Setting is a critical part of bringing events and people to life in historical fiction. Only by conveying weather, terrain, smells, sounds, and other details of how people lived can the writer hope to immerse a reader in the historical backdrop of the story. To accomplish that and to construct a realistic world, I need to visualize it myself, see the story’s characters moving around in it, enter that world myself.
I visit the actual locations, if possible, and consult numerous histories, newspapers, diaries, maps, photographs, and drawings. In the course of my research, I occasionally stumble over a real gem, something that provides a key piece of the puzzle or otherwise helps complete the construction of the place in my mind. Such was the case with a survey that revealed 1866 Greenwood, Mendocino County frontier town otherwise known as Elk.
Finding the 1866 Greenwood Survey
Greenwood is situated between Greenwood Creek and the Navarro River, thirteen miles south of the town of Mendocino. It’s one of four locations used in my novel The Standing-Ground.
When the residents of Greenwood petitioned for a post office in 1887, it was assigned the name Elk because a Greenwood post office already existed in El Dorado County (more on that in a minute). The names Elk and Greenwood have been used interchangeably ever since.
While reading through a 1970s study conducted when the beach at Greenwood was about to become a state park, I found a reference to a survey of Greenwood and Cuffey’s Cove (one mile north of Greenwood) that had been conducted by the Surveyor General in 1866. After contacting numerous State and Federal agencies, I was able to obtain a copy of the survey from the Bureau of Land Management.
Greenwood and Cuffey’s Cove weren’t even towns in 1866. The area was a sprawling, loosely defined settlement consisting of farms, timber cutting operations, and at least one hand-cut railroad tie outfit. A large sawmill had been in operation on the Navarro River since 1861, but the area was otherwise undeveloped.
I’ve been to Elk many times and, from reading local histories, had a rough idea of what it looked like between 1851 and 1870 when the first sawmill went into operation. But the histories weren’t specific about where certain settlers lived and didn’t provide other important information, like the location of roads. The 1866 survey showed many of those details and helped correct a number of inaccurate assumptions.
Since the complete survey is much too large to include on a website, I’ve clipped several sections that contain important details.
Section 1: The Navarro River
The first thing I noticed was the spelling of the Navarro River. It’s labeled as Navarra on Mexican land grants, presumably a carryover from early Spanish exploration. In the diary he kept of his overland trip through the area in 1852, Jerome Ford called it the Navata River. Then again, Ford had a penchant for misspelling names. I haven’t tracked down the origin of the name or it’s correct spelling because it’s incidental to my story. I use Navarro in deference to a modern audience and explain the other variations in the author’s notes.
The dotted line north of the river is the road to Andersen Valley (a recent name for that area in 1866) which appears slightly north of current day Highway 128. The road follows what is now known as Navarro Ridge Road and was originally built by John Gschwend to service his sawmill. The house and school adjacent to the road are too close to the mouth of the river to be part of Wending Woods (modern day Navarro), so people connected with the Navarro Mill at the river may have lived there. Traveling north of the river was more feasible after 1862 when a toll bridge was constructed. The bridge is indicated with a dashed line on the map.
Also of note is the dashed line skirting the coast which was the wagon road that ran south to Point Arena and beyond, roughly along the route of modern day Highway 1. Further inland, we see markings for a few scattered homes, the trail to the logging grounds, and cow pastures.
Section 2: Cuffey’s Cove
A few settler names appear in this section, such as Captain Tucker (and his surprisingly large garden) and Doyle’s Creek which was probably named for Dinny Doyle, who later operated a lumber chute at Cuffey’s Cove.Conspicuously absent is James Kenney’s house, which should appear somewhere east of Doyle’s Creek. Kenney is generally credited with laying out Cuffey’s Cove and owned much of the land there. Also of note is the wagon road leading to timber, most likely used by James Kenney and another railroad tie producer named John Kimball.
Section 3: Greenwood, Bonee Ranch, and Clift’s Ridge
At the very top of the map is the Donahue House. Michael Donahue owned most of the land by the 1870s. The creek labeled Donahue’s Creek is now known as Greenwood Creek.
The name Greenwood still in evidence everywhere around modern Elk comes from four brothers who settled in the area around 1854, though that date is often disputed. They were the sons of a pioneer from El Dorado County who is credited with saving members of the Donner party. The other town of Greenwood, the one with the post office of that name, is in El Dorado County and is named for the elder Greenwood.
The Greenwood brothers spread out south of the creek but the majority of their land was adjacent to the dashed line labeled as the Greenwood Trail and was later purchased by a man named Bonee. The area is still called Bonee Ranch. The B. Greenwood house is identified south of the trail and belonged to the oldest brother, Britt. Oddly enough, the Greenwoods packed up and left before their namesake town materialized. Their land passed through numerous hands, including Donahue.
In 1887, when San Francisco Lumber King Lorenzo White was unable to acquire James Kenney’s lumber chutes at Cuffey’s Cove, he bought up much of Donahue’s land and built one of the largest lumber mills on the coast. Lorenzo wasn’t a stranger to the area. In 1858, he owned land above (east of) the Greenwood brothers that he’d purchased from a whaler friend of his named Osro Clift. The area is still known as Clift Ridge or Cliff Ridge.
Melding Present and Past
Once I was able to fix some of the history and personal stories to actual places on the map, the entire area came even more to life for me. I felt more confident about where my characters would go and how. I felt better able to describe the landscape in a scene. More importantly—and this is why I love understanding the history of a place—I can walk through modern Elk and see it, simultaneously, as it is now and how it was then. I can walk along the margins of history and see both sides.