navarro by the sea center

Fletcher's Arrival
on the Mendocino Coast
Who Came with Him and When?

There are conflicting stories about Fletcher's arrival on the Mendocino Coast, but all of them include a ship.1 According to some versions, he was the captain of a whaling boat with a kanaka crew. The word kanaka refers to the inhabitants of the Sandwich Islands (now Hawaii). They were known as some of the best whalers of their time. Fletcher did not know how to write (he signed his deeds with an “X”), and surely did not take a captain's examination, but during the wild days of the Gold Rush, many able bodied seamen became “captains” in the Port of San Francisco. Ships of all kinds were going begging after their captains and crews abandoned them for the gold fields.

In all versions of Fletcher's “arrival” story there is an initial landing near what later became Cuffey's Cove. One or more grizzly bear were sighted on the shore. Fletcher, a crack shot, landed with several others to hunt for provisions. Almost all versions of the story include the young African American, Nathaniel Smith, some stating that he was the ship's cabin boy. Elsie Schaeffer Nystrom (later Farnsworth), who was Charles Fletcher's granddaughter, told a version of the story which is similar in many particulars to that told by local resident Jim Skiffington. Both Fletcher's granddaughter's version and that of Jim Skiffington include the naming of the cove, relating the name to bear.

Elsie says: “And he [Fletcher] sailed in close along the Mendocino Coast. He went close to what is now Cuffey's Cove. There the crew said, 'Oh, Captain! A big cuffey! A big cuffey!' That was a bear, it was climbing up the bank. And so Cuffey's Cove got its name from the bear.”

When asked about Nathaniel Smith she says in her taped interview: “He [Nathaniel] came with Grandfather... in later years he went up to Mendocino, and when I first went to high school at Mendocino he was still living in a little old house on the south side of Big River, right at the end of the bridge over the bank there. I don't know if that old house is still there or not...”2

A slightly different version of the arrival story appears in a letter which Jim Skiffington of Melburne sent to Ray H. Wolfe. Wolfe published the letter in his column, “Wolfe Howls”, (The Mendocino Beacon, May 1948). The story was apparently told to Skiffington by Francisco Faria, known locally as “Portagee Frank” who at one time ran a saloon at Melburne. In this version, Faria was part of the adventure.

Skiffington writes: “[Faria] came to Mendocino in 1851. He and six others left San Francisco in a whale boat and skirted the shores and camped at night. They came ashore at what is now Elk or Greenwood. As they came up on the bank, Charley Fletcher was in the lead, and there were about 10 or 12 immense grizzly bears feeding on the clover. He [Fletcher]called a bear a Cuffy. He said to the others: 'This is a regular cuffy's cove.' So the place was named Cuffy's Cove.” Skiffington adds: “In the whale boat with Frank and Fletcher was a negro, long known on the coast as Nigger Nat. He had a place in what is now East Mendocino, and it was then called Fury Town.”

The Landing Place

Cuffey's Cove is located on the coast about 3 1/2 miles south of the Navarro River. Laurel Creek, just north of Cuffey's Cove, is the most likely initial landing place. Laurel Creek fits the description of the stories, providing fresh water and excellent bear habitat. The small cove is very well protected by the projection of the bluff and is relatively free of submerged rocks.3

Francisco Faria (“Portagee Frank”)

Earl Thurston, great grandson of Charles Fletcher maintains that the arrival story his Aunt Elsie always told, included Nathaniel Smith but did not include Faria. Nathaniel Smith is listed in the Marin County Census of 1850, living not far from Charles Fletcher. Faria is not listed in the Marin County Census.

Skiffington in “Wolf Howls”, May 1948 (op cit.) writes: “This man Frank Faria was on this coast in whalers in 1825. He was a native of the Azores and was 106 years old at the time of his death.” The inscription on Faria's headstone in the Roman Catholic cemetery, Mendocino, is written in Portuguese. It gives a birth date of February 14, 1798 in Pico, Azores, and a death date of October 31, 1904. His age is given as: “105 years, 3 months, 14 days.” The whaling ship of 1825 is clearly not the ship connected with Fletcher and Smith.

