Frank, full name Franz Joseph Benitz, was born at Fort Ross, California, USA, on the 22 May, 1850, the fourth child of William and Josephine Benitz (Wilhelm Böniz and Josefa Kolmerer). However, he was the first to survive past infancy which made him the eldest sibling. As an adult, he was 5 ft. 10 in. (178 cm.) tall with blond hair and grey eyes.
Frank spent his first seventeen years at Fort Ross where he grew up within a tight-knit German-speaking community. It is probably safe to say that Badischen, the dialect of German spoken in Baden, was his first language. Most of the leading adults at the fort were from Endingen, Baden (Germany): both his parents, his maternal grandparents living close by at Timber Cove, his uncle Frank, his father’s cousins who visited (Louis and Adolphus), as well as some of the workers (e.g., Frank Ziegler). In addition, all his father’s business associates were of German origin: John A. Sutter (from Kandern, Baden), Ernest Rufus (from Württenberg, the state next to Baden), and Charles T. Meyer (from Prussia).
His father valued education for in his letters he twice mentions having hired a teacher for his children who taught them German, English, and Spanish. English eventually became Frank’s principal language — he had the fewest misspellings of his siblings and the neatest handwriting. The very few pages (7) we have of his diary are written in English, except a quote in German of something said by his father; he wrote to his mother and brothers in English.
In 1867 his father sold Fort Ross and the entire family moved to Oakland, California. Frank was then seventeen and had completed most of his studies. We have the following glimpses of his activities during the period his parents lived in Oakland:
Mr. George L. DePrans having this day resigned the management of my business here, I have appointed in his stead Mr. F. J. Benitz, who will collect all accounts and conduct the business as heretofore. Matthias Gray.
Portland, Nov. 28th, 1873, dldlw
Frank was twenty-four when he joined the family in their emigration to Argentina. He could easily have remained in California for he was old enough and, per the above newspaper notice, he had already ventured out on his own.
Upon arrival in Argentina he and Willie accompanied their father, Wilhelm, in his search for land. They appear to have been on alternate trips, Frank went to Córdoba (November 15-18), a week later Willie went to Paraná. On February 18, 1875, Wilhelm bought 4 leagues of land from Carlos Vernet. The family did not move to the property that was to become estancia “La California” until April 8th, possibly waiting for the summer heat to abate.
A year later, on 27 June, 1876, Wilhelm died. His death left an enormous vacuum at a critical moment. Without his drive uniting the family there must surely have been serious doubts surrounding the family’s immediate future. None of them, except for “Uncle Frank” (Frank X. Benitz), had ever operated a ranch or made critical business decisions. In addition, they were still very new to Argentina. Yet no mention is made in letters or diaries of returning to California.
Neither Frank nor Alfred explicitly say in their diaries who assumed leadership. However, it is probably safe to say their mother took charge. Per family anecdotes, Josephine was a strong-willed person in her own right. She would have led the family, delegating the day to day operations and decisions of managing the estancia to her brother-in-law (Frank X. Benitz) and her eldest sons, Frank and Willie.
It is clear from his diary that Frank fulfilled a management role at the estancia for he mentions sending peones out to perform tasks in the fields and around the estancia headquarters, i.e., he was issuing the daily operating orders. He maintained a log of weather conditions. He was busy planting trees (there were none on the pampas), almost certainly assisted by several workmen. He prepared medicine and dosed cattle that were sick with hoof and mouth. He took on the responsibility of writing to friends and relatives regarding his father’s death, and placing notices in the newspapers — tasks his mother was unable to perform for she was illiterate. In other words he was thoroughly involved in the activities and operation of La California, at least during July, 1876.
But, on July 29 he wrote:
“To-day it is two years since we steamed out of the Golden Gate, for South America. I to-day commenced a letter to Har[ry] Ewald. There was a light frost this morning. We to-day washed 10 more animals, that are sick from the hoof and mouth disease. This evening Mother & some others for the first time counted the money in fathers trunks, they did not think it worth-while, to let me know that they were going to count.”
Frank was peeved that he had not been told his mother would be counting the money. Because he was not told suggests his mother, or at least some in the family, doubted his leadership.
We do not know what may have caused these doubts. Alfred’s biography states Frank was a discordant member of the family and suggests he may have had difficulty shouldering the responsibility of its leadership. But conversely, his brothers may have resented him assuming that role.
