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William Benitz
New Breisgau

In December of 1844 William Benitz was granted 5 sitios de ganado mayor in the northern Sacramento valley by Manuel Micheltorena, Governor of Alta California (1842-1845).  On the diseño drawn by William (see below), he named the property Rancho de Breisgau.  John Sutter suggested Breisgau — William’s home shire in the Grand Duchy of Baden (Germany).  In letters to his brother Thad in Endingen, William calls it New Breisgau — and that is how we refer to it.  In the US Land Court records, it is referred to as Breisgan.  Today it is known as Rancho Bresgau.

The Grant:

To recruit an army in his 1844 campaign against a group of rebellious Californians, Manuel Micheltorena offered all who served with him, including those of foreign birth, the right to own the land which they had been permitted to occupy.  In June of 1844 William filed a petition for New Breisgau in return for having served in the Mexican army without pay since 1840.  It is not known in what capacity he served prior to 1844, but during 1844 he served 6-8 months as a lieutenant in the Sacramento Riflemen, captained by John Sutter.  In July of 1844 Micheltorena granted William the right to occupy the land, but would not confirm ownership to him until he had an opportunity to visit it.  However (per Ernest Rufus, the other lieutenant in the Sacramento Riflemen), some months later in San Luis Obispo, William was in command of a party of riflemen which brought in a prisoner by the name of Miguel Abila.  This so pleased Micheltorena he informed William the land was immediately confirmed to him.  The grant was later included in a general grant made on December 22, 1844.

Rancho New Breisgau lay along the east side of the Sacramento River, its northern limit 1 - 1.5 miles south of Ash Creek, approximately where today there is a road bridge across the Sacramento; its southern limit was the south tip of Bloody Island, where Battle Creek joins the Sacramento.  In 1844 the entire area, including the rancho, was in Shasta county.  In 1856 Shasta was split along Battle Creek; its southern portion became Tehama county and Rancho New Bresigau wound up partly in each.

New Breisgau
Missing map.

Rancho de Breisgau
Diseño, 1844

Missing map.

Rancho Bresgau
Modern Map

The above diseño is very likely the one drawn by William Benitz in 1844 when he prepared his petition to Governor Manuel Micheltorena.  Its style is identical to the diseño he drew of Rancho de Hermann.  Per the testimony of Ernest Rufus in 1854 (from the Court Records):

“I saw Bennitz when he was making the map in the latter part of 1843, or the early part of 1844. About the time he was making said map he did not know what to call the land; Capt. Sutter told him that as he, Bennitz, was from Breisgan, in Germany, he had better give it that name, which he did.”

[California Land Claims, Volume II, Case No. 259]

In his June 8, 1844, petition to Micheltorena, William provides a somewhat vague description of the property:

“...contains five square leagues of land, (sitios de ganado mayor,) the boundaries of which are, to the northeast and south the (sierra) mountains; to the west, the Sacramento river, as explained in the sketch which I annex.”

[California Land Claims, Volume II, Case No. 259]

In his appeal to the US Supreme Court in northern California in 1854 (see the Court Record), William was more specific:

“...said land is situated in the present county of Shasta, on the east shore of the Sacramento river, is known by the name of ‘Breisgan,’ [sic] and bounded as follows: commencing at a point on the eastern shore of the Sacramento river, half a league south of the junction of the Arroyo de los Eresnos [sic]with the Sacramento; thence following the eastern shore of said Sacramento, about two leagues south to the most northern point of an island formed by said Sacramento; thence along the western line of said island to its most southern point; thence at right angles due east one league and a half; thence at right angles north to a point due east of the point of commencement; thence west to the place of beginning, containing altogether five Spanish square leagues, more or less;”

[California Land Claims, Volume II, Case No. 259]

The entire limit along the Sacramento can only have been two leagues in length, including Bloody Island.  William’s diseño shows no other rivers in the vicinity and we know (from the estimates he made of Rancho Hermann) that he overestimated distances, so we believe the Arroyo de los Fresnos is correctly labelled and that it is not the more northerly Bear Creek or Cow Creek.

The grant was for 5 Spanish square leagues (sitios de ganado mayor), about 21,700 acres or 8,800 hectares.  However, it is clear from the diseño (and simple math) that it was much smaller, its size dependant on how its east limit was defined.  Both the diseño and the testimony agree on the west and south limits: beginning at the south end of Bloody Island, the west limit went two leagues north along the east bank of the Sacramento, and the south limit went directly east one and a half (1½) leagues.  If the east limit paralleled the Sacramento as in the diseño, then the rancho encompassed 3 and a bit leagues (2 by 1½ + the bulge of Bloody Island); if the east limit went straight north as in the court testimony, then the rancho was wider along its north limit by about a half (½) league so that it encompassed at most 4 leagues.  In modern terms, its true size was somewhere between 13,000 and 17,400 acres, or 5,200 and 7,000 hectares.