Francisco Faria
Francisco Faria ("Portagee Frank") Kelley House Museum (Mendocino Historical Research, Inc. #132-34

Elsa Thompson in an article written in preparation for her book, Early Settlers of Comptche Along its Many Roads (1993), cites Henry Stauers as follows: “Frank [Faria] had said he had come to America on a whaling ship and deserted the ship to join the Mexican army. His troop was sent to Lake county and Ukiah in the 1830's, where he deserted again and went to live with the Indians.”

A brief article about Faria while he was still alive, published in The Mendocino Beacon (May 6, 1899) says: “It may be of interest to some to know that Frank [Francisco Faria] came to this coast nearly fifty years ago. His first work was done at the Albion, where he aided in the construction of the old water mill.”

The mill referred to is probably that built for William Richardson's Rancho Albion. Sullenberger says: “Richardson quickly realized the value of the timber on his land. In 1852, he contracted with a man simply identified as Scarf [J. Scharf?], to build a water-powered sawmill on the Albion.” Estaban Richardson's testimony of October 1853 as quoted by Sullenberger states: “a mill was begun on the Albion River for sawing timber which is now about finished...” If Faria's first job in the Mendocino area was working on the mill at Albion, he must have arrived no earlier than 1852 and not much later than October of 1853.

Several sources, including Thompson, connect Francisco Faria with the Frank Ferrier of San Francisco who purchased 510 acres of land at Rancho Albion from William Richardson on June 2, 1853 for $1,530 (Sonoma County Book of Deeds, Bk "M," p. 185[211]). The land is described as “Section fifty four/54/, Range Eleven/11 /from the sectional map surveyed and sworn to by James Thornton, Esq. enclosing five hundred and ten acres of land...” On July 22nd of the same year, Ferrier (then of Mendocino County) sold the same tract of land for the same price to Augustin Caseres, also of Mendocino County. If Frank Ferrier is Francisco Faria, then he apparently did not arrive in Mendocino County until 1853, and only owned the land for about two months. The 510 acres described in the deed is often connected with the Portuguese Rancho and placed near Greenwood (Elk) or Cuffey's Cove. However, it cannot be the land which Faria is said to have sold to Kenney, “for some cattle”.4 Nor can Faria's early presence at Cuffey's Cove be connected with the “Portagees Rancho” mentioned by Jerome Ford in his Diary of 1852. As has been proven, that “rancho” was located to the north of the Navarro River.5

It would appear that Faria did not arrive on the Mendocino coast with Charles Fletcher, but came separately and at a slightly later date. The evidence for Nathaniel Smith, however, is much stronger.

Nathaniel Smith

Nathaniel Smith
The young Nathaniel Smith, probably taken in San Francisco (Kelley House/ Mendocino Historical Research, Inc.)

The 1850 Census of Rancho Sausalito in Marin county helps to confirm the story that Nathaniel Smith came with Charles Fletcher to the Mendocino coast. Smith is listed in that census in household No. 45, just six houses away from Charles Fletcher's boarding house ( No. 39 in the census). At No. 45, Olden B. Hill, age 48, and born in Rhode Island was listed as “head of the household”. Residing in the same house are Benjamin Hill, age 43, (probably a younger brother of Olden) and Mary Hill, age 43, apparently Benjamin's wife. Mary gives her birthplace as Maryland. Two of the three other members of the household were also born in Maryland (Belt and Brewer). Nathaniel Smith is described as a “mulatto” servant in the Hill household. He gave his birthplace as “Baltimore, Maryland” and his age as 19, only two years younger than Fletcher. Baltimore, Maryland is also listed as place of birth on Smith's death certificate, dated March 21, 1906 in the town of Mendocino. Both his birthplace and his presence in the Hill household in 1850 suggest that Nathaniel Smith came with Mary Hill and her husband to California.