One month (July — winter when little happens), or even two months, would not have been sufficient time for Frank to develop management skills. The discord must already have existed or it developed very rapidly. Wilhelm had dominated the family as the undisputed creator and owner of the family fortune. He could make decisions autocratically, where as Frank, as part owner, was subject to family consensus. Did Frank try ruling like his father, which certainly would have caused resentments and arguments? Or, did he become frustrated trying to build concensus? Or, as the Alfred’s biographer suggests, he was not capable of managing?
Previously, while still in California, was Frank’s venture to Oregon due to discord or an innocent desire to test his wings?
In summary, unless more (and less circumspect) diaries and letters come to light, we may never know the true cause of Frank’s dissatisfaction. By September 10 he was in Rosario, he returned on October 22. The next day he went to Tucuman, returning a month later, November 18. Within a week he had a fight with Charlie. He didn’t stay for Christmas, which suggests a serious rift. On December 12, 1876, Frank took his share of the money and left for good. His share was likely $3,500 to $4,000 of the $23,000 (pesos fuertes) on hand in July, 1876.
What ever his motives, his actions were very costly, both financially and personally, to him and the family.
Frank did return to “La California” for that is where he married Elisa Bichsel on June 1, 1881. Elisa was from Alejandra, a colony and town of Brits and Americans on the San Javier river, about 30km. east of Frank’s Colonia Espín. She and her sister lived with her aunt, their parents having died. Frank and Elisa didn’t have any children.
Eighteen months after leaving, unchecked by a business savvy father, Frank had overreached and was in serious financial difficulty. Because he was able to convince his mother to trust him and sign his notes, he caused the family serious financial trouble, as well. His siblings surely knew about the notes in July, 1878. Josephine was illiterate; therefore, someone in the family must have read Frank’s letters to her. Alfred mentions “another” note in July, 1879. It is difficult to estimate how much Frank borrowed for the notes were extended and rolled over. Yet nobody took action until it was too late. Eventually his brothers did go to his assistance in August, 1880, when Willie visited the colony. That same month the family found a buyer for ¼ of “La California” — known as “La Independencia”, it was the league farthest west, beyond what later became Alfred’s “Las Tijeras”.
For a more detailed account, see Record of Events below.
The greatest damage to the family was the loss of opportunity to expand their operations. In July, 1876, they still had on hand $23,000 (pesos fuertes), in the form of hard cash in silver or gold — approx. 1⁄5 of Wilhelm‘s proceeds from the sale of his properties in Oakland, Calif. When Frank left in December, 1876, the major expenses of establishing “La California” had already been met — the land bought (for $16,000), the house built, and presumably the camp properly stocked with cattle and sheep. The estancia was close to if not already a self-supporting operation, it certainly must have been by 1880. We can only speculate what they would have done next, but once confident of success at “La California” they surely would have expanded, buying more land. Instead, they sold land.
The financial cost likely included a major part of the $23,000 plus the $4,000 they received from the sale of “La Independencia” (if not out of cash, why else did they sell land, critical to their future success?). All of Frank’s ventures, including Colonia Espín, were a total loss to the family. In 1884, based on a claim to a league of the failed colonia, Alfred established a cattle operation at Laguna Yacaré. However, the claim was rejected and he was evicted five years later, in 1889. (For more details, see Alfred’s diaries.)
The river (“El Toba” to the north and “Saladillo Dulce” to the south) in which Frank presumably drowned is less than ten kilometers west of Alejandra across a flat wooded plain. Living in the area for the past 2-3 years, he was likely quite familiar with the 30km. trail between Alejandra and the colony. Riding it alone would not have been thought unsafe or a challenge. Parts of his saddlery and other items were found at the river crossing, suggesting he was in the process of fording the river when he disappeared. It is, therefore, very likely that he drowned within hours of leaving Alejandra, on November 23, 1881. The most plausible cause would be a freak accident, such as described by Johnnie in his letters: that Frank’s horse spooked and/or fell on him, pinning him down under water; his body, never found, devoured by pirañas. He was not the first to drown at that crossing — his father-in-law had done so before him (see the same letters).
