|Alfred A. Benitz||Page last modified:
|Page 1||1-5||1845-1874||0-15||Preface & notes.
Family history & youth.
|Ft. Ross & Oakland, California, USA|
|Page 2||6-10||1875-1876||16-17||Emigration & settling into Argentina, father dies.||Panama, New York, Southampton, Buenos Aires, Rosario, Estancia “La California”|
|Page 3||11-13||1876-1880||17-21||The family business, Charlie & Uncle Frank die, Willie marries.||Ea. “La California”, Santa Fé, Argentina|
|Page 4||14-16||1881-1897||22-38||Hunts, expansion north, Indian chases, Frank & Herman die.||Calchaquí, Saladillo & Toba rivers, Laguna Yacaré, Ea. “Los Palmares”|
|Page 5||17-20||1898-1937||39-78||More growth, Travels, & Marriage.||Europe, USA, Africa, Yukon, Ea. “Las Tres Lagunas”, “El Rincon”, Patagonia, Chile|
|Page 6||Appendix||Bibliography, Glossary, & Illustrations|
Published by Olga Benitz
This book gives the story of the life of Don Alfredo Benitz, or Uncle Alfred, as he was known to so many of the young in this country, besides his many nephews and nieces. It is compiled directly from his own diaries, and from information given by those fortunate enough to have heard of some of his adventures from him personally.
He was a naturally quiet and reticent man, and it took many questions and much prompting to draw from him the bare outlines of episodes which others might have turned into stories of danger and excitement.
He undoubtedly inherited much of his love for open spaces and wild life from his parents, Californian pioneers, and he spent many years of his young life working in the Chaco. In those days, this entailed protecting yourself and your cattle and particularly your horses, from attack; by Indians and wild animals. He also hunted big game in Africa, Northern Alaska and the Yukon, before he finally settled down to the more peaceful, if still energetic, life of managing his estancia.
To all those who knew him he will be remembered with affection as a shy, retiring man; uncritical of others, and full of those great gifts: kindliness and charity.
|3||The Family Grows|
|4||Life in Oakland|
|5||The Last Days in America|
|6||The Voyage to New Horizons|
|7||Argentina and some of its History|
|12||Life on the Pampas|
|13||The Growth of a Family and of a Nation|
|14||A Hunting Expedition and Life on the Estancia|
|15||Cattle-Raising in the Chaco|
|16||Argentina at the Turn of the Century|
|17||Argentina in the 20th Century|
|18||Travels and Big Game Hunting|
|19||Marriage and Further Travels|
|Glossary of Spanish Terms|
|Appendix of Illustrations|
Ten years after the fabulous gold rush of ’49 into California, then a raw frontier region, the story around which this book is written began with the birth of Alfred Benitz. It is the story of a man of adventure and action who, early in his youth, left the United States to go to faraway Argentina. There he spent the rest of his days, and there he died at the age of 78, in his estancia [ranch] house on the broad Argentine pampas which poured forth a wonderful sustenance to him and his family.
In his adopted homeland, Benitz was one of a handful of men who were instrumental in producing a type of wealth whose benefit to mankind was more enduring than that of California’s gold. He and his brothers were typical of the men who built up the great cattle and wheat production that today makes Argentina one of the three or four most important sources of these foodstuffs in the whole world.
The large Benitz family (there were seven children) was one of the best known among the pioneers of Argentina, where a surprisingly large number of the early “estancieros” [ranchers] were foreigners. Alfred was the most outstanding and colorful member of the family. This little story of his life is an almost continuous series of adventures and events in the out-of-doors, his natural habitat. In the field, on the hunt, chasing Indians, herding cattle, and always in the open air if possible, Alfred Benitz was in his bones a man of action. He spent the last years of his life on his estancia “Las Tres Lagunas” [Las Rosas, prov. S.Fé, Argentina] but whenever the opportunity offered, he would trek off on a hunting trip or return to the virgin wilderness of the Argentine Chaco [as a region, includes today’s provinces of Chaco, Formosa, and northern Santa Fé], where he spent 20 years in the open.
The Benitz family moved to Argentina when Alfred was 15 years old. His father, William Otto Benitz [correction: William Benitz - he had no middle name], already had built up a sizeable fortune from 30 years of farming in California. William Benitz was born into a large, middle-class German family living in Endingen-in-Bresgau, in the Duchy of Bresgau [correction: County of Breisgau, in the Grand Duchy of Baden]. In 1832, at the age of 17, he left home to join the thousands of other Germans who were at that time turning their eyes to the land of opportunity, the United States. William shipped as an ordinary seaman on a merchant vessel bound for America, but he was not to reach his goal until almost 11 years later. [correction: Per ship’s manifest, William sailed from Le Havre as a passenger on the Utica, arriving in New York on December 2, 1833; he was 18 years old. It is still a mystery why he was later aboard a ship that was wrecked upon the coast of Texas.] The ship was wrecked off the coast of Mexico and young Benitz was one of the few survivors. He managed to reach the coast and settled down, to remain in Mexico until 1843 [correction: see Texas 1830’s] when he made his way north to Mendocino county and a settlement known as Fort Ross, about 70 miles north of San Francisco. Actually, he was still in Mexico for California at that time had not yet come into the Union. Three years later, he met and married a 16-year-old, rosy-cheeked German lass named Josephine Kolmer, whose parents had brought her to America from Germany and, incidentally, from Benitz’ own home-town of Endingen, when she was three years old. The Kolmer family first settled in St. Louis but in 1841 [correction: 1833-North Carolina, 1841-St.Louis, 1845-California] her father decided that the opportunities in California were more attractive and made the trek across the rolling plains and over the mountains to the west coast. Josephine thus received an appropriate introduction to the pioneering life that she was to live first in California and later in Argentina.
William Benitz and his young wife settled down to the rugged life of the semi-wilderness that was then northern California. Benitz’ industry and the natural opportunities apparently formed a happy combination, for in 1852 he wrote his brother Anthony a letter [6 May, 1852] saying that “after many years of struggle and hardship,” he had made his fortune. (Anthony lived in Pittsburgh, Pa., and he hastened to forward William’s letter to Endingen where the Benitz family had been without news of William for 12 years).
Perhaps the unending toil and the hardships of the frontier helped to overcome, in a rough sort of way, the grief that the young couple had to bear in the early years of their marriage. Their first three children all died in infancy. The first died at birth. The second, a golden-haired little girl, was kidnapped by Indians while playing near the house. Mrs. Benitz, hearing the baby’s screams, dashed off on a horse after the Indians, rode into their encampment and snatched up the baby before the savages’ surprised eyes. They were so astonished they did not attempt to stop her. But it was too late - the little girl had already been scalped, and she died a few days later. The third child was smothered by his Indian nurse who tried to stifle his crying when he kept her awake.
Frank, the oldest of the surviving children, was born in 1850 and two years later, Josephine, the eldest girl, was born. This was the year in which William wrote his brother Anthony that he had made his fortune. The foundation for his wealth, probably modest enough, was laid when William went into partnership with a German neighbor, a man by the name of Meyer, and the two bought Fort Ross and turned it into a farm. This “fort” consisted of a wooden main building and several smaller outlying sheds. It had been built in 1812 by Russian settlers. The Russians had made the long trip through Siberia and Alaska, then Russian territory, and down the coast to California where there was a considerable Russian colony. Fort Ross and many another “fort” like it had been built to serve as protection for fur traders against the raids of renegade white men and Indians who constantly preyed on the wealthy fur establishments.