After arriving on the Mendocino coast, Nathaniel Smith probably settled on the headlands north of Rio Grande (Big River), an area outside of Richardson's Rancho Albion grant. The Pomo called the area “Booldam” (blow hole). William Kasten, a shipwrecked German sailor, was apparently the first European to settle there. He called the bay the Port of Good Hope. For a short time, between 1852 and 1854 the area seems to have been known as Meiggsville, and then as Mendocino City. Henry Meiggs was the president and major investment partner in the California Lumber Manufacturing Co. which built the mill. According to D. Bear and B. Stebbins in their book, Mendocino, (2nd ed, 1997, p. 7) in the fall of 1854 Meiggs “found himself in financial difficulties... In order to escape his creditors [he] secretly acquired a ship and captain to take him, his family and their possessions to Chile...” Ford and Edwards C. Williams were left to restructure the company at Mendocino and pay off the indebtedness.

In 1852, however, Jerome Bursley Ford had instructions to purchase the headlands for a mill site. His first purchase was made at the Garcia Rancho on June 14, 1852. This land with its cabin is usually associated with the Kasten claim. It seems probable that the “Blacksmith” claim actually belonged to Nathaniel Smith. Ford and Warner stayed overnight at the Garcia Rancho on their way up the coast with the oxen for the mill. Ford's entry for Monday, June 14, 1852 states: “Arrived at Gassier [Garcia] Rancho at 9 o'clock. Bought the Blacksmith claim on 'Bul Don' for 100$.”

Later entries in Ford's 1852 Diary make it clear that the Kasten claim was on the far western portion of the headlands, and that Ford's first claim, purchased from “Blacksmith” was further to the east. Ford's entry for Friday, June 17, 1852 says: “...-So we are at our journey's End. This is rather a pleasant Place - am stopping in the House I Bought of 'The Blacksmith'.” Ford capitalizes both words and places quotes around them, as he often does for proper names. His entry for June 18, 1852 says: “Today have been looking about defining Boundries -"Mr. Caston" has a claim on the point - which with the claim I purchased makes up the whole of the Point - all living here now are 6 - 'Warner' 'Caston' myself & 3 'Germans'. The Harbor is a very large Bay and River entering from the Mountain from 20 miles up.”

Ford had not yet purchased any of Kasten's claim for the mill company. Kasten must, therefore, have been occupying his own cabin, while Ford and probably Warner, stayed in the cabin on “Blacksmith” claim.

Most authors, including Martha Sullenberger (Dog Holes and Donkey Engines: Sacramento,1980 p, 19) and David Warren Ryder (Memories of the Mendocino Coast, San Francisco: 1948, p. 6) either did not have access to Ford's 1852 Diary, or did not read it carefully. Ryder suggests that Gebhard Hegenmeyer may have settled in the area as early as Kasten.

In fact, at the time that Ford purchased the “Blacksmith” claim, Gebhard Hegenmeyer had not yet arrived in the United States. His whereabouts in the spring and summer of 1852 are well documented. Lyman Palmer, in his History of Mendocino County, California (San Francisco 1880: p. 541) states that in the spring of 1852, Gebhard Hegenmeyer was on board ship, sailing from Rotterdam to England: ' Liverpool he shipped on board the sailing vessel Henry Clay for New York. From there he sailed on the steamer Illinois to Panama, and thence to San Francisco on the steamer Northerner, arriving in August. He then went to Sonoma, Sonoma County and from there proceeded on foot to Mendocino County, arriving early in September of that year [1852].' Ford purchased the “Blacksmith” claim in June of 1852, four months earlier than Gebhard's arrival in Mendocino County.

