Cal Poly students help decipher historical letters for Dana Adobe

skahmann@thetribunenews.comJune 10, 2013 

The Dana Adobe

LAURA DICKINSON — Special to The Tribune Buy Photo

In 2009, the Rancho Nipomo Dana Adobe obtained historical letters written by members of San Luis Obispo’s Dana family, but when they had trouble finding someone capable of deciphering them, students from Cal Poly answered the call.

History students Molly Prendergast and Andrew Engdahl were tasked with painstakingly translating the five letters written in Spanish by members of the Dana family as part of an internship with the Dana Adobe. The letters were written in the 1860s, and provide a snippet of the lives of the Dana’s at the time including family affairs, business and an apparent small-pox outbreak.

As part of the unpaid internship, Engdahl and Prendergast were required to work at least 12 hours per week over seven weeks. But translating Spanish text that dates back to the Civil War wasn’t as simple as using Rosetta Stone, Engdahl said. Not only were the letters written in an archaic form of Spanish called “Californio,” named for the mostly Hispanic population that occupied California at the time, but simply making out words on the time-worn, hand-written letters turned out to be a huge challenge, he added.

“At times we would sit in the library for eight hours trying to figure out what in the world they were saying,” said Engdahl, “not only translating the words, but deciphering their handwriting and correcting for spelling, punctuation and usage errors.”

Along with help of the Adobe staff, Engdahl and Prendergast linked four of the five letters to women related to the Danas. Maria Josepha Dana, wife of the family patriarch and Adobe namesake Juan Francisco Dana, wrote of a smallpox outbreak that swept through San Luis Obispo in the early 1860s and killed more than 100 residents, said Prendergast.

“No direct members of the Dana family died from the plague, but Josepha wrote that it was a ‘true scourge of divine judgment,’” Prendergast said. “She believed the Danas were favored by God.”

To determine the authors and intended recipients of the letters, the students couldn’t fully rely on the names in the letters because many Californios had both English and Spanish names. Instead, they looked to the contents of the letters for clues. Most of the letters involved family sickness, business affairs and other tasks usually delegated to women during the period.

Coupled with other evidence, they were able to link sisters Isabel and Elena Thompson (who are related to the Danas), to three letters addressed to a third sister, Carolina Thompson. The last letter was from Jose Garcia, a family friend to the Danas. And while most of the letters detail mundane activities, they give people a glimpse of what life was like at that time, said Adobe staff member Susan Grey.

“Most letters from men at that time period ignored the day-to-day lives of women,” Grey said. “These letters gave us a sense of daily life on the rancho at that time period.”

The Dana family is famed on the Central Coast for its ties to the ranching economy in the 1800s and for land donations for schools and education funding. Considered the founding family of South County, the Danas played a major role in politics and agriculture, Grey said.

Upon completion of their research, Prendergast and Engdahl presented their findings to the Adobe staff and members of the public as part of their senior project.

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