Benitz and Meyer acquired six square leagues of land [correction: 4 California leagues (7,000ha. / 17,400ac.), see California Ranchos], 10,000 head of cattle and 200 horses and mares. They planted grain and potatoes and marketed their crops at the settlement of Sonoma, 18 hours distant by schooner. Both Fort Ross and Sonoma were located on the seacoast. In 1852 the partners sold 4,000 pounds of potatoes at five cents a pound, and their farm apparently was flourishing in its other branches as well. [Corrections per letter, May 6th. 1852: 1,000 cattle, 200 horses, 400,000 pounds (182,000kg.) of potatoes]
Some idea of William’s standing as a man of wealth may be had from the fact that, a few years later, he was sending substantial sums of money to his family in Germany to relieve the suffering that followed the political upheaval of 1848. These sums ran as high as $500. He corresponded with his brother Thadeus, whom he advised strongly not to come to the United States. Despite his success in making his way in America, William always harbored a rankling sort of bitterness toward the raw young country, possibly because he felt that Germans and other foreigners were discriminated against. One letter [27 June, 1853] to Thadeus, after harping on the dangers of the voyage to America, said: “. . and although some people have made their fortunes, thousands go astray in these inhospitable lands. No one would envy me if I told them what I went through in all parts of America, on water and on land, and of the many things that I have done (but nothing an honest man would reject) and how many unfortunate countrymen I have met.“ Actually there were already several members of the Benitz family living in different parts of the United States. Anthony, as already mentioned, was living in Pittsburgh where he was a prosperous businessman. A married sister, Mrs. Maher, was living in Cleveland, Ohio. Two cousins, Louis and Adolfus Benitz, led the uncertain lives of gold prospectors in Mexico, and William’s youngest and best loved brother, Frank, also lived in Cleveland, but later was to come to live and work at Fort Ross. “Uncle Frank” probably was responsible for first planting in William’s mind the seed of the idea of going to Argentina. He had traveled as a sailor and had wonderful tales to tell of the land of the pampa [Note: In 1866, he was a co-founder of the “Colonia California” near San Javier, north-eastern Santa Fé province]. When the family left for Argentina, in 1874, Uncle Frank accompanied them and lived the rest of his life with them in the new land. [For more information about each of WBz’s relatives, see Roots & Branches in the home menu, in particular the family background in the Endingen Ancients page.]
The Society of California Pioneers
In 1822 Mexico severed her last ties of allegiance to Spain and established herself as an independent nation. Part of the territory over which she estapblished her sovereignty included what is today the State of California. However, the Mexican rule lasted only until 1848 when California became part of the United States as part of the settlement of the American-Mexican war.
On the eve of the signing of the peace treaty, a discovery was made in California which was to thrill the young nation to its very core and to send a mass of humanity westward. This was the finding of gold on the farm of John A. Sutter on the south fork of the American river, near Sacramento. A workman on the farm, James Marshall, digging into the soft earth of a mill-race, noted hundreds of bright, sparkling particles in the ground he was turning over. Closer inspection showed them to be gold; Marshall had made one of the most momentous discoveries in the history of America. This happened on Jan. 24, 1848. Marshall’s monument now marks the spot where he made his discovery.
Although Sutter tried to keep the sensational knowledge a secret, news like this could not long be kept from the outside world. Once it had leaped the bounds with which Sutter vainly tried to dam it up, the story of the discovery of gold soon was known in every corner of the land, and abroad as well. The first result was that the entire population of the immediate neighborhood converged on the site of the discovery. Later hundreds of small towns in the west were deserted. Farmers, trappers, store-keepers, businessmen - all abandoned their usual pursuits to seek gold. Everybody dug for ore with whatever implements were handy, some even using Jack-knives to gouge the metal from the earth. The stories of fortunes acquired overnight were legion. Seven men working one site took out 275 pounds of gold in six weeks, according to one story, while another one said that two partners obtained $17,000 worth of gold from a trench several feet wide in return for one week’s work.
These stories of fabulous wealth to be had almost for the asking - or so it seemed at least to the people not on the scene - soon reached the East, and the great Gold Rush of ’49 was on. Thousands of men in all walks of life, including substantial citizens as well as down-and-outers, picked up their belongings, lock, stock and barrel, and with their families made their way to the new El Dorado. Some made the long journey in sailing vessels around Cape Horn, while others - impatient at the delay involved in the dreary sea trip - left ship at the Isthmus of Panama and hacked their way through the disease-infested forests and jungles of that then-inhospitable region, to proceed north by land to California. Many made the long and still dangerous trip across the United States by boat and by covered wagon. The plains of the West soon were strewn with the bones of animals that died of thirst and exhaustion, and with the wreckage of many a covered wagon that had been attacked and set on fire by hostile Indians.
One “forty-niner” wrote in his diary:
“On one 15-mile stretch of desert trail, I counted 750 dead horses, mules and oxen; and in the last ten miles, 362 wagons, besides quantities of leather trunks, clothing and other things, thrown away to lighten the load.”
Yet in spite of these and other hardships, in the year 1849 nearly 100,000 people poured into California in search of gold. And for those who survived the journey, the goal was well worth it: in the first year five million dollars in gold was taken out of the earth, and by 1853 the annual golden harvest had risen to sixty million dollars. After that year, production began to decline.
The Benitz family was, in the center of all the excitement attendant on the discovery of gold. In 1845 William Benitz was working with Sutter, who for many years was a steady visitor at the Benitz home. Sutter was a man of standing in the frontier region and dressed to fit the part. He invariably wore a flowing black frock coat, checked trousers (which Josephine Benitz once mended for him) and a huge broad-brimmed felt hat, in addition to the usual accoutrements of the frontier life. This apparel was draped on a magnificent frame, so that Sutter made an imposing figure. He generally carried in his right hand a general’s baton, granted him by the Mexican government. Like Benitz, Sutter always felt more kind toward the Mexican government than he did toward the administration in Washington.
Sutter himself was Swiss, but he was highly regarded by the Mexicans who made him a sort of minor frontier official. It was partly because of this position that he obtained 11 square leagues [California leagues: 19,400ha. / 48,800ac.] of land around the present site of Sacramento, and it was on this ground that the famous millrace where gold was discovered was located. The land was known as “Sutter’s Fort” because in 1839 he had built a fort and trading post there. Because of the strategic position of “Sutter’s Fort” and because of Sutter’s standing with Mexico City, he was a man of considerable importance in the years immediately preceding and following the acquisition of California by the United States. The first covered wagon to cross the plains had driven into “Sutter’s Fort” in 1841, ending its long trek. A few years of American administration undermined his official position, however, and the lawless bands that accompanied the gold-rushers robbed and ruined him. When he died in 1880, he was a poor man.
Old Fort Ross, as seen from the hill
Fort Ross, California
Russian Bastion at Fort Ross
The year 1853 brought increased prosperity to William Benitz. He and his partner, Meyer, at that time owned two ranches, one of 20,000 and the other of 11,000 acres. [For more accurate details, see California Rancher.] They sold the latter for $26,000 cash and kept the larger one, the site of Fort Ross. Benitz had invested $36,000 in other business, from which he had an income of $500 a month. He also owned a piece of land farther up the Sacramento river which he called New Bresgau, the name given it subsequently on official U.S. maps. This land was a grant from the Mexican government, made in 1845 when Benitz was working with Sutter.