In her column, “Presenting the Past” (The Mendocino Beacon, August 6, 1989), Helen Smith says of Nathaniel Smith “...he used to like to say he was the only 'blacksmith' on the coast.” The name “Blacksmith” plays not only on Nathaniel's race, but also on the sound of his real name: Nat Smith. The evidence from Ford's Diary of 1852 combined with Smith's habit of calling himself the "“only Black Smith on the coast,” strongly suggests that Ford's “Blacksmith” was Nathaniel Smith.6

There is no question that Smith and Faria later settled at or near Cuffey's Cove, probably in 1853, and were the first European/ American settlers there. Walter Matson, in his book Reminiscences of a Town with Two Names, Greenwood, Known also as Elk(1980), places Faria at Cuffey's Cove, on land later purchased by James Kenney, and Nathaniel Smith on land further to the south, which was later purchased by Michael Donahue. That positioning would associate Francisco Faria with Cuffey's Cove and place Nathaniel Smith in Greenwood/Elk near where the Roman Catholic Church now stands. Most accounts say simply that Nathaniel Smith “settled nearby”. There is no record of a transaction between Faria and/or Smith and Kenney and/or Donahue in the County records.

Matson, like Thompson, uses Ford's 1852 Diary to identify the “Portagees Rancho” with Cuffey's Cove. This is not substantiated, however, by Ford's Diary entries. Matson says the men [Ford and Warner] “were in desperate straits by the time they reached 'Portuguese Farm' at Cuffey's cove and laid over two days to recuperate.” 7 Matson seems to be confusing the single overnight stay at Garcia's Rancho (after Ford and Warner lost their single pack mule at the Russian River) with the breakfast at the “Portagees Rancho”. Both Ford and Warner locate the “Portagees Rancho” north of the Navarro River in their trip diaries. Matson's version of the story is an excellent example of the problems that can occur when oral tradition becomes disassociated from the actual documents.

Other local authors quote Nathaniel as saying that he moved to the Cuffey's Cove area with Francisco Faria, known locally as “Portuguese Frank”. In her column, “Presenting the Past”, (The Mendocino Beacon, August 6, 1986 ) Helen Smith quotes Nathaniel as saying of Francisco Faria and himself: “We's about the first white men here”, to differentiate himself and Faria from the Pomo Indians. Helen Smith gives no source for her information. She could not have known Smith, who died March 21, 1906. However, Eleanor Sverko in her book Early Portuguese Families of the Town of Mendocino (1995) quotes part of an obituary notice for Faria from The Mendocino Beacon ( Nov. 5,1904) which says: "“Nathaniel 'Nigger Nat' Smith, the first colored man on the Mendocino coast, settled alongside of Frank, and the saying is familiar to all in these parts, and Nat is always proud of the distinction, that he and Frank were the first 'white' men to settle on the Mendocino Coast.”8

The name “Cuffey's Cove” may be related to Nathaniel himself, since "“cuffey”" is a word which was then used in the south to refer to African Americans.9 There is also some reason to associate the word with the grizzly bears which the Fletcher party is said to have seen at the initial landing place. The verb “to cuff” is still used in Scotland to describe the kind of hitting action which not only humans but bears make. Since Fletcher was Scottish in origin, it could be that he, or one of his crew, named the place. Both versions have validity.

More about Nathaniel Smith

George James

George James was one of the first settlers in what became Mendocino City. George W. James is also listed in the Marin Census of 1850. He lived in the same boarding house with Charles Fletcher at Rancho Sausalito. He gave his age as 31. Like Fletcher, his occupation is given in the census as “farmer”. Both Ford's 1852 Diary and Sonoma County deeds prove that George James held a claim on the Big River headland. When Ford arrived in 1852, he immediately began to purchase land on the headlands for the mill. His Diary gives us the approximate position of George James' claim. Ford states in his diary of June 22, 1852: “Have taken up The next claim East on the River, that is east of "James" and Blacksmith claim (so called)...” It is interesting to note that by using the expression, “so called” in his diary entry for June 22, Ford brings attention to the fact that “Blacksmith” is neither the “real” name nor the trade of the original claimant.

