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John Earl

John Earl

San Francisco Chronicle, November 5, 1920


"Happy John" Earl, Wounded at Admiral’s Side, Leaves Sick Bed to Visit Polls


Erstwhile Cabin Boy Retains Simple Philosophy Conducive to Longevity

At 7 o’ clock on the morning of August 5, 1864, Rear-Admiral Farragut stood in the wheelhouse of the sloop Hartford, flagship of the Federal Navy, and, referring to a nest of torpedoes planted in Mobile Bay by the Confederates, consigned them to the other regions. At the Admiral’s side stood John Earl, a Chinese born in California. Even as the Admiral disdained the Confederate torpedoes in the language more convincing than conventional, a solid shot crashed through the wheelhouse and smashed the ankle of the Chinese cabin boy.

At 2 o’ clock yesterday afternoon, something more than fifty-six years after the battle of Mobile Bay, the erstwhile cabin boy for Admiral Farragut lay on a cot in the Central Emergency Hospital, a broken down man of 84 years, but one whose mind clearly recalled those stirring days when he played lackey to his Admiral.


"Happy John" Earl he was called during the Civil War and "Happy John" Earl he is today. Although the great white plague has marked "Happy John" for an early end, his philosophy is, "Be happy."

Born in August 16, 1836, "Happy John" ran away to sea when 11 years old as cabin boy on the old windjammer John Wade round from San Francisco bay to Boston, Mass. From Boston, "Happy John" went to Salem, Mass. When he decided to go to school. Possessed of a combination Mexican-Chinese cognomen (his mother was a half-caste Mexican), which he failed to remember. "Happy John" was christened John Earl by a school teacher in Salem, that being the name of the tutor, who insisted it was a good name.


And then came the Civil War and "Happy John" went through the battle of Mobile Bay and also saw actions on New Orleans. "Happy John" was a cabin boy in the Navy from 1863 to 1870. After that he was mustered out, but the sea called again, and a year after leaving the Navy he enlisted as wardroom steward on the old revenue cutter Bear under Captain Henry. "Happy John" remained on the Bear for seven years and then gave up the sea for good, He went to Watsonville, bought an apple orchard of twenty-six acres, and still owns it. Coming to San Francisco several days ago, "Happy John" fell ill and was taken to the United States Marine Hospital, near Mountain Lake.


"Happy John" left last Monday because, as he says, he didn’t like one of the physicians and went to live at the Oceanic Hotel in Chinatown. A lifelong Republican, "Happy John" arose last Tuesday morning and tottered to the polling place at Kearney and Jackson streets. "Sure, I voted the straight Republican ticket," "Happy John" said at the Central Emergency Hospital "I ‘ve always voted the straight Republican ticket. I started out right by voting for Abraham Lincoln and I ‘ve voted for a Republican Presidential candidate ever since. But I guess my vote for Harding will be my last. I am getting old ------- I ‘m 84 now ------- but I am not afraid to die. I ‘ve been happy all my life and I’m happy now. I may live two more months longer, but I doubt it, but I ’m happy just the same. I ‘ve been happy, I guess, because I never ran into debt and always tried to be on the level with everyone." "Happy John" left the ranch at Watsonville in charge of his four sons. "I couldn’t stay," "Happy John" said yesterday "All those grandchildren pulled me around so much, and I ‘m getting old."

-----End of the article-----


This San Francisco Chronicle Newspaper article, dated November 5, 1920, was researched and printed by Ruthanne Lum McCunn from the microfilm archive. Credit of the discovery goes to her. The webmaster transcribed and posted it in this website. We also did some research and analysis, trying to substantiate as much facts as possible. Some claims had not been substantiated, and sometimes, if the official records were incomplete, or, the target name were searched against a list of names recorded on a different time frame, the target name could not be found to match the record. And that does'nt mean that the event on the article did not occur. It could mean that the record is not very complete.

There was a version printed in the Chinese newspaper. Ruthanne's friend Judy Yung brought the footnote in Yong Chen's book to Ruthanne's attention; a librarian friend sent Ruthanne a copy of the Chinese article, which the webmaster translated; Him Mark Lai provided a second article in Chinese and suggested looking at the Chronicle. A real collaborative effort!

Australian Civil War Navy researcher Terry Foenander could not find the name John Earl in his USS Hartford's July 1, 1864 muster roll. We know that names of the low ranking cabin boys are generally included in the Navy muster roll.

Muster roll of USS Hartford, July 1, 1864

However, Terry mentioned that this is only one quarterly roster from that vessel, so John Earl might be listed on earlier or later rolls. John Earl indicated that he was in battle on the Hartford, it would imply that the battle John Earl mentioned was Mobile Bay, August 5, 1864. Terry indicated that there was no mention of John Earl's name, as well, in the volumes of the ORN (Official Records of the Navy), but these only mentioned persons who were killed or wounded, (John Earl said he was wounded) or who received major citations or commendations. Terry further looked through the lists of killed, severely wounded and slightly wounded personnel of the USS Hartford, shown on page 407 of volume 21 of the ORN, but there was no name even remotely close to that of John Earl listed. There were several persons who were rated as first class and second class boys, but none with that name. Terry also checked the U.S. 1880 Census, which is available online at the Mormon (Latter Day Saints) web site, but could not find either surname listed in the California census results. Terry believes there are probably very good reasons for all these omissions. Perhaps he used his Chinese name?

