Nathaniel Smith: Black Pioneer of the Mendocino Coast

Trader Cabin

Drawing by Frank Blackwell Mayer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

People are often surprised to learn that an African American was one of the first non-indiginious settlers on the Mendocino Coast. While details are often contested, it’s widely agreed that Nathaniel Smith settled on a coastal bluff roughly six miles south of the Navarro River and just north of present day Elk sometime between 1851 and 1854. Other than a few official artifacts, such as a homestead deed, some census records and a few receipts, the accounts of Nat’s long life in Mendocino County vary a great deal. He ran ferries. He hunted and fished for the lumber mills. He was a teamster and drove a stage. He raced horses, was an excellent marksman, and a competent gaucho. He owned several tracts of land at different times and was married to at least 3 different women.

The stories were so intriguing, I felt compelled to include Nat as a central character in The Relentless Harvest. In so doing, I had to piece together a comprehensive history for Nat, filling in the blank spots with what I hope will be regarded as plausible fiction. What follows is part of the patchwork of history behind Nat’s role in the story.

Early Years

Nathaniel Smith was born in Baltimore in 1831 to Nathaniel and Harriet Smith who were listed as free blacks in the 1840 Maryland census. He doesn’t show up in official records again until the 1850 Marin County census as a servant living in the Olden B. Hill household in Saucelito (the original spelling of Sausalito, CA). Some stories claim that Nat arrived in San Francisco in 1848 or 1849 along with fellow Sausalito resident, Charles Fletcher. Both Nat and Fletcher were living on William Richardson’s Saucelito Rancho in 1850 and Fletcher was farming Richardson’s land, though it’s not clear if he was leasing a tract or working for Richardson.

Ship's Boat with Sail. Original painting by Seth Eastman, c.1850.

Ship’s Boat With Sail. Painting by Seth Eastman, c.1850.

Nat is known to have operated a ferry between San Francisco and Sausalito for several years. The ferry was likely a ship’s boat rigged with a sail. I found an 1849 handwritten receipt acknowledging payment to Nat for towing a boat from Sausalito to San Francisco. The receipt also reveals that  Nat was illiterate because it was written by the boat owner and signed with Nat’s X. Later documents were also penned by other people and signed with an X, though the 1880 Mendocino Census indicates Nat could read and write. He may have acquired those skills by that time but it could also have been an error on the census taker’s part.

Migration to the Mendocino Coast

In 1851 or 1852, Fletcher sailed for the Mendocino coast in his whaling ship with Nat among the crew members. Nat would eventually settle on the bluff north of the Navarro River along with another man named Frank Faria (also known as Farnier). Fletcher settled several miles north at the mouth of the Navarro River. The land occupied by all three men was part of the extensive Albion Rancho owned by none other than William Richardson of Sausalito. I’ve found no record of a land sale and Richardson’s grant lands were being disputed by the California Lands Commission at the time, but there may have been some sort of gentleman’s agreement among the men.

The town of Elk from Cuffey's Cove [public domain]

The town of Elk from Cuffey’s Cove [public domain]

Nat built a cabin just north of the present day Elk School. The drawing at the top of this post is probably a close approximation of what it looked like, though it was undoubtedly smaller. Frank Faria built a cabin north of him and both men farmed the land. At some point prior to 1858, the bluff became known as Cuffey’s Cove. There are several theories about the name but the one that seems most likely is that cuffey was a British or Australian slur and the bluff was named for Nat. This is consistent with the fact that Nat was often called “Nigger Nat,” presumably to differentiate him from some other Nat Smith. Despite these two offensive terms, all accounts indicate that he was well liked and no harm was intended. Welcome to the rugged, white-dominated, 19th century coast.

The Move to Mendocino

Sometime between 1854 and 1856, Nat and Frank began hunting for the lumber mills. Frank sold his claim in 1858 and moved inland to Orrs Springs. Nat soon followed suit, presumably sharing Frank’s land. The arrangement apparently didn’t work out and by September of 1858, Nat was in Mendocino working for William Heeser and living on a plot of Heeser land on the south side of the Big River. In 1870, Nat and his wife Caroline appear on a deed for a tract of land by the Big River. It’s unclear if this is the same plot he’d occupied in the agreement with Heeser but Heeser drafted and signed the deed.