James sold his claim to Ford on November 2, 1852 for $250 (Sonoma County Book of Deeds, Book "F" pp. 135-136). The claim is described as immediately adjacent and to the north of the Blacksmith claim: “near the Northern bank of the river called Rio Grande or Big River Bounded and described as follows to wit namely Commencing at the North west corner of the parcel of land known as the Blacksmiths claim and from thence running due north one hundred and sixty (160) Rods thence due East one hundred and sixty (160) Rods thence due South one hundred and sixty (160) Rods and thence due West one hundred and sixty (160) Rods to the place of beginning comprising one quarter section of land...” Because the Marin Census of 1850 lists George W. James in the same boarding house with Charles Fletcher, and Ford's Diary proves that James was already living on the Mendocino headlands in June of 1852 when Ford arrived there with the oxen for the mill, it seems likely that George James also came on the ship with Fletcher and Smith. He sold his claim to Ford in November of 1852, apparently moved away from the area, and was soon forgotten.


When did Charles Fletcher settle at the Navarro River? Estaban Richardson's court evidence of October 1853, shows that a cabin had been built and some land cultivated near the mouth of the Navarro by that date. Evidence from Ford's Diary of June, 1852, mentioning “the Navata House”, suggests that Fletcher's cabin was already built by that time. Ford's diary entries concerning land purchases show that George James and “the Blacksmith” (or Nat Smith) both had claims on the Mendocino headlands by the summer of 1852. All of them had been living at Sausalito in November of 1850. Nathaniel Smith was still residing there at the beginning of 1851. There is a receipt dated February 1, 1851 made out to him from E. T. Whittelsey for “assistance to pull a Boat four times to Corte de Madera” (see Smith website). If all of the men came together in a whaling ship to the north coast, then they must have left Sausalito after February 1, 1851, and arrived—first at Laurel Creek and then probably at the anchorage at Richardson's Rancho Albion— probably in that same year.

Footnotes: “Fletcher's Arrival on the Mendocino Coast and Who Came with Him.”

(1) For more on the “arrival” stories, their errors and confusions, see the footnoted version of the article published by Hillary Adams, “Three Men in a Boat”, Kelley House Calendar, The Mendocino Beacon, June 17, 1999. Some of the confusion concerning Ford's trip in 1852 can be traced to David Warren Ryder's book, Memories of the Mendocino Coast, San Francisco, 1948. He refers to Ford's 1852 Diary several times (pp. 7 and 53) but makes a number of errors in fact. Apparently he did not actually read the Diary.

Faria may have “adopted” Nathaniel's popular story as his own. In an article written by Elsa E. Thompson in preparation for her book Early Settlers of Comptche Along its Many Roads (1993), Thompson writes that Henry Stauers quoted Nathaniel Smith as saying: “That Portugee Frank was the biggest liar in the world, but because he was such a little man and talked so much and so long, at least half of what he said had to be true. He hadn't time to make up lies for all of it.”

Both Faria and Smith seem to have enjoyed recounting their life adventures to interested hearers. Although Thompson identifies her source in this instance, that is not often the case. On p. 47 of her book she gives a slightly different twist to the Cuffey's Cove tale. She says: “He [Nathaniel Smith] was with Frank [Faria] when they went to Cuffey's Cove in the winter of 1852, and Nat always said that they were the first two white men on the coast, and at that, he was first, since he was ahead of Frank on the trail.”

(2) Elsie Farnsworth, quoted in Bruce Levene et al, Mendocino County Remembered, an Oral History, Vol. 1, p. 137. Interview Tape No. 80-5-64X, Mendocino County Museum, Willits. However, she assigns the “bear-attack” story (which rightly belonged Faria) to Nathaniel. Elsie, who made the recording in her old age, also confuses the issue of the arrival on the Mendocino coast by saying: “His [Fletcher's] crew was all Kanakas, when he sailed around the Horn, when he came here.” In the tape, she hesitates in her speech at this point, as though she were trying to remember. Earl Thurston stated that the story his Aunt Elsie told him through the years concerning the whaling ship and the kanaka crew referred to Fletcher's arrival in Mendocino, not to the ship which brought him to San Francisco (Personal conversation, 1998)