Terry further suggested to look at the Ancestry.com web site (if one had subscribed it) one could check there to see if John Earl did apply for a pension, as those pages included an index of Civil War personnel who applied for and received the pension. The pages also included the 1890 Veterans' Census, which might also show the name of John Earl in one of its alternate forms, and where he resided in that year. It would also include some of his service details, and the ships he served on.

The webmaster joined the discussion. Webmaster thought that Ancestry.com won't help either in this case, since John Earl was not his birth name, nor was it an "adopted name", but a mere "pick up" name. When he was born, California was part of Mexico, and so he had to be a Mexican citizen by birth. It was likely he had Spanish name, or a Chinese name, or a mixed Spanish and Chinese name. And we don't know what his birth name was. When California became an U.S. state in 1850, would the people in California changed to U.S. citizens? John Earl mentioned he voted for Lincoln and the subsequent Republican Presidential candidates, that would imply John Earl became U.S. citizen?

We further discussed the landmarks mentioned in the article, and tried to verify those landmarks. It happened Ruthanne knew San Francisco real well, since she lives there. Watsonville is a farming community not far from Monterey. She emailed her friend and author Sandy Lydon who wrote Chinese Gold (about the Chinese in Monterey) and asked him whether he'd ever come across the name. He said he had and would look for what he had on file. Sandy wrote that there's a John Earl in the 1920 census in Los Angeles. Whether it's the same John Earl or not, however, he couldn't be certain. If it were, he certainly got around for an old man! We all believe a great deal of research would have to be done to verify the claims made by John Earl in the article.

The article mentioned Happy John went to the United States Marine Hospital in Mountain Lake. Webmaster thought that it would indirectly implied Happy John must had some sort of identification card showing he had served in the U.S. Navy, and therefore he was eligible for receiving medical care in the United States Marine Hospital. He got his John Earl name after he went to school in Salem, Mass. That means we won't be able to find the John Earl name in the log book of in windjammer John Wade.

Terry mentioned that his Civil War friend Barry Crompton, in Melbourne, Australia, has the set of Massachusetts rosters (all nine volumes) on CD ROM, and Terry phoned him up yesterday to query if there was a John Earl shown as being in the navy. Barry was able to confirm that there were two persons of that name listed as being in the Navy, from MA. One of them seemed to fit the bill slightly. However this person who seems to be our John Earl had served only up to 1864 or 1865, but this may only have been one term of service, as some of these personnel re-enlisted, after serving one or more terms of service.

Ruthanne confirmed that (the United States Marine Hospital) Mountain Lake is in the Presidio, San Francisco, which was in an army base, now public parkland. The old Marine Hospital/Public Health Hospital building is now abandoned but is still there. Ruthanne thought that the Central Emergency Hospital was the old name for today's San Francisco General Hospital.

I discussed this with Edward Milligan, Civil War Navy researcher. He mentioned that USN records are remarkable sparse and tough to use. So it won't be a surprise if we miss John Earl's name on the record.

Edward Milligan requested 1864 pay records for Hartford (from the National Archive) which he had seen before, but got 1861 record. The current condition of the 1964 log book (in the National Archive) is falling apart. He saw no entries for the wounded or kill-in-action lists, an unusual thing. He will have a look for musters for BEAR, the name of the Revenue service ship John Earl was on after his USN service. Milligan found musters from 1883-1896, but that was too late to find him, for John Earl was mustered out of service from BEAR in 1877, seven years after he left his USN service. According to the log of the Hartford, the dead went over the side with a 32 lb shot while the wounded were sent to hospital. Milligan had requested the log of that ship carried the wounded to see if they made a list of the folks they got from Hartford and took to hospital.

On the other hand, it might be possible that John Earl served in one of Mobile Bay squadron and not on Hartford, the flag ship. He might try to exaggerate his service a little bit.

I did some research on the names of the ship on David Farragut's squadron, and they are listed below:

Union Monitors
Tecumseh, 1034 tons, 2 guns, Commander T.A.M. Craven.
Manhattan, 1034 tons, 2 guns, Commander J.W.A. Nicholson.
Winnebago, 970 tons, 4 guns, Commander Thomas H. Stephens.
Chickasaw, 970 tons, 4 guns, Lieut. Commander George H. Perkins.

Union Wooden ships
Brooklyn, 2070 tons, 24 guns, Capt. James Alden.
Oetorara, 829 tons, 6 guns, Lieut. Commander Chas. A. Greene.
Hartford, 1900 tons, 21 guns, Capt. Percival Drayton.
Metacomet, 974 tons, 6 guns, Lieut. Commander Jas. E. Jouett.
Richmond, 1929 tons, 20 guns, Capt. Thornton A. Jenkins.
Port Royal, 805 tons, 6 guns, Lieut. Commander Bancroft Gherardi.
Lackawanna, 1533 tons, 8 guns, Capt. Jno. B. Marchand.
Seminole, 801 tons, 8 guns, Commander Edward Donaldson.
Monongahela, 1378 tons, 8 guns, Commander Jas. H. Strong.
Kennebec, 507 tons, 5 guns, Lieut. Commander W.P. McCann.
Ossipee, 1240 tons, 11 guns, Commander Wm. E. Leroy.
Itasca, 507 tons, 6 guns, Lieut. Commander George Brown.
Oneida, 1032 tons, 9 guns, Commander J.R.M. Mullany.
Galena, 738 tons, 10 guns, Lieut. Commander Clark H. Wells.

(Source: J. Thomas Scharf, History of the Confederate States Navy, Random House Value Publishing Inc., 1996.)

So, the research is still on-going.



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January 14, 2006
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Revised and updated on January 28, 2009