William intended to use New Breisgau for grazing cattle.  In March of 1845 he put Julian (a French Canadian) and John Yates (an English sailor) on it as tenants to establish ownership by making improvements, such as building a house and cultivating crops.  According to the testimony of John Yates in August of 1855 (see the Court Record):

“In the latter part of March, 1845, a French Canadian, by the name of Julian, whom I had known for a considerable time, proposed to me to join him in making a settlement for Bennitz on the premises herein claimed, representing that Bennitz would give a portion of the land for making the settlement; I acceded to his proposition, and we immediately proceeded to make the settlement; we first erected a tent, and planted about an acre in cane; we took with us seeds of various kinds from Sutter’s fort; shortly after our arrival we commenced the erection of a substantial wooden building; before the building was finished, when I had been there only some twelve days, the Indians became so troublesome, and , as I thought, so dangerous, that I left the place; Julian remained upon the place, and, as I learned some six months after, was shot by an Indian; after I returned to Sutter’s fort, I told Bennitz of the improvements we had made, and my reasons for leaving; I have often heard Bennitz speak of the land as his from that time to this.”

[California Land Claims, Volume II, Case No. 259]

According to John Bidwell, in a letter to H.H. Bancroft, May 23, 1884:

Julian: a Canadian Frenchman who went with Lieut A.H. Gillespie & Sam. Neal & e to overke Fremont on his way to Oregon, and was killed in a night attack by the Indians (Modocs) in May 1846.”

[H.H. Bancroft Collection, Bancroft Library, Univ. Calif. Berkeley]

We have found no further record of William using the property or making an effort to maintain his claim of ownership.  However, Jary Kraft and Barbara Woodrum researched New Breisgau in 2004.  In their draft of Historic Overview of the Bend Area, Tehama County, they wrote:

“In 1850, Benitz made another attempt to get the property occupied in exchange for part of the land.  Benitz signed an agreement with Ernest Rufus, who was an associate of Benitz at Fort Ross.  The agreement gave Rufus an undivided one-half share in Rancho Breisgau in exchange for a share of Rancho Hermann, a property Rufus held near Fort Ross.  According to the agreement, ‘It is understood that the said Rufus is to occupy the premises above described.’ (Shasta County Book of Deeds E: 505, 3/26/1850). It is doubtful that Rufus did come to Rancho Breisgau and by 1852 several squatters had filed claims on the land.”

On 8 June, 1849, Ernest Rufus sold his 3 leagues of Herman Rancho to William Benitz and Charles Meyer for $1,000 (in above menu, see Rancho Herman), which on its own appears to be highly undervalued.  However, when combined with the exchange of ownership as described by Kraft and Woodrum, its price is more reasonable.  In 1854, four years later,  Herman Rancho was sold for $26,500; in 1856, Ernest Rufus sold his doubtful claim to all 5 (!) leagues of Rancho New Breisgau for $5,000, which suggests Rufus had previously obtained William’s remaining share.  We have no record of how William disposed of his share.

Following the US-Mexican war of 1846-1848 Alta California became part of the US.  In 1853 the Board of Land Commissioners ruled that William held insufficient proof of title — as a result, the rancho was not patented.  Though his appeal in 1855 to the US Supreme Court went in his favor, per his letters, he regained only 7,500 acres (3,000 ha.) at a cost of $12,000 in legal expenses.  Coincidently, the 7,500 acres are approximately half the true acreage, which would be William’s share given that Rufus owned the other half — disregarding the squatters claims.

Per Kraft and Woodrum:

“In 1856, Ernest Rufus - by this time in possession of the entire property consisting of five Spanish leagues and bounded as originally described in the grant from Micheltorena - sold to Jeremiah Clarke for $5000 (Shasta County Book of Deeds E: 506; 2/20/1856). Clarke was the San Francisco attorney who represented Benitz in his appeal.”


In 1950, the California State Library at Sacramento provided the following information regarding William and New Briesgau:

“William Bennitz, claimant for Briesgau, 5 square leagues, in Shasta county, granted July 26th, 1844, by Manuel Micheltorena to Wm. Bennitz; claim filed February 24, 1853, rejected by the [U.S. Land] Commission [for the Northern District of California] April 7th, 1856, decree reversed and cause remanded by the U.S. Supreme Court with direction to dismiss the petition, 23 Howard, 255.”

© Peter Benitz (Benitz Family)