Nat and his family moved several times after that: he owned land much further inland and another plot further north. I’ve found no documentation showing if he sold land when he moved or if he kept acquiring it.

Rising to the Challenge of 19th Century California

Even by the mid-1850s, trouble was brewing for people of color in California. There were frequent skirmishes between settlers and the local Pomo communities. Chivalry Democrats, who were pro-slavery Southern sympathizers, passed California’s own version of the Fugitive Slave Act and, by 1870, would take aim at the large Chinese population with the Chinese Exclusion Act. White workers were up in arms that jobs were allegedly going to people of color who would work harder, longer, and for lower wages. And, of course, racism was rampant. The population of Mendocino County was surprisingly diverse but that doesn’t mean everyone got along. I found numerous written accounts of white people commenting on the limitations and faults of their Portuguese, Mexican, Native American, Chinese and African American neighbors.

Given the social and political backdrop, it is remarkable that Nathaniel Smith not only survived but seems to have thrived. Many of the white men who worked in the lumber camps and mills, those who weren’t managers of some sort, made less money, owned no property, and spent their entire lives in a cycle of long hours and dangerous work while spending most their wages in the company-run stores, saloons, and brothels.

Nathaniel Smith died in 1906 at the age of 75, survived by this third wife and several children. He is still fondly remembered by long time residents of Mendocino County.

7 Replies to “Nathaniel Smith: Black Pioneer of the Mendocino Coast”

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  2. Hi Keith,
    I wondered if you came upon any information about his descendants? I’ve lived near the Mendo and Sonoma coasts since the 60’s and there were very few black in the early days. I knew many had to go to Solano Co to find housing because of the racial prejudice hereabouts. I’ll look forward to your book. Arletta

    • As a matter of fact, I discovered some of his descendants on Ancestry.com. I paid for a month’s subscription because someone had some artifacts I hadn’t seen. It turned out that on of Nat’s children was a “native” girl, as the relative put it, who was informally adopted by Nat and his Pomo wife Caroline. So it’s not a blood relative. However, that little girl was this person’s great grandmother and the family has lived around the Fort Bragg area since the 19th century.

      I haven’t seen any other evidence of African Americans in that area but, to be truthful, I haven’t scoured the census records looking for people recorded as being black. Given that the lumber camps served as west coast melting pot, as did the gold mines, it’s not out of the question that other African Americans made an appearance. In my story, I have a lithographer who is passing as white (based loosely on Grafton Tyler Brown), making a brief appearance. And my next book in the series will focus on the Native Americans and Chinese populations in the Mendocino City/Fort Bragg area. Nat lived until 1906, so he’ll make appearances here and there.

      • I’m one of his descendants! His daughter Emma, is my GGG grandmother, making him my GGGG grandfather! His granddaughter Lena Salvador (my GG grandmother) lived 1893-1998. I am trying to learn more about my history. I am the 6th generation to have been born in Mendo. I probably have hundreds of cousins! Many still live there yes. I am always eager to learn more about my ancestors. I don’t know much about Nathaniels wife, nor his daughter Emma. I’m on a mission!

        • It’s exciting to hear from one of Nathaniel’s descendants. I may have some information you’ll find helpful but will share that via email. I’m at the the Bay Area Book Festival all weekend but will get in touch early next week. Thanks for taking the time to read the story and for getting in touch.

          • I have very little info on his wives other than names and the info I have from various sources is often conflicting. A lack of written marriage records suggests all of them were common law marriages. And all of the wives were native or partly native women. Given the attitudes and laws back then, the details were of little interest to most people. There are other issues causing confusion as well, such as one of the wives allegedly being Nathaniel’s adopted daughter. I don’t delve into those issues in my story. I note that Nathaniel is married in certain scenes but, in this first book at least, don’t show any action within the family. I learned that Nathaniel was granted the fishing rights of native people and that he was permitted to fish with a net. So I manufactured a scene with him using traditional Pomo fishing techniques.

Thoughts, questions, or comments?