Mendocino and California’s Past

All of Mendocino’s tourist publications refer to this coastal town of 894 people as “a New England village in California.”

There’s a reason for that; the area’s first resident of European descent was Jerome Ford, a Vermonter who was sent north from San Francisco in 1850 to salvage trade goods from a recent shipwreck.

By the time he got there, the local inhabitants, members of the Pomo indigeneous community, had already claimed everything from the East Asian trading vessel, as evidenced by the fact that they were wearing Chinese silks.  Ford reported back to his boss that the cargo was long gone, but that the area had a treasure trove of redwoods ripe for the cutting.

Within a year, a mill had been sent up from the city and erected just outside of modern-day Mendocino. It would produce one billion board feet of redwood for the city of San Francisco over the course of the next fifty years.  Ford and one of the shipwrecked sailors claimed the flat promontory of land for themselves, and just like that, a thriving town of primarily white faces living in saltbox houses appeared.  At one point the town boasted twenty-one saloons.

In addition to the New Englanders and the Portuguese from the Azores who also settled the area, there was a thriving Chinese community (about 700 people at its peak) in Mendocino as well.  Their Temple of Kwan Tai, built in 1854, still stands in town—a unique red and green building with Asian flourishes nestled between two Victorian cottages that is one of the oldest Chinese houses of worship in California.

Notably, the Pomo did not live in town.  Just as with every other European settlement on North American soil, there is no record of anyone asking their permission to move into the area and exploit the forests which they had occupied since about 5000 BCE.  And, just as with every other European settlement on North American soil, European diseases quickly decimated the Pomo population.

In other parts of Northern California, the Pomo who were not killed by smallpox were rounded up and sent to reservations or enslaved.  Somewhere between 150 and 200 were slaughtered in the little-known Bloody Island Massacre in Clear Lake.

Absolutely nothing in the town of Mendocino would make you think about the area’s indigenous past.  I think it is for that reason that I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

Mendocino is charming—overwhelmingly so.  The entire town is on the National Historic Register.  There is not one modern building, neon sign, or chain store.  Every structure is unique, built of wood, and trimmed and painted in classic Victorian style.  There are white picket fences, eye-popping flower gardens enriched by the daily fog, and interesting water towers that, combined with windmills, allowed the early settlers access to running water.

In addition to being so darn cute, Mendocino is incredibly isolated.  Windy two-lane roads are the only way to access the place, and it is bordered on all sides by dense forest, ocean, and barren coastal flats.  Because the town is plopped down in the middle of nowhere, I had to ask, “Why here?”

This, in turn, forced me to think about what it Mendocino was like when Jerome Ford showed up.  To imagine that scene, all I had to do was reach out my arm and hold my thumb over the tiny grid of houses.  That was what he saw—something not all that different from what I could see with the little town obscured.

It is impossible for me to imagine what the LA basin looked like when the Spanish came upon it, or what the first Europeans thought when they spotted the San Francisco Bay.  We have so drastically changed these places that I cannot conceive of them in their pre-contact form.

Mendocino is easier to picture without its tiny town.  And when I picture it, I don’t picture it empty.  I know there were people living up and down this coast, people whose lineages have been almost entirely eliminated, just because, in this case, they lived in an area that a few wealthy men wanted to log.

I had a great time wandering the streets of Mendocino.  With a substantial artist population these days, there are cool details on nearly every house – wood carvings, mosaics, sculptures, banners, bells—you name it.  There’s a smattering of interesting shops and restaurants, the flowers are amazing, and, of course, the views of the rugged coastline are stellar.  I stayed in the historic Mendocino Hotel and got to imagine who had slept there before me.

And I couldn’t help but imagine who hadn’t—who was deep in the coastal forests, on the run from the newcomers.

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