Accidental drowning fits the circumstances best. Indians, had they killed him, would have taken his horse and saddlery — both were recovered. Though Frank was in dire straits financially, having failed to raise fresh capital in Santa Fé city with which to pay his creditors, suicide seems implausible — he was just married, and there is no indication that the family would not have assisted him. Vanishing to hide from his creditors is a stretch — again, he was just married, and without his horse and saddlery, he would not have gone far on foot.
We visited the area when the river was not in flood — it is a wide marsh with several shallow channels. However, in his letter of January 5, 1882, Johnnie describes a quite different scenario when in flood: “the grass was so high that when I stood on my horse’s back I could not look over and the water up to the saddle”, in which case the channels would have been deep, requiring them to be swum.
Section from: “Descripción geográfica y estadística de la provincia de Santa Fé” por Gabriel Carrasco, 4a. ed., Stiller & Laas, Buenos Aires, 1886.
Note: The Arroyo Espín ends in the Laguna Cristal, which is drained by the Saladillo Amargo (off map). The river top right is the El Toba (not the Saladillo Amargo). It does not join the Espín but flows parallel to it. (Off map: the El Toba ends in Laguna Tembleque, which is drained by the Saladillo Dulce.)
The following table lists the sequence of events as recorded in diaries and letters. The sources are various and the dates are important. Please read in sequence. It’s a sad story that could have ruined the family.
The entries labeled “Alfred per Chronicles” and “La Cali. per Chronicles” were taken from “The Chronicles of Alfred Benitz 1815-1937” by Lilian Marsh-Simpson, May 1st., 1938. We have used the Chronicles where we don’t have the actual diaries. We are missing Alfred’s diaries of 1877 through 1883, and the estancia “La California” diaries prior to 1888. We discovered by comparison that entries quoted in the Chronicles are not fully accurate: grammar has been corrected, some dates are wrong, individual entries are paraphrased, and sometimes several entries have been combined into one.
Please see our footnotes regarding currency values and land areas.
|1876 Sep.10||Alfred diary||Alfred notes in his diarythat Frank is in Rosario.|
|1876 Oct.1||Alfred diary||“Frank writes that he has to stay other week in Rosario.”|
|1876 Oct.21||Alfred diary||“Charlie and Josephine went into Cañada de Gomez in the little wagon this afternoon to bring out Frank tomorrow.”|
|1876 Oct.22||Alfred diary||“Josephine Charlie and Frank came back again from Canada Gomez this afternoon, the latter from Rosario. Everything is settled about the money now. We have something like $23.000 left.”|
|1876 Oct.23||Alfred diary||“Willie took Frank into Canada Gomez in the wagon at noon, as Frank is going to Tucuman with a freeticket.”|
|1876 Nov.18||Alfred diary||“Brown brought out Frank in the little wagon today. He speaks very well of Tucuman, trip cost $210. He brought some sugar cane along.”|
|1876 Nov.24||Alfred diary||“Frank & Charlie had row today.”|
|1876 Dec.12||Alfred per Chronicles||Per Alfred diaries (as paraphrased in the “The Chronicles of Alfred Benitz”), “Frank got his share of what Father left us, and left ‘La California’ to start on his own place.” [Note: His share may have been as much as 1/6 of the $23,000, approx. $3,830.]|
|1878 July 16||La Cali. per Chronicles||Per the estancia “La California” diaries (as paraphrased in the “The Chronicles of Alfred Benitz”), Frank arrived and left the same day. The next day his mother and Alfred went to Rosario, staying until the 20th.|
|1878 July 27||Frank diary||Purchased Mr. A. Schmeaderers interest in the “Espin” colony, owes $278.95 on one note, issues a pagaré for $B 133 on another — both at 1.5% per month.|
|1879 July 15||La Cali. per Chronicles||“Mother signed another note of Frank’s, for three months for $2,500. She received a letter from him last Sunday.”|
|1879 Sep.24||Frank letter to brother||Has rented Dr. Romang’s monte to cut wood, 15 carts working, expects 60, profit on each wagon is $B 30 per month. Expects Mr. Murphy to arrive from the US in Sep. bringing families for the colony ready to invest, as well.|