Perhaps because of his prosperity at this time, Benitz underwent a period of nostalgia for Germany. In a letter [27 June, 1853] to his brother Thadeus, he expressed a longing to return to his native land, invest money there and, perhaps, to purchase real estate. He even went so far as to ask Thadeus to be on the lookout for a nice piece of ground that he might buy. The plan never was realized, although Benitz repeatedly broached the subject in later years.
On Sept. 22, 1854, another child, a boy, was born to the Benitz’. This was William Otto. The hard times that struck America in 1855 had their effect on the enterprises of the Benitz-Meyer partnership. Crops were plentiful and money was scarce, a combination which worked to their direct disadvantage. For example, the potato crop was extremely large and Benitz alone was forced to store more than 200,000 hundredweight [correction: per letter 5 April, 1854, 20,000 cwt. (900,000kg.).], which included the crop of the previous year. Many of the potatoes were lost through deterioration. In February of 1855 the banks in which the two partners had invested $14,000 suspended payments, and for a time it was doubted that any of their money would be recovered, although a part of it eventually was restored.
Added to these losses, Benitz suffered another serious blow when the government confiscated all but 7,500 of the 21,500 acres [3,000 of 8,700 hectares] of his New Bresgau property. Under Mexican rule, grants of land were generous and common, but the complicated formalities necessary for making the title to them valid were often neglected. Instead of confirming all existing titles at the time the territory passed to the United States, the American government named a land commission to contest all titles and title claims in court. This procedure resulted in the rejection of a large proportion of Mexican-granted titles, and Benitz was one of the victims.
After losing two-thirds of his New Bresgau land, Benitz decided to devote one more year to agriculture and then, if it still did not pay, to turn to cattle-breeding on a large scale. He already owned 500 head of cattle, 300 horses and 200 pigs. He bought a number of bulls and stallions to build up his livestock herds and also purchased 1,000 sheep for which he paid between 8 and 12 dollars per head. The Benitz-Meyer partnership was dissolved, and the land remaining to Benitz at Fort Ross extended ten miles south to the Russian River, which formed its boundary.
Benitz established a few hundred cattle on the river bank with some cowboys to watch them, and bought a ferry to carry travelers across the stream to the ranch on the opposite bank. This ranch was owned by Capt. S. Smith, a close friend of Benitz. It is interesting to note that Capt. Smith’s house, 24 miles from Fort Ross, was the nearest post-office, and that Benitz contributed $50.- a year as his share in the maintenance of the postal system in that part of the country; a messenger was sent once a week from Fort Ross to the Smith’s house to look for letters.
Benitz himself operated a quite considerable establishment on Fort Ross, with six permanent employees and a large number of itinerant employees, e. g., cowboys, harvest-hands, etc. The six permanent employees were a hunter, a surveyor, a cattle foreman to supervise the cowboys, a carpenter, a blacksmith and a cook. Their salaries ranged from $60 to $30 a month. As California was a “free” state, where negro slavery was forbidden, most of the work in the fields was done by Indians from the government reservation, just off the Fort Ross property. This reservation had an Indian population of 150, and they were obliged by federal law to “work out” on neighboring farms and ranches at eight dollars a month.
Louis Benitz, one of William’s two prospector brothers in Mexico[correction: cousins, see Endingen Ancients], came to California at this time, remained long enough to make ten thousand dollars and then returned to Mexico because he did not like the United States or its inhabitants. His attitude toward the self-confident American of those days was typical of foreigners in general at the time, and it was identical with the attitude of William who never overlooked an opportunity to grumble about the discrimination practiced against foreigners.
The situation of the foreigner was, in fact, an unpleasant one. The self-reliant and strong-willed American of the frontier led a life that did not conduce toward a tolerant and friendly attitude toward anyone he considered an outsider. On the contrary, the average frontiersman and pioneer tended to be bigoted, intolerant and extremely insular. The people of California were no exception. They formed secret societies to oppose what they called the encroachments of the foreigners, who were denied the right to vote and who could only become citizens after 20 years’ residence in the country. The net result was that the foreigner was virtually disenfranchised and, in many respects, had the status of a freed negro slave.
One of these secret societies was called the Know Nothing Party, and its name reflected accurately the mental attitude of its members toward most major problems, although it had been adopted for another reason. The party was formed for the purpose of blocking the easy naturalization of immigrants whose entry into the United States was just beginning to attain its great volume. The nominations of candidates for public office were made in secret meetings, and all members were required to vote for those candidates, under penalty of expulsion from the party if they did not vote as told. Only the members of the party hierarchy knew the organization’s secrets; the rank and file knew absolutely nothing, and it was from this fact that the party’s name was derived. It afterward grew into the American Party, which was important enough in 1855 to carry nine state elections.
Under the conditions which such a political party helped to create, it is not surprising to find Benitz saying in a letter [8 March, 1855]:
“Why don’t the German people emigrate to countries where Germans are better looked at? If I could sell out today or tomorrow, I would go immediately to another country, possibly to Germany. I would rather go to Russia than to the dirty States (verunreinigte Swaten). One hears everywhere of the ill-treatment of the Catholics and the burning of their churches. That is freedom! Another American has just run off with $100,000. This sort of thing is not unusual here now, as last year twenty functionaries escaped with official money, and during the last few years the city of San Francisco has been robbed of at least a million dollars”.
There was also considerable lawlessness at this time. Country roads had become unsafe because of the bandits who infested lonely stretches, and everyone, whether American or foreigner, went well-armed. Benitz had a narrow escape on one occasion. He was riding along the road at a full gallop when there came the sound of a revolver shot, and a bullet grazed his nose and right eye. He always kept a collection of rifles and several Colt six-shooters, the famous weapon of the cowboy, which he taught all his household to handle.
In the year following the elections of 1855, conditions became more orderly. Land litigation was cleared up, and there was a general belief that a better future was in store for California. This belief was, indeed, borne out by developments, and the state’s progress was to continue with relative smoothness until the great Civil War of 1861-65 hampered it somewhat.
In spite of the loss of most of his New Bresgau property and of $12,000 in cash, Benitz was not discouraged. Faced with these losses and with the necessity of renovating much of the Fort Ross property (the mill had been operating for 12 years now and had to be almost entirely rebuilt), he went doggedly ahead with the task, making do where he could and spending every penny wisely, so that he came through with flying colors. He actually increased his wealth considerably, at a time when many other farmers around him were going into bankruptcy. Fort Ross and all it contained was now his alone and he was free from indebtedness, the pitfall that proved the downfall of most of the farmers who had gone broke. He owned a total of 17,000 acres [6,880 hectares] of land, 900 head of cattle, 200 horses and 900 sheep. He had cut down his agricultural outlay considerably and planned to buy 500 young cows, since there was room on his land to handle 2,500 cattle. His next plan was to acquire six dairy farms, stocking them with 200 cows each. At the same time, he decided to reduce his stock of mares and horses, which he found more difficult to breed than cattle.
On July 2, 1856, Josephine Benitz presented William with another son, who was named Charles. There were now four children in the family: Frank, aged six; Josephine, four; William, two, and Charles. The Benitz’ had been married for ten years, and Mrs. Benitz was 26 years old. She was an ideal helpmeet for her husband, who was devoted to her.
