River - A History - The Story of Two Villages
Buldam and Mendocino
In 2001 a lone
skiff moved between crab
pots set in the mouth of Big River. Few salmon made
their joyous death trek to the remnants of spawning
beds. Steelhead no longer flashed in their busy explorations
of the estuary. Below the dock at Catch A Canoe, only
an occasional bullhead darted under the shadows of kayaks.
Nearly 150 years
before, Nathaniel Smith, who was a black teenager according
to some accounts or a middle aged man in others, settled
just below what is today's Stanford Inn after having
sold his cabin on what is now property of the Mendocino
Hotel in town.
more elk here than there's cattle now," Nat told
a writer in 1892. "But elk was not well liked and
there were other choices. The men was always willin'
to pay more fur ven'son, an' more fur black and brown
bear than fur grizzly. If we'd had such guns as they
hev nowdays, wouldn't 'a' left any game in the county."
the most intensive logging, Big River provided
a wealth of game. In the fall, salmon were so
plentiful that Nat claimed he once netted 15,000
within ten minutes.
"They last till
June an' then comes herrin', yaller perch and
flounders, an' there's always plenty bullheads,
though a lot of 'em is killed b the fresh water
comin' down. Ya see that log, like an island
with grass on top? When an otter's fishin' he
lies on one of them logs out o' sight in the
grass, an' there's jest where I set my trap
an' ketch 'em every time."
The Mitom Pomo
- Early Settlements
Big River's two
histories, one natural and the other cultural, converged
sometime in the last 10,000 years. Ten thousand years
ago, the sea level was some 300 feet below where we
know it today and Big River was 3 1/2 miles longer.
There was no Mendocino headland. Big River cut through
a marine escarpment emptying into the Pacific. The lower
sea level allowed Asians to cross to North America.
Among them were people of the Hokan language family
who made their way south and settled in California.
The Pomo a distinct and isolated Hokan group occupied
what are now Mendocino, Lake and Sonoma counties.
When the Pomo arrived
is not known, nor do we know what they found. They may
have lived along a coast now buried underwater but nevertheless,
by the time Europeans arrived they were well established
in Mendocino County. The Me-tum'mah, or Mitom Pomo,
lived in the area of Little Lake Valley near Willits
and claimed the coast from south of the Noyo River at
what is now Fort Bragg, to just north of the Navarro
River, eighteen miles south.
Big River is the
principle stream draining land from just west and south
of Willits. The area was prolific. Near Willits were
abundant oaks producing the Mitom's dietary staple,
acorns. To the west was Big River and the Pacific teeming
with wildlife and importantly, kelp, a source of salt.
To make tools, the Mitom traded with the another Pomo
group, the Mato who made their coastal encampment north
of the Noyo River. The Mato had direct access to obsidian,
a volcanic glass, used to make points (arrow and spear
heads) scrapers and other tools. Bits of obsidian can
still be found throughout the Mendocino area.
The Mitom called their
coastal camp "Bool-dam"or Buldam signifying
"big holes" for the blowholes on the headlands
at Mendocino and Russian Gulch. The name "Big River"
is believed to have been derived from the Pomo name,
rather than a direct reference to its size, although
one might suppose that Little River received its name
in relation to "Big" River.
The center of Mitom
life was the sweat lodge which was located on the ridge,
above the river in today's east Mendocino. This was
not a village, but a large gathering spot. Small family
encampments were sprinkled about. Shelters were made
of Redwood Bark formed into a cone shape, about ten
feet in diameter and five feet high. Inside, the floor
was dug out one and a half to two feet. Redwood bark
is resistant to insects and decay and remnants of one
of these can be found on Pomo Lane off Point Cabrillo
Buldam was not a permanent home for the Mitom until
they sought to escape the influx of Europeans settling
Little Lake Valley. They permanently moved to Buldam
in approximately 1850.
setup near freshwater springs and occasionally artifact
remnants can be be found, including pieces of worked
obsidian, broken pestles used for grinding and worked
pieces of chert. The fate of the Mitom is not clearly
known. Some were part of 200 Pomos who were rounded
up by the U.S. Army in the early 1850's and removed
from the coast.
The Age of Logging
and Nat Smith
Just a year before
the Mitom moved to Buldam, gold was discovered at Sutter's
Mill attracting tens of thousands to California. Among
them a highly motivated entrepreneur, thirteen (?) year
old Nathaniel Smith, came as far as San Francisco where
he established a ferry service between the City and
Sausalito. One report suggests that he may have become
a wealthy teenager as he charged $16 per person!