(3) Connie Sinclair Taylor, who owned the “Force Ten” kayaking service in Greenwood/Elk for many years, knows the cove at Laurel Creek well. She said she has often landed kayaks on the small beach to rest and to shelter from rough weather. (Personal conversation, 2002)

(4) A card signed with the initials “HMC” in the files of Mendocino Historical Research, Inc. has the following notation: “In 1852 Frank [Faria] worked as a hunter for fresh meat for the logging camps in Mendocino. He sold his ranch to James Kenney [Cuffey's Cove] for some cattle and took up land near Orr Sprints. Built a saloon and home on the Comptche Road where he lived for a number of years. Property of Thos. Leonardo.” Eleanor F. Sverko in her Early Portuguese Families of the Town of Mendocino (Fort Bragg:1995), gives spellings of “Fanier, Fanneer, Farnier” for anglicized versions of Faria's last name. Unfortunately the same confusing local stories concerning his arrival are repeated (p. 27), including the misplacement of the “Portuguese Ranch”, but at least the sources for some of the stories are given.

(5) See previous page: “Who was Charles Fletcher”. For more on the Portuguese Rancho see Hillary Adams, “In Search of the 'Portagees' Rancho-2,” Kelley House Calendar, The Mendocino Beacon, July 22, 1999. Elsa Thompson, Early Settlers of Comptche along its Many Roads (Black Bear Press. Comptche, California: 1993) cites Ford's Diary of 1852 as evidence that Francisco Faria was in Cuffey's Cove by 1852. She follows local stories that place the “Portugees Rancho” at Cuffey's Cove and relate it to Francisco Faria. Apparently Thompson, like Matson, did not actually read Ford's travel Diary for 1852. In his entries for June 15th and 16th, Ford clearly places the “Portagees Rancho” north of the Navarro River. Note: (Moungovan omit - in text)

(6) For more about Nathaniel Smith and the Blacksmith claim, see Hillary Adams, "“The Blacksmith Claim at Booldam, Parts I and II”, Kelley House Calendar, The Mendocino Beacon, February 17 and 24, 2000. There is a well-known photograph at the Guest House Museum in Fort Bragg of Jerome B. Ford and David Lansing standing outside of a rough redwood cabin. This is always identified as Kasten's cabin, but may very well be the cabin Ford purchased at the Garcia Rancho from "“Blacksmith”, in which Ford lived from 1852 to 1854. Ford built his own home (now the Ford House Museum owned by the California Department of Parks and Recreation) in 1854. Marty Simpson has identified the position of Ford's “Blacksmith” claim and cabin by associating descriptions of its position with historic photographs. He places it near the present Presbyterian church, behind what is now Schlafer's Garage (see Kelly House Newsletter, 2002). Unfortunately, Simpson depends upon erroneous local stories for his information about the date and circumstances of Nathaniel Smith's arrival in Mendocino.

(7) Matson, Reminiscences, p. 2.

(8) Nathaniel Smith probably was one of the first settlers on the Mendocino headlands, although Kasten probably preceded him. Smith and Faria were certainly the first settlers in the Cuffey's Cove area. Although Helen Smith usually does not give sources for her information, much of it is taken directly from Ninetta Eames article, “Staging in the Redwoods-II” published in the Overland Monthly, October, 1892. Eames met Nathaniel Smith and describes their journey up Big River in a canoe. Her first hand information is reliable.

(9) James Abajian, Librarian of the Edward C. Kemble Collections (California Historical Society, San Francisco), in a letter addressed to the Mendocino Historical Research Inc., says that Paul Cuffee (1759-1817) was an African American sea captain from Massachusetts much admired by the African American community of his day. Many adopted his surname of “Cuffee”.

In the south, the term "cuffey" was apparently used, when speaking of household slaves, as a term of respect.