Although their pioneering life was a rough one, they made a conscious effort toward something of a cultural atmosphere in their home. Their library contained 150 volumes, which made it one of importance at that time and in that region. Their chief entertainment after the day’s work was to read among these books, listen to the music provided by a musical box, or to discuss world affairs. One of the principal themes for discussion at the time was the Crimean war, and Benitz apparently had no more love for the British than he did for the Americans. He stated [letter 8 March, 1855] in no uncertain terms that “people in general sympathize with the Russians, loving to see the English arrogance humbled...”
In this same year political conditions became so bad locally that a drastic remedy was provided. The country had been subjected to a corrupt local administration, and robbery and murder were an everyday occurance. The law- abiding citizenry, by far the majority, finally took corrective measures into their own hands. They formed the famous “Vigilante” committees which chased and caught the criminals and dealt out summary justice: the major offenders were hanged on the spot, and the others were run out of the region. Then there was peace. On the whole, the agricultural districts were fairly orderly and safe, but the mining zones were always dangerous because of the bandit gangs that infested them looking for easy wealth.
Late in the year 1857, Mrs. Benitz’ father, Michael Kolmer, died after several years of a steady bout with the demon Rum, which ruined his health and ate up his fortune. One of the stories told about him at the time of his death was his refusal to forgive his daughter, Caroline, for the unorthodox manner of her marriage. The story is of some interest in itself as it illustrates one of the “mores” of frontier life.
Fig. 8 — The Kolmer Ranch, Sonoma
When Caroline took the step that enraged her father, there were no resident clergymen in California, or in the rural districts, at least, and it was an important social event when one would make the long and difficult journey to the remote areas from the nearest large city to legalize the various unions that had occurred since the visit of the last minister. Prior to the visit of the minister, most marriages were formalized only by the mutual consent of the principals and had the sanction of neither law nor church. When the news spread that a minister was en route, all the newly-weds were collected in the most accessible town-hall for a mass ceremony, which invariably was made the occassion for feasting and dancing.
Such a collective ceremony duly came to pass at Sonoma, and of course everyone for miles around went to the party, including William and Josephine Benitz who took Caroline with them. At the end of the evening, the minister made a speech in which he thanked all members of the community for their hospitality, and particularly thanked the new bridegrooms for their generosity in the matter of fees. In fact, he said, he was so impressed by this generosity that he offered then and there to marry free any other young couple who cared to step forward.
At this, William Howard, one of the young swain of the neighborhood who had been seeing quite a bit of Caroline, approached her and murmured into her ear. She said yes, so they were married on the spot, using one of the rings from the platform curtain as a wedding ring.
It was this entirely unforeseen marriage that caused Michael Kolmer to fly into a rage. When he heard the news, he rushed to Caroline’s room, tossed all her furniture and clothes into the yard where he made a bonfire of them and vowed that he would never see or speak to his daughter again. He kept this harsh vow for several years, but eventually relaxed it enough to seek Caroline and speak to her, but he never did completely forgive her.
With the advent of civilization, the type of marrying parson whose practice of his profession caused Kolmer such discomfort, gradually disappeared. So did many other landmarks of frontier life. Among these was the haphazard and lackadaisical postal service which existed early in the 1850’s. In spite of many innovations, some of them extremely novel, the government was unable to provide either efficiency or security in the mails. A letter to Germany cost 30 cents and the sender was in no way assured that it would reach its destination.
The government had made heroic efforts to establish and maintain a communications route over the plains and through the mountains to the Far West. One of the most bizarre of these efforts was the attempt to use camels in the stretch of desert that had to be crossed to reach California, but this came to naught. In 1857, some progress was made when a contract was awarded to John Butterfield of the Overland Mail Co. for a semi-weekly mail service between the Mississippi river and the Pacific coast. The following year a regular stage-coach and mail service was established which covered the distance in less than 25 days.
Fig. 7 — Wells’ Fargo Express, 1850
Three years later the Russell, Majors & Waffell Transport Co. inaugurated the famous Pony Express, which was to become one of the most famous legends of early American history. These swift couriers and their gallant steeds carried first-class mail from St. Joseph, Mo., to Sacramento at a cost of $5 a letter. The “ponies” were not, of course, ponies at all but fleet American horses, stationed at stages from ten to fifteen miles apart. Each rider covered three of these stages, and was obliged to ride a minimum of 33 miles before he passed the precious mail-pouch on to his successor. The best trip ever made by Pony Express was seven days and seventeen hours, but the regular schedule was ten days, about fifteen days faster than the schedule of Butterfield’s Overland Stage.
The maintenance by the Pony Express of its timetable in all kinds of weather and in the face of Indian attacks and other hazards won for this service a fame for all time in American story and song.
Its existence was a short one, however, for only sixteen months after it was inaugurated it fell a victim to the swifter rush of advancing invention: in October, 1861, the Western Union Telegraph Co. completed the construction of its transcontinental telegraph line, and it was then possible to send urgent information from St. Joseph to Sacramento in less time than it used to take a Pony Express rider to saddle his horse.
As the decade 1850-60 neared its end, Benitz had just about completed the transformation of his farm from an agricultural to a livestock basis, although he always continued to cultivate large quantities of fruit trees.
In successive years he reduced steadily the amount of land given over to crops, which were proving less profitable each year. Potatoes were fetching one cent per pound; barley, one cent; oats, one cent and a half and wheat two and a half cents. With costs steadily increasing and wages for farm hands going up along with them, a man could not raise crops and make money. So Benitz turned from agriculture and concentrated on livestock and fruit. He built up his livestock herds, which were already of respectable size, and eventually acquired 12,000 head of cattle, 1,500 sheep and 150 horses.
He put in hundreds of young fruit trees, expanding his orchards gradually until he had 6,000 fruit-bearing trees in 1859 and had marked off another 60 acres for the planting of an additional 1,800 apple trees during the next year. Between the old and the new orchards, there was a 15-acre piece of ground which Benitz selected as the site for the house he planned to build for his rapidly growing family. The old home was too near the coast and was exposed to the strong northwesterly winds which became violent at times. The new home would be completely sheltered, would have an excellent supply of pure water and would afford an excellent view of the surrounding country- side. Situated between the two orchards, it stood in the springtime amid a veritable paradise of scented blossoms.
Even at this time, when he was planning his new house, Benitz seemed pretty definitely to entertain the idea of going to another country. He nursed the idea for a long time before taking a definite decision, but was at all times receptive to the thought of breaking away from the United States and settling down in another land, which he hoped would be more hospitable than America. In a letter [4 September, 1858] written to his brother Thadeus in 1860, Benitz said:
“If I had intended to remain here, I would have advised you to come long ago, but I cannot sell out so soon. I want $100,000 for Fort Ross as it stands. It now consists of 17,500 acres, and my new ranch, New Bresgau, of 6,750 acres. In my opinion, these places will be worth double in three year’s time, and my livestock also will have doubled itself by then. You need not stamp your letters as I get them just the same and will gladly pay the postage”.
Alfred Benitz was less than one year old when this was written by his father. It was evident that one of the very powerful controlling factors in his life from his very birth was working toward the move that was to take Alfred, when a boy of 15, to Argentina. Perhaps the move would have been made earlier, but the Civil War must have delayed the decision. Although California was far removed, literally and figuratively, from the scene of the four-year conflict, it could not help but feel the effects of the convulsion caused by the war.