After hearing that
the unsettled north coast offered plentiful game and
fish, Nat sold his ferry and moved to just slightly
north of present day Elk. He partnered with Francisco
Faria, known as Portuguese Frank, and both later claimed
that they were the first two non-natives to live on
the coast. Nat's color gave the area its name, Cuffy's
Cove "cuffy" was another term for Negro.
Moving further north, by 1852, he was living in a cabin
on the Mendocino Headlands which was later claimed to
have been originally built by a shipwrecked German sailor,
William Kasten. Jerome Ford bought Nat's claim to the
cabin for $100 according to research by Martin Simpson
writing for the Mendocino Historical Research, Inc.
Newsletter (No. 54; Winter 2002/2003).
Lumber was needed
to build San Francisco and loggers flooded into the
area. Early logging exploited the huge redwoods rising
above Big River and did not immediately impact wildlife.
The techniques included sawing trees by hand, pulling
out their trunks by oxen, floating them in Big River
and its tributaries, holding them at dams called booms,
and eventually floating them to Big River beach where
they were either hauled to the early mill on the Mendocino
headlands or sawn at the newer mill on Big River Beach.
Damage to the ecosystem
and the animals dependent on it became manifest. And
damage has continued - some from industrial logging
techniques, some from climatic changes, and some from
local residents who considered themselves - ironically
as it turned out - environmentalists.
Twenty years ago
a few salmon still sought their spawning beds and the
crab that ate remnants of roe and and of the salmon
who fulfilled their destiny could be watched scooting
along the bottom of the estuary. Now, even the few crab
and salmon are almost gone. What happened? The demise
of these resources may well be a result of damage created
to spawning beds by local "salvagers" who
pried and removed prized first growth logs long buried
in Big River's bed. Working out of sight of the State
Lands Commission and the Department of Fish and Game,
these "salvagers," most likely unintentionally,
damaged the river's gravel beds.
First White Resident? The Early History of the Land which is home
to the Stanford Inn by the Sea
Nathaniel Smith may very well have been
the first non-Pomo who lived on what is now the grounds
of the Stanford Inn. "I was the first white man
that come to Cuffey's Cove, an' Portugee Frank was the
next un." he told a writer for the Overland Monthly
in 1892. The writer, Meta Hanen, commented, "It
was evident that the word 'white' was not intended to
be facetious, for the bright eyes that met mine had
no twinkle in their depths, and the mobile lips wore
a respectful smile. He probably used the term in contradistinction
A popular man, much is known about Nat's
exploits and an extensive record of his life is contained
in articles from The Mendocino Beacon. However
the record is confusing. As noted above some researchers
believed him younger than others. Copies of notes taken
at the 1860 census and that for 1870, give his age as
45 and 33 respectively. Apparently Nat grew younger
explaining his two substantially different birth
dates, 1815 and 1837. He died an older man on March
24th, 1908 (71 or 93?) or perhaps was it March 21, 1906,
another date given?
Regardless of his age, after selling the
cabin on the headlands, Nat moved to the south shore
of Big River's mouth, to a cabin most likely
near or on the site of the red house at the Stanford
Inn by the Sea, on the other side of the road from Catch
A Canoe. Here he raised his young family and teaming
up with Portuguese Frank he provided fresh game for
the loggers who poured into the area.
Nat and his family would have needed fresh
water because the river was briny. The closest water
welling-up to the surface known today is from the spring
which feeds the pond that can be seen in the 1981 photograph
at the bottom of this page.
Wherever it was located, the Smith home
was near the south side of the ferry that transported
people and their goods across Big River until the first
bridge was completed in 1860. This bridge was the first
of five low bridges which crossed the river each with
a slightly different abutment. Today's high bridge was
built in 1960 to replace the flood prone lower bridge.
||The color image taken from the old
bridge abutment is just to the north of the original
ferry landing. The land here is composed of fill
and Nat Smith's home would have been both behind
and to the right of the photographer's position.
|Eventually the land was cleared south
of the ferry landing and became a site for farming
produce and fruit to supply the town. Who began
farming here is not certain, perhaps it was Nat's
wife or perhaps a later resident. In any case, Nat
moved on, living in various places including East
Mendocino where he was reported to have owned a
house of prostitution.