In 2001 a lone skiffmoved 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.
“There was 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.”
Even during 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.”
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 Drive.
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.
Households were 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.
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.
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 to Indian….”
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.
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.