When Alfred was born, on June 15, 1859, the Benitz family already consisted of three boys - Frank, 9; William Otto, 5, and Charles, 3 - and one girl, Josephine, who was 7. The family was completed with the birth of two more boys, John in 1861 and Herman, who arrived on April 22, 1863.
Apart from its effect on Father Benitz’ plans for leaving the United States, the Civil War caused a steep increase in the cost of living and also brought with it a heavy war-tax. It may be assumed that these two new burdens did nothing to increase Benitz’ love for America, since they were the direct result of a war in which he had little or no interest.
California was on the side of the Union from the start, and despite her distance from the battlefronts she participated to some extent in the war effort, contributing both men and money. A force of 1,000 men was raised and equipped with arms. Fortifications were constructed at San Francisco. The warlike atmosphere of the Golden Gate region was increased by the installation of a number of 400-lb. cannon and the presence in the harbor of several of the new and wondrous “iron-clad warships”.
[Transcriber note: Excised the battle between the “Merrimac” & the “Monitor”.]
California shared in the excitement over the battle of the ironclads and in the progress of the Civil War in general, but later in 1862 was confronted with another potential conflict which was much closer to her, geographically and emotionally, than the far away North-South war. This was the troubled situation in Mexico, where Emperor Napoleon III, seizing as a pretext the alleged unjust treatment of foreigners, had declared war and forced a ruler of his own choosing, Maximilian of Austria, on the country. It was fairly obvious that Napoleon was taking advantage of Washington’s full preoccupation with its own troubles to try to establish for France a foothold in the new world, convinced that he could achieve his own brand of empire building with impunity. The Californians, many of whom had been Mexican subjects only 14 years before, were thoroughly aroused and were prepared to send 25,000 men if necessary to help drive the French from Mexico. However, with the release of Federal troops at the end of the war to give solid backing to strong American protests, Napoleon’s dreams of empire collapsed. He withdrew his troops and deserted Maximilian, who was later dethroned and executed by the Mexican forces under Juarez.
While all this history was being written, the Benitz family life was proceeding its natural course unperturbed.
“Uncle Frank” Benitz, William’s favorite brother, had moved out to California from Cleveland in 1861 and at once became an important figure in the household. His wife and son refused to leave the amenities of Cleveland, where they lived with two married daughters and their families. The greatest attraction that California held for “Uncle Frank,” apart from being with his brother and family, was the climate that was to become famous in the real estate literature of later years. Alfred also was an enthusiastic booster of California’s weather, of which he wrote in his diary some time later:
“The California climate is unique; the seasons, as known in other countries, do not exist.
“There is a season of somewhat greater heat and no rainfall, when even irrigated land looks brown and parched. That is summer. Again, there is a season with delightful warm days, followed by chilly nights and rainfall, which transforms the country into one vast carpet of flowers and green vegetation while the high mountains in the background are covered with snow. That is winter.
“There are giant geraniums, one mass of bloom. Roses appear everywhere, filling the air with their perfume, and fragrant violets appear in numbers almost beyond belief. There are groves of graceful palms and dark pepper trees with their bright red berries, while long avenues of stately eucalyptus adjoin the green fields of growing grain. The whole is bathed in an atmosphere of extraordinary mellow- ness and brilliance.”
As if nature had not blessed California with a lavish enough hand in the matter of climate, the gold discoveries of 1849 were followed in the next decade by the unearthing of additional widespread mineral deposits. No less than two thousand silver and copper mines were discovered in the early ’50’s and some mercury deposits were also found. The excitement attendant on these discoveries was not nearly so widespread nor so intense as that which followed the discovery of gold, but nevertheless they brought hundreds of prospectors to the scene of each new discovery. Mercury deposits were found in Sonoma county, where the Benitz home at Fort Ross was located; these were of small importance, but they led to the discovery of copper, silver and gold deposits in the county as well as in the adjoining counties of Marin, Mapa and Mendocino. Copper was found.as close as four miles from Fort Ross.
Father Benitz, who rarely was stampeded into any decision, refused to become excited over the discovery of copper on his land. Instead of abandoning the farm for the mad rush to seek quick and easy wealth in minerals, he made prudent investments in companies which proved to be sound. But he always considered the farm as his main activity and the one to which he should dedicate his chief attention.
The operation of a farm in the United States was at this time undergoing a period of adjustment. Mechanical inventions such as the harvester and the binder went hand in hand with the increasing difficulty of securing labor. Most single and foot-loose men preferred prospecting for gold, with its glittering possibility of success, to toiling in the fields as a farm-hand at the lowly pay of two-and-a-half to three dollars a day.
This scarcity of labor was off-set, at harvest time at least, by the new farm machinery. The new threshers could do the work of many men, some of the larger models handling as much as 1,400 bushels a day. Benitz bought a small machine that threshed 2,000 bushels of grain in a fortnight.
Meanwhile, his cattle breeding had reached the point of maximum expansion and he was forced to reduce his herds because his pasture-land was becoming crowded. He got rid of 1,100 head of cattle and that, despite the fact that he had lost 200 head the previous year in heavy floods which drowned many cattle in the Sonoma area.
The idea of moving from the U. S., which Benitz had been considering for many years, advanced another stage in 1867 when he sold most of his farm land and moved his family to Oakland where he could start his children’s education while he cast about for his future destination.
Seven years were to pass before Benitz finally made up his mind that Argentina would be the country to which he would remove. But there were several factors that led to the decision to sell the farm. One was the education of the children. Another was his belief that the American people and government were embarked on a program of persecution of all foreigners. Still another was the depredations that were being visited on good farming land by the gold-miners.
A particularly obnoxious development to him and to other farmers had been the new methods employed by prospectors who called themselves “hydraulic miners.” Their system was to tear away the hillsides with torrents of water thrown from high-pressure hoses, in search of gold. The result of this system was that, in addition to destroying the natural contours of the land, a combination of mud, sand and stones known as “slickens” oozed over nearby fertile pastures and crop-land, leaving wholesale ruin for agriculture in their wake. For years an open conflict, similar to the later battles between sheep-herders and cattle ranchers, was fought between the farmers and miners. Pitched battles were fought, many participants were killed, the law enforcement authorities were totally unable to cope with the situation and a state approaching regular warfare was reached. When it appeared that actual war might break out, a test case was taken to a Federal court, which ruled in favor of the farmers, ordering the hydraulic miners to “cease and desist” in their operations.
The conflict between the farmers and the miners was at its height when Benitz sold his farm. This disagreeable situation was perhaps the immediate cause of his decision to sell the farm, although the other factors, plus the wanderlust idea already mentioned, also played their part.
In the year 1873, when Alfred began the diary that he was to keep intermittently the rest of his life, the Benitz family was solidly established in Oakland, where they had lived for the past six years [See portrait photos taken during that period]. Their home was located just outside what were then the city limits. It was a comfortable two-story dwelling in Colonial style with a broad veranda from which steps led down to a garden profuse with all the flowers that the California soil and climate could create.
At the back of the house there was a larger garden with shady walks and a croquet court. A row of Cypress trees closed off the vegetable tract and the chicken yard. Beyond these were the stables, the barn and some hothouses.
