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From Frolic to Fortune: The Origins of Mendocino



The story of Mendocino is one of those intriguing tales that blend adventure, misfortune, and a stroke of luck. Its origins stem from a shipwreck, a gold rush, and the abundant natural resources of Northern California. Strap in for a rich historical journey into how Mendocino became the charming town it is today.


Gold Rush Fever and Its Ripple Effects


The mid-19th century Gold Rush significantly altered the landscape of California, drawing thousands in search of fortune. Many left empty-handed, but some saw opportunities beyond the glittering lure of gold. Four such opportunists were partners running a sawmill in Bodega on the Sonoma coast. During the summer of 1850, the mill received some unexpected visitors—the captain and crew of the merchant ship Frolic, which had been wrecked off the northern coast.


The Mysterious Cargo and a Curious Scout


The Frolic carried valuable goods from China, including silk, chinaware, and even weapons. Intrigued by potential salvage, the sawmill partners dispatched Jerome Ford to investigate. Ford trekked along the shoreline, encountering various settlers and navigating rivers by swimming or wading. When he finally arrived near what is now Mendocino, he found not treasure but a vast expanse of untouched forest.


The Men Who Were There First


Ford met William Kasten, who claimed to have "traded" with the local Pomo tribe for the land, although this was dubious considering the tribe's lack of a concept of ownership. Ford also met a diverse group of early settlers, including the Hegenmeyer brothers, blacksmith Nathaniel Smith, and hunter Francisco Faria, affectionately known as Portugee Frank.


A New Business Horizon


Excited by the potential of the timber resources, Ford returned to Bodega to relay his findings. The sawmill partners—Captain Smith, E.C. Williams, and financier Henry Meiggs—agreed to establish a new mill. They had already ordered mill parts from the East, coincidentally on their way by ship. Meiggs acquired the Brig Ontario to transport the mill parts along with workers and supplies.


Trials and Tribulations of the Journey


Ford's second journey north was fraught with difficulties; he traveled with animals and a hired hand, Nathaniel Warner. Along the way, a mule drowned, and another fled with their provisions. Meanwhile, the Ontario suffered from severe leaks and required constant bailing en route up the coast. Their initiatives were finally realized when the ship arrived, and they began constructing the mill, housing, and cookhouses.


Mendocino Takes Shape


Despite plans to repurpose the Ontario as a wharf, heavy seas dismantled the ship. Opportunistic Kasten traded his rudimentary cabin for the mill's first lumber, eventually building what is now part of the Mendocino Hotel. As for Ford, he settled in what is now Historic Main Street.


Initially, the fledgling settlement was named Meiggsville after Henry Meiggs, who later absconded to South America amid financial scandal. Briefly known as Big River Township, it eventually became Mendocino City, later shortened at the behest of the postal service.


From Timber to Timeless Charm


Today, Mendocino stands as a testament to its rugged beginnings—a place shaped by natural beauty, indomitable spirit, and a unique confluence of people and events. From the shipwreck of the Frolic to the town’s establishment and growth, the journey of Mendocino is as compelling as the scenic vistas that define it.


And while you’re soaking in the rich history and breathtaking scenery, why not indulge in some exquisite cuisine? We invite you to dine at Cucina Verona, where the flavors are as vibrant and captivating as Mendocino itself. Savor our delicious dishes crafted with locally sourced ingredients, and let the spirit of Mendocino make your meal unforgettable. Click here to make a reservation.

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