The Kelley House Museum recently opened a new exhibit—Nathaniel Smith: Mendocino’s First African American Resident. It was made possible by a grant from California Humanities to the museum, which funded research by Alexander Wood. The following is an excerpt from Wood’s report on the Smith family.

Nathaniel Smith married Julia (or Julie) around 1890. Julia and both of her parents were born in California. She was variously listed on U.S. Census rolls as “white” and “black,” but she was probably born to Native American parents. Her granddaughter was listed as one-quarter Sherwood, a Pomo group originally from the Sherwood Valley. According to an 1892 article [Ninetta Eames, “Staging in the Mendocino Redwoods,” Overland Monthly and Out West Magazine. 20, no. 117 (September 1892): 265–84.] by Ninetta Eames, Julia was responsible for much fishing and hunting. She “amiably cooks the meals, mends nets, fishes, and sets traps, and deftly removes the skins of lions, wild cats, and otter.”

Julia and Nathaniel had two children together: a daughter, Emily, and a son, Albert. When they were teenagers, Albert worked at “tie making at Dodge’s camp on Big River” and Emily was a servant at the local Occidental Hotel. A few years later, Emily married Charles Tyrrell of New York. Emily and Charles had two children together, Helen and Charles Forest, and raised them in Mendocino. The Tyrrells eventually operated an automobile repair garage. Their daughter, Helen, was first the bookkeeper for the family business and, after her father died in 1957, she managed the garage. Emily was a “life-long resident of Mendocino” until she died in 1971.

Family photo - standing, facing cameraIn the late 1990s, Mendocino Middle School students interviewed 66 older residents about their lives here. Lillian Canclini, born in 1927, recalled that, “behind our store was Mrs. MacCallum’s home. She and her son lived there, and then there was, oh, in where the Kelley House is, the Tyrrell family that lived there, the kids Helen and Forest, and Charlie and his wife. Charlie drove the school bus.” [The Tyrrells rented the Kelley’s house after Eliza died and Daisy MacCallum became the landlord.]

After Nathaniel Smith passed away in 1906, Julia remarried, likely in 1907, She married Frank Finlayson of Illinois, whom she may have met through her son Albert, as Albert and Finlayson were laborers at tie camps. The accompanying photo, from circa 1920, shows Emily Tyrrell and her husband Charles, Julia and Frank, and the two Tyrrell kids. (Because some things never change, Charles Forest seems to be sticking out his tongue.) Julia and her husband lived in the region until her death in 1936. Smith’s renown continued after his death, but his family’s continuous residence further cemented his legacy on the Mendocino coast to this very day.

If you would like to learn more about Nathaniel Smith, come to the Kelley House Museum for a presentation on Saturday, March 23rd at 4 PM. Susan D. Anderson, History Curator at the California African American Museum, will offer insight into the lives of African American pioneers in California, and Guest Curator Alexander Wood will comment on his extensive research into Smith’s life. Advanced tickets are recommended and can be purchased online at or at the museum. General admission is $10, members are $7.

The Kelley House Museum is open from 11AM to 3PM Friday through Sunday. If you have a question for the curator, reach out to to make an appointment. Walking tours of the historic district depart from the Kelley House regularly.