[Mendocino Beacon, Wednesday August 6, 1986]

Presenting the Past
by Helen Smith
--------------------------
His name was Nathaniel
Smith. A negro, he used to like to
say he was the only "blacksmith"
on the coast. He was called
"Nigger Nat," just as another early
settler was called "Portugee
Frank."

It was not meant to be
derogatory. Of Frank and
himself, Nat would say, "We's
about the first white men here."
He was not being facetious. It
was said merely to differentiate
between them and the many
Indians in the area at the time.

Nat Smith came to the coast
around 1852. He had been a
cabin boy on the sailing ship
captained by Charles Fletcher and
his crew of Kanakas which arrived
on the West Coast in 1849.

Nat was not an island native
even if he did look like the rest of
the crew. He was born in
Maryland in 1837 and probably
shipped out or stowed away on a
vessel in Chesapeake Bay,
meeting up with Captain Fletcher
somehow, somewhere in the Far
East.

When Fletcher decided to sail
to America he stopped first in
San Francisco. It was there Smith
left him and started a life of his
own.

It was certainly not planned
that both Nat and Captain Fletcher
would eventually come to
the Mendocino Coast and there
live out there lives. But that is
what they did - Fletcher at the
mouth of the Navarro River and
Smith along the banks of Big
River.

Smith was barely in his teens
when he arrived in San Francisco
but he had already reached his
adult height of five feet, seven
inches. His features were regular
and his hair was curly. He started
right away operating a ferry between
Sausalito and San Francisco
for which he charged $16 per
person. He owned his own
transport, a ship's boat,
schooner-rigged by himself.

He operated the ferry for
about three years and then heard
of the excellent hunting and
fishing farther north. When he
arrived in the new area, he first
settled in what was to be called
Cuffy's Cove (also spelled Cuffey's).

There have been many versions
of how Cuffy's got its name but
the one involving Smith is the
most plausible. A "cuffy" is
another word for negro and some
early-day pioneer, now forgotten,
evidently saw him in his
shack there and decided Cuffy's
Cove was an apt name.

At any rate, that name stuck
and was used all the time the
small town existed.

Smith later built a home for
himself on the south shore of Big
River. He became friends with
Portugee Frank and they teamed
up to hunt for meat to supply the
many logging camps springing up
in the forests.

Telling of this he said, "There
was more elk here then than there
is cattle now. The trouble with
elk meat, it's tallowy - like mutton
fat, only more so. The men
was always willin' to pay more
for ven'son, an' more for black
and brown bear then for
grizzly."

He added that sometimes when
they were out hunting he and
Frank would get so hungry for
salt he would hike 15 or more
miles to the beach for a sack of
kelp. By the time he had carried it
back to camp the salt in the kelp
was at the bottom of the sack and
they could slake their craving for
the tasty condiment.

He said he also hankered for
flour to make bread and Nat
recalled walking clear to Anderson
Valley to get meal from the
mill there. He said the meal was
so coarse and dark he had to
separate it with a spoon. This was
no doubt the product turned out
by the grist mill then owned and
operated by John Gschwend.

Just when Smith married is not
recorded but his first wife was
named Sarah Ann. Their children
were Frances, Emiline and Emma.
His second wife was a full-blooded
Indian named Julia. Their
children were Daisy, Emily and
Albert. The boy died when quite
young.

Because his second wife was an
Indian, Smith was allowed to
seine for fish. This he did right by
the bridge at Big River and also in
rivers farther north. One account
tells of his haul at Ten Mile River
when he caught a huge load of
fish, each weighing five or ten
pounds and which he sold for 25
and 50 cents apiece.

In March of 1882, Nat tried
taking a wagon-load of abalone
to Ukiah for sale. It is not surprising
that he made a handsome
profit from the deal.

Nigger Nat also hunted along
Big River for otter and deer. He
would also take a rowboat up the
river for hire. On these occasions
he never failed to tell his fares
about the "singing fish" of Big
River. This was in the early 1880s
and he knew more about the habits of
these toadfish (genus orichys
notatus).

He related how the males of
the species made an odd and loud
drumming sound which
reverberated through the still
waters in the summer months.

"Those men-folks," Nigger
Nat would say with a soft
chuckle, "They's a-courtin' the
ladies. They's singin' for their
favors."

Besides his hunting and
fishing, Smith was also listed as a
teamster. He drove a stage, mainly
one leaving Noyo. When the
bridge over Big River closed in
1884, Nat drew upon his expertise
as a ferryman and ran a toll boat
across the river until the bridge
was repaired.

Smith was also called upon in
those days to assist in
"crabbing" parties. His job was
to make sure the main course of
succulent crabs was available and
also to provide the large vats of
boiling water for cooking them.
Such affairs were popular with
the elite of the area and were
always well attended.

Smith became a legend on the
coast. His doings were reported
in the local papers as were those
of celebrities. He was considered
a droll "character" and regarded
with genuine affection by those
of every age.

Smith lived in his Big River
home, growing progressively
weaker the last year of his life.
He died there on March 21, 1906
at the age of 69. His wife, Julia,
lived until 1936.

According to records, Smith
was buried in Evergreen
Cemetery in Mendocino.
However, no marker is to be seen
there today.