|1879 Oct. 4||The Standard||Frank is mentioned in an optimistic article about the agricultural prospects of north Santa Fé.|
|1879 Nov. 7||The Standard||Frank is mentioned in a glowing article about the timber industry in Santa Fé.|
|1879 Nov.10||Solicitud Gov.SFé||Request to the Santa Fé governor to extend by 2 years the period in which to complete the Espín colony. [We do not know if it was granted.]|
|1879 Nov.27||La Cali. per Chronicles||“Mother and William went to Rosario to stay a few days, as Mother was going to make her will. She also wanted to get some notes back of Frank’s.”|
|1880 Feb.11||La Cali. per Chronicles||“Mother signed another note of Frank’s for the sum of $4,123.60 cts. efectivo”|
|1880 Feb.15||Frank letter to mother||Bought out Espín partners, now owner of 16 leagues, partly populated, building a house. Bought Romang’s store stocked with $B 2,500 goods, returns profit of $B 500 per month. Mr. Curry’s note is due, but needs the money to stock store, asks mother to endorse the note.|
|1880 Mar.25||Frank letter to mother||Cannot travel, asks mother to endorse 2 notes—last time. Loading lumber, payment for it will cover notes. Expecting more settlers for the colony from Europe and California. Claims to have goods & quebracho worth: $B 3,700, is owed another $B 1,600, has had some necessary expenses totaling $B 880.|
|1880 May 19||Letter from J. Lloyd||J. Lloyd request that Mrs. Benitz pay Frank’s note for $B 4,123.60, due on May 26.|
|1880 Aug.4||Frank letter to mother||Problems shipping out goods, cannot get money, notes due, best mortgage the estancia, instructions how to go about it quietly.|
|1880 Aug.7||La Cali. per Chronicles||“Mr and Mrs Smithers paid us a visit. Mr Smithers was going to buy Frank’s league of camp [La Independencia] from us for $4,000, so that we could settle up Frank’s business.”|
|1880 Aug.17||La Cali. per Chronicles||”...Willie left for the Gran Chaco [in Santa Fé province], to look after Frank’s affairs for a bit.”|
|1880 Sep.8||La Cali. per Chronicles||“William arrived back from the Gran Chaco, and spoke very highly of the place. Alfred decided to go up there for a few days to help Frank with his colony. We had to pay Frank’s note on Lloyd’s due Septermber 23rd, for $4,247, and Frank signed a paper for $6,888 silver, payable to us in six month’s time. William also went to “La Independencia” to see Smithers about selling him the camp down there.”|
|1880 Nov.3||Frank letter to William||In Rosario, on his way to Buenos
Aires. Needs to delay Curry’s note, to be paid by timber shipments.
Having trouble getting ships.
”...I have sold my Mal Abrigo store to Dr Romang, and as soon as I have shipped all my timber I am going to stop the timber business, and attend to Espin exclusively.... In Buenos Aires there is a man who wants to buy my Espin store...”
|1881 Feb.28||La Cali. per Chronicles||“We sold the last [farthest west, i.e.: La Independencia] league of camp to Smithers for $4,000.00 equal to $5,452.16 bolivianos, and as he had taken up Frank’s debt to Lloyd’s of $4,492.16. he paid Willie the balance of $860. silver which Willie took to the States [trip to marry Clara Allyn]. He also took the money from Mr Hope of $174.00.”|
|1881 June 1||Frank marries||Frank married Elizabeth Bishel, of Alejandra, at “La California”.|
|1881 Oct.4||J. Larguia letter to Frank||Arranging appointment re Espín. [“Looking good”—but no idea what.]|
|1881 Nov.1||H. Altgelt letter to Frank||Furious letter denouncing Frank for having dishonoured his word as a gentleman, lying about payments, breaking promises, misusing funds. He was taking legal action to recover his funds.|
|1881 Dec.9||Johnnie to William||Sad news of Frank’s likely drowning and how it may have happened. Johnnie suggests how they may help Eliza and her sister.|
|1882 Jan.5||Johnnie to William||Johnnie describes what he found when he searched for Frank and that he had a heated discussion with a man whom Frank owed a lot of money.|
|1882 Feb.14||Petition to SFé Gov.||Alexander McLean petitioned the governor of Santa Fé seeking relief from debt left by Frank Benitz. It was granted.|
|1906||Legal Notice||After 25 years, Frank is declared legally dead.|
© Peter Benitz (Benitz Family)