their own, each party granted was better than that of the other.

Having filled the ship up, in this way, to within four feet of her beams, the process of steeving commenced, by which an hundred hides are got into a place where one could not be forced by hand, and which presses the hides to the utmost, sometimes starting the beams of the ship, resembling in its effects the jack-screws which are used in stowing cotton. Each morning we went ashore, and beat and brought off as many hides as we could steeve in the course of the day, and, after breakfast, went down into the hold, where we remained at work until night. The whole length of the hold, from stem to stern, was floored off level, and we began with raising a pile in the after part, hard against the bulkhead of the run, and filling it up to the beams, crowding in as many as we could by hand and pushing in with oars; when a large "book" was made of from twenty-five to fifty hides, doubled at the backs, and put into one another, like the leaves of a book. An opening was then made between two hides in the pile, and the back of the outside hide of the book inserted. Two long, heavy spars, called steeves, made of the strongest wood, and sharpened off like a wedge at one end, were placed with their wedge ends into the inside of the hide which was the centre of the book, and to the other end of each, straps were fitted, into which large tackles were hooked, composed each of two huge purchase blocks, one hooked to the strap on the end of the steeve, and the other into a dog, fastened into one of the beams, as far aft as it could be got. When this was arranged, and the ways greased upon which the book was to slide, the falls of the tackles were stretched forward, and all hands tallied on, and bowsed away until the book was well entered; when these tackles were nippered, straps and toggles clapped upon the falls, and two more luff tackles hooked on, with dogs, in the same manner; and thus, by luff upon luff, the power was multiplied, until into a pile in which one hide more could not be crowded by hand, an hundred or an hundred and fifty were often driven in by this complication of purchases. When the last luff was hooked on, all hands were called to the rope—cook, steward, and all—and ranging ourselves at the falls, one behind the other, sitting down on the hides, with our heads just even with the beams, we set taut upon the tackles, and striking up a song, and all lying back at the chorus, we bowsed the tackles home, and drove the large books chock in out of sight.