The family life was organized on the classic pioneer precept that “to eat, one must work,” and even the youngest children were required to do their share of the daily chores around the large house. Alfred, who was remarkably tall and strong for his 14 years, usually was called upon to do the jobs requiring extra brawn and muscle. His duties consisted of caring for the yard and gardens and of daily errands to the post-office to fetch the mail. Charlie was supposed to share with him the task of watering the garden, but be was not very strong and he often bribed Alfred into doing his share. This meant that Alfred generally had to get out of bed and about his tasks long before breakfast, even though he had the help of his mother and his sister, Josephine, in the watering of the vegetables and flowers.
Alfred, Johnny and Herman all attended the “Lincoln Grammar School for Boys and Girls,” a few blocks from the Benitz home. Alfred studied the usual grammar school curriculum under a Mr. Graven and in addition took lessons in German and book-keeping. He liked his studies as much as most boys, but the bane of his existence was the weekly music lesson which caused him no end of embarrassment, and his classmates no end of amusement, because his voice was at the breaking stage and he never could tell whether it would go up or down when he was required to render solos.
School began at eight o’clock in the morning, continued until eleven, when there was a 10-minute recess, and then resumed until noon. The scholars returned at one and remained until three, after which, apart from the inevitable homework, their time was their own.
Alfred led the life of a normal, healthy young boy. He applied himself to his studies so that his marks in general were above average. He played outdoors a great deal and also seemed to be a more eager reader than the average boy of 14. He was interested enough in reading to pay 50 cents a month (taken from his allowance of two dollars) for membership in the Oakland Public Library and also spent ten cents a week on that old reliable magazine of the youth of yesterday, “Frank Leslie’s Boys and Girls.”
On Thursday, May 8, 1873, Alfred began to write down in a notebook the things he did, heard, saw and talked about in his active young life. These were the first entries in the diary that forms the basis for this book. Ten days after he began, his older brother Frank, who had seen with interest Alfred’s penchant for writing down the daily events of his life, presented him with a handsome leather- bound diary. This was a proper book for writing, and Frank told Alfred that it was meant to encourage him in his, plan.
It should be reiterated at this point that Alfred Benitz was a man of action above all else. There is little in his diary of the parlor philosophizing that most men feel impelled to express when they start to write about themselves and their actions. However, the burden of Alfred’s story is carried along in most places by the rush of action.
The first entry in the diary, made when Alfred was still 13, contained what might be expected from a schoolboy of that age. He mentioned that at school he “had grammar and analysis most all day” and also wrote down that after supper he went to the lending library “and paid for this month (fifty cents).” The remark about the fifty cents may be considered a sort of trail blazer in Alfred’s system of diary-keeping; he was terse to the point of abruptness in his entries, but any financial transactions were duly noted down. Frequently, he would note his financial standing when no particular action was involved. Boy and man, he always had a keen sense of the value of money.
The twenty-second of May was Frank’s birthday, and in observing this fact, Alfred wrote that he did not give his big brother a present “but I wish I had been able to.”
The end of the school year came one week after Frank’s birthday:
“Thursday, May 29: 1 hardly slept last night on account of the strong gale which blew all night long. In the morning I had written examinations and afterwards I went to the Exhibition of the Fourth and Fifth grades, but their room was so crowded I couldn’t get in, so I went along to the library and returned my books, as I was not going to belong the next month. On the way back I stopped at the grocery store and measured my height. I found that I was now five feet, seven inches tall, only one inch shorter than Father, and the same height as Charlie who is three years older. He is very thin. Josephine is five feet, five inches.”
School had not been out for long when Mrs. Benitz took Alfred and Johnny for a vacation visit to the farm of “Uncle Bill” Howard, the same Willie Howard whose unorthodox marriage to Caroline Kolmer, Mrs. Benitz’ sister, had given such discomfort to Michael Kolmer.
The Howard farm was located about four miles from the town of Freestone and the journey to it from the Benitz home in Oakland involved travelling by train, steamer, stage-coach and wagon. While the journey undoubtedly was an exciting one for Alfred and Johnny, the numerous changes of method of transportation and the length of the trip must have made it tiring to Mrs. Benitz.
The two Benitz boys had a gay old time on the farm. The Howards had four children, one boy, Charlie, and three girls, Lizzie, Clara and Amelia. Alfred and Johnny were at the age where they presumably had little interest in their girl cousins, but with Charlie and a friend of his, Willie Morgan, they passed the time swiftly in the innumerable pursuits that can occur to healthy young boys on a farm nestling in the semi-wilderness.
The entry recorded in his diary by Alfred on the first day of the visit concluded:
“After dinner Charlie, Willie Morgan (also there on a visit), Johnny and I went after water-snakes. We succeeded in catching one large water-snake and three smaller ones. After supper Charlie and I went hunting with a musket, and Charlie shot a rabbit. I shot at a robin but missed it. When we returned home we all played parlor-games.”
A typical day at the farm is described in another entry:
“Charlie and I got up at half-past five and went after a horse that had got loose, but we couldn’t catch him. Coming home I shot a wood-pecker. After breakfast we went to have another try at catching the horse. I caught him and rode him home, but his backbone was so sharp I could hardly walk afterwards, and I got a headache through being jogged so much. Uncle then took us to his big field and showed us how to use his new plow, and we plowed the cornfield, Charlie driving the horse while I held the cultivator. While we were busy a crazy man came along and fell into the creek. He scrambled out and got onto the fence and fell off that. Then, seeing my coat hanging on the fence, he tried it on, hollering and talking the whole time. We were on the other side of the fence then, but we plowed on until we got to him. Just then Uncle Howard came along and the crazy man walked off, leaving my coat and hat in the creek. Poor man, he was afterwards sent to the asylum at Stockton.”
The rest of the visit at Uncle Willie’s was spent in rambling over the countryside in search of berries and nuts, helping with the plowing and the hay-making and, in general, giving Alfred a pretty good foretaste of the kind of life he was to know and to love in Argentina.
Alfred’s fourteenth birthday was on June 15 and, by the strange workings of fate, it was on that day that he first heard of the definite intention of Father Benitz to go to South America. This was, then, truly a red-letter day for him, but his diary gives no indication that he recognized it as such. There is no mention of any birthday party and the revelation of his father’s momentous decision was appended as a sort of after-thought to the usual doings of the day, as follows:
“After dinner, Mr. Helmke, a friend of Father’s, arrived and said that Father had made up his mind to go to South America.”
However, South America was to occupy a more and more prominent position in the diary and on the last day of June, after Mrs. Benitz and the boys had returned to Oakland from the farm, Alfred wrote:
“This morning I went along to the stables to see the new cow that Father had bought, and which was to be my special care, to water, feed and milk twice a day. I then went to the grocery store and measured myself. I had grown another three-quarters of an inch while I was in the country. That evening Father told us that he was going to South America in October.”
The plans for the South American journey did not actually materialize until a year later, in July of 1874, but for the next year the conversation in the Benitz household again and again centered around the great adventure which was in the making.
On July 21, 1873, Alfred wrote:
“Today we were all very excited as Uncle Frank arrived from South America where he had been living for seven years. I spent the whole of the afternoon listening to what he said about the place. He said that in the Argentine Republic when anyone sows any seeds, someone has to keep the parrots from eating them, and also that you can get one hundred oranges for a ‘real’ (worth about 12 cents). I decided I would rather be a sailor than anything else, and Frank said that he was going to the Argentine Republic in October or November.”
Five days later, Alfred again reports that Uncle Frank held forth at length on the marvels and the attractions of South America in general and of Argentina in particular.
The thoughts of South America, far away and wonderful, occurred to Alfred and the rest of the family under the spell of Uncle Frank’s oratory, but it is evident from the diary that ‘they did not occupy all the waking hours of the Benitz’ and, least of all, of Alfred who was very busy with the smaller but closer realities of everyday life.
The following selections from Alfred’s diary, taken from the month of August, 1873, give a fairly good cross-section of his life at the time.
“Aug. 4: the weather has now become much cooler especially in the early morning, and late evening, and Mother had a fire lighted in the parlor. William came over for one week-end and brought us a big box of huge peaches, also two young coons for Johnny’s museum. Tonight Father brought out his electricity machine, and we all had to stand in a row and catch hold of one another’s hands, while those at either end grasped the machine. Together we felt only very little electricity, but afterwards when we were electrified separately I could only feel it in my arms, but I felt it hard enough. I had to tell them to stop as it seemed as though my arms were swelling and the flesh was being pulled from my bones.
“Aug. 10: Uncle, Johnny, Frank and I took the train to San Francisco. We walked for a while looking at the town and then took the horsecar to Woodward’s Gardens. First we went to see the bears and the birds on the hill, and then went to the museum.where the stuffed animals were kept. We next visited the tropical gardens, the picture gallery and the sea-lions. We afterwards went into the beautiful aquarium where we saw the ‘infant wonder’ which was a six-months-old baby who weighed only three pounds. After looking at the beavers, the alligators, birds and vampires, the menagerie and the skating-rink, we went to the theater and saw the Brinkley family act a, play called ‘The Pantomime Doctor,’ which was very laughable. After partaking of some chocolate and sandwiches, we started for home and got back about six o’clock.
“Aug. 11: this morning at school, Mr. Brost occupied a great deal of time telling us about the bad effects of smoking and drinking. In the afternoon we had to talk about something and as I couldn’t think of anything else, I talked about the time I came very near to being drowned at Fort Ross. In the evening Charlie came down to supper for the first time, and afterward while Father made the musical box play tunes, I read a book called ‘Jack Harkaway Among the Brigands!’
“Aug. 16: Mother and Charlie left for the Parker’s ranch at Cloverdale where Charlie is going to stay for a while to get strong. I went to the depot to see, them off and carried Mother’s valise.
“Aug. 17 (Sunday): I was putting on my best shirt preparatory to going to church when the button came off at the neck. I made Josephine sew it on, but it came off again, so I had to sew it on myself. Our seat in the church was occupied when I finally arrived, so I came home and spent the day reading and listening to what Uncle Frank was saying about South America.
“Aug. 24: today was Johnny’s twelfth birthday, and I gave him a penholder. Mother came home from Cloverdale in the evening, leaving Charlie there.
“Aug. 25: I bought a blank book from Frank. It had two hundred and fifty pages in it, and cost fifty cents. I called it my ‘fact book’ of The Value of Money and kept my accounts in it. Tonight I had a bad cold so Mother gave me some medicine, and made me chew ‘yerba santa.’ Before going to bed, I listened to Uncle and Father talking about the lizards, crocodiles and snakes in South America. There seemed to be some mighty big ones. Father said he would go there as soon as he could sell some property and take some of us boys with him and buy land there.
“Aug. 30: a friend of Josephine’s, Bella Williams, came to spend the day. In the afternoon I played croquet and ‘hide-and-go-seek’ with them after supper and then Josephine and I took Bella home. We went past our school on Twelfth Street where we met Mr. Williams. We walked on until about three blocks past the bridge, Bella and I going on way ahead. We listened to the band playing in the park for a while and then Josephine and I came home. On the way back we met Mr. Hesse, who invents water-wheels, and he walked back with us. Mother and the children (Johnny and Herman) went buggy-riding this afternoon and later Uncle took them to the San Francisco theater to see the ‘Decapitation Act.’
In those days the American school system did not have the present long summer vacation, from June until September, so after returning from Uncle William’s farm, Alfred and his brothers and sister had to return to school in July for a short term. This was followed by a brief vacation, and then the children returned once more to their desks and slates. The re-opening of school in this year (1873) occurred on Oct. 6. Alfred carefully noted in his diary entry for Oct. 24 that “Mr. Brodt said my paper on Analysis was the best written of all the scholars. That afternoon we had to write a composition on ‘Astronomical Clocks in Washington,’ and some of us had to stay in after school while Mr. Brodt talked to us about some noise we made while he was out of the room.”
Alfred’s scholastic achievement on the subject of “Analysis” apparently was balanced by his youthful vitality which wouldn’t let him miss the opportunity of contributing to the noise when the teacher was absent. The diary at this time also reveals the price that Alfred had to pay for refusing to sing solos along with the rest of the class. The Nov. 11 entry said:
“The buttons of my suspenders came off while I was at school, and I had to take care my pants didn’t fall down. Also I had to stay three-quarters of an hour after school because I wouldn’t sing alone at singing’ class. I played football before school, at recess, noon and after school when we went to an empty lot on 12th Street and played for an hour. It was splendid fun. I gave Charlie $1.25 for a share in a five-barrelled pistol, and as my Mother had given me 25 cents for wiping the dishes while Wrota (the maid) was away on holiday and for helping her to wash our two dogs, I now had 30 cents over.”
On Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 27, Alfred wrote that he acquired complete control of the pistol, having bought out Charlie’s remaining interest in it for $1. Like most American boys, Alfred ate too much turkey on Thanksgiving Day and had pains in the stomach afterwards.
One of the highlights of the Benitz children’s life during the month of December was a trip to San Francisco three days before Christmas to attend a benefit performance. The show was one of those soup to nuts theatrical performances, as illustrated by the accompanying showbill, that were so popular in the last century.
Alfred tells about it:
“Dec. 22: after doing my chores, I put on my Sunday clothes and Josephine, Bella, William and I went to the city. We barely caught the train from Oakland, and arrived in San Francisco about five o’clock. We walked to Swain’s restaurant and had coffee and cakes. We then strolled up and down Montgomery Street, Kearney Street and Market Street for about two hours, looking at the sights. At half-past seven, we made our way to the California Theater and got seats in the dress circle. They gave a play called ‘William Tell’ and Madame Bishop sang. I thought the singing was most superb and was very well satisfied with the acting. Unfortunately, we were obliged to leave during the last act so as to catch our train, the last one for Oakland. After paying all expenses, we each had 75 cents over. It was a delightful day.
“Dec. 24: Christmas Eve. Father gave me five dollars in silver, making me $7.50. I then went to the grocery store and got a sack full of things for the poor and took it to the poor-house in Webster Street. The storekeeper gave me a nice little pipe which I gave to Uncle Frank. After supper we all gathered round the Christmas tree. I got a smelling bag from Bella, and Josephine gave me a bottle of red ink. I scared Herman by putting on a flashing false-face and a sheet. I met him on the landing as he was going to bed and succeeded in frightening him pretty well.
“Christmas Day: we had a very good dinner at one o’clock, after which Charlie and I took a walk down to the Washington Street wharf and looked at the tugs and schooners, and also at the engine in the gas works. In the evening I read the Headless Horseman by Mayne Reid, till bedtime. The next morning I woke up with a feeling of dizziness on account of having eaten some painted candy. I also had a headache and a pain in my inside. I read most of the day and Father operated on us with the electricity machine.”
Alfred closed his diary for the year 1873 with a statement on his financial position - he had nine dollars in the bank - and with the speculation that appears to be universal with the human race at the close of each year - wondering where he would be and how he would spend the close of the next. The dice already had been thrown by fate, and it was ordained that he would usher out the old and welcome the new year on Dec. 31, 1874, on the broad pampas of Argentina where he was to spend most of his life.
Five days after the new year opened, Alfred recorded in his diary that preparations at last were under way for the voyage to South America. He wrote that a prospective buyer of the Benitz property had shown up and thal several real estate agents had begun dickering with Father Benitz on the handling of the sale. On the last day of January the preparations advanced a bit more when Johnny, Herman and Alfred were taken to the sHoe-maker’s to be equipped with a new outfit of shoes.
Most of the diary for the early months of the year is taken up with the routine daily doings of Alfred and the family. The following entries, selected at random, offer an insight into the way in which Alfred’s time was spent:
“Feb. 14: today was St. Valentine’s Day. I received two comical Valentines before breakfast, they were found under the door. After breakfast, I bought a Valentine at Hardy’s with 25 cents borrowed from Josephine and sent it to Bella (Williams) in East Oakland.
“Feb. 16: I had to wipe the dishes after breakfast as the Chinese New Year began today and our Chinaman servant went to San Francisco to enjoy himself.
“Feb. 21: today was the day before Washington’s birthday, so there was no school. As I was returning from the library where I had been to change my book, I heard the firebell ringing and saw a large light in Washington Street. I ran to see what it was, and it was the fire-engine house on fire. The building was completely burned down before the engines began squirting water. Louis, our Chinaman, returned in the evening and brought us a quantity of fire-crackers to celebrate Washington’s birthday.
“March 8: Josephine, Bella and I went to church (Presbyterian Independent) and heard Mr. Eyejamb preach. After dinner Charlie and I went down to First Street and Broadway to see Mr. Hesse’s new water-wheel engine.
“March 9: today I had a quarrel with a boy at school. He threw some dirt at me, so I threw some in his face. I wasn’t afraid of him as he was smaller than me.
“March 20: school closed for a week’s vacation and we had the usual exhibition in the afternoon, but only a small one. There was singing and speeches, but Mr. Brodt did not call upon me to speak, greatly to my relief.
“March 28: I began to study the Spanish alphabet.
“April 7: I started lessons in book-keeping today. There was trouble at school as after lessons the night before two boys had a fight and one hit the other over the head with a bat, and he was in a critical situation.
“April 17: I took Bella and Mother to an evening concert in aid of the Presbyterian Independent church, which was held at Brayton Hall in Oakland. The program consisted of singing and solos on the piano, and was very well done. We got home about ten o’clock after having had hard work squeezing our way through the crowd.”
May 8th of this year was a milestone in Alfred’s life for it was on that day that he took his first dancing lesson. As the entry in his diary shows, this first lesson in the social amenities was not a complete success:
“I started going to a dancing school. After supper I dressed myself in my Sunday clothes and went to a Music Hall on Sixth Street, where I paid $2 for a month’s tuition in dancing. Mr. Lundt showed us the steps and those who could find partners danced the waltz, schottische, quadrilles and lancers. I could not get a partner so I had to look on. I came home at 9 p.m.
“May 15: Bella and I went to the dancing class accompanied by Mother and Josephine. We went through all the steps, but I did not dance the waltz or the schottische, only the lancers with Bella. We weren’t going for another month as the Hall had been engaged by another party.”
The first hint of romance in the Benitz family came when Alfred, overlooking completely his association with Bella, wrote with typical small-boy scorn that Josephine was being courted.
“May 22. Harry Burdell took Josephine to a Calico Ball and then took her out riding. Nuts on her, I think. During the afternoon Mother said I could go to Uncle Howard’s again for vacation, but Father said we should probably go to South America in July.”
The next dancing class was held on June 5, which was also the last day of school, and that night Alfred achieved some sort of land-mark in his life by dancing lancers and quadrilles, which he had avoided in the first two sessions. Coming home from the dancing class, he wrote, Bella and he found a lady under the hedge, very distinctly under the influence of liquor. He added that the two young puritans aroused her, only to discover, to their horror, that she took out a pipe and began to smoke it. The entry closes with the pious observation that “she was at last induced to move away.”
Despite the imminence of the departure of the family for South America, Alfred in mid-June made the journey by himself to Uncle Willie Howard’s farm at Freestone. On June 28, Uncle Willie received a letter from Father Benitz announcing that the Oakland property had been sold for $100,000 and that the trip to Argentina had been definitely set for late in July.
Alfred stayed on at the farm for another week and returned to Oakland on July 7th. The next day, Father Benitz and some of the family went to San Francisco to buy clothes and other equipment needed for the journey and for life in the new land.
Let Alfred’s diary tell the story of the remaining busy days:
“July 8: Father, Mother, Willie and I went shopping in San Francisco. We went to Hastings’ Clothing Store and Father bought me a suit of black summer clothes ($18), a greyish coat ($5) and a linen coat ($2.50). He then bought me a pair of gaiters ($6) and a pair of good slippers for $2.50. We then went to a trunk factory and bought several trunks and a valise. We afterwards went to a saloon where we had a very good dinner. After buying me a black straw hat, we walked around for a little while and then returned to Oakland.
“July 9: I took my money out of the bank ($14) and gave it to Father to keep for me.
“July 10: Mother, Josephine and I went to San Francisco and had our photographs taken. Mine in the small size. We then went to Hastings’ Store again and bought underclothes and shirts, and after a good dinner returned home.
“July 12: Father went to San Francisco and bought eight saddles, and in the afternoon we were busy packing swords and books and the saddles. Father said that we would probably start for South America on the 20tb.
“July 16: we sent our slow freight in advance. In the afternoon, Mother took the children to San Francisco to buy them clothes. There was an article about us in The Tribune.
“July 18: I rose early today and helped to pack the pictures and send them to the buyers. The piano ($225) and the carpenter’s bench ($20) were also sold and taken away.
“July 19: I had to go around the house with the auctioneers, who were pricing the beds, furniture, etc. Afterwards Father sold everything that was left very cheaply, for $475.
“July 24: Father went to San Francisco today and engaged berths for us on the steamer ‘Arizona’ bound for New York by way of Panama, which sails on Wednesday, the 29th. The berths cost $100 each.
“July 25: Johnny, Herman and I went with some friends to the theater in San Francisco and saw a play called ‘The Royal Marionettes.’ It had stuffed people acting little plays such as ‘Red Riding Hood’ etc. Although we had balcony seats we could not see much of it as all the children stood up. When we got home I went to see my best friend, Eugene Howell, and he walked home with me. He promised to write me if I write to him, as we shall not see each other again, I bid him good-bye.
“July 28: this was our last day in California. In the morning we carried all the trunks downstairs. In the afternoon I had my hair cut and went with Father to get our tickets for the steamer to New York. Last night Josephine’s boy friends came and serenaded her so that I did not get to sleep till late for the noise they made. Today there were a good many visitors who came to say good-bye. Charlie went over to the Williams’ in the afternoon and Bella sent me her photograph. The steamer goes tomorrow. Hurrah! Hurrah!”
© Peter Benitz (Benitz Family)