William Benitz Page last modified:

William Benitz
References in Books

Missing Cover

History of Sonoma County, California
Its People and Its Resources

edited by Ernest Latimer Finley
Golden Gate Bridge Edition
The Press Democrat Publishing Co.
Santa Rosa, California, 1937

The short stories below were excerpted and very kindly provided to us in 1991 by Kaye Tomlin, historian and great-grandson of George W. Call.  The stories are:

Page 88

“Muldrew Litigation” and Indian Labor

Bringing the history of the lands occupied by the Russians to a conclusion, so far as the purported ownership of their purchaser is concerned, Sutter relinquished his claim to William Muldrew, George R. Moore, and Daniel W. Welty in 1859; the consideration or agreement between buyers and seller was not made public. The new owners, basing their demands on the shadow title acquired by the Russian-American Fur Company from the Indians, when all but one settler refused to pay anything for the lands, appealed to the courts.

This led to the famous “Muldrew litigation,” and clouded several titles. The claim of Muldrew, Moore and Welty was finally wiped out by the United States district court. William Benitz, who refused to make further payments on his lease from Sutter after acquiring the title of Manuel Torres, paid the buyers from Sutter $6,000, evidently believing in the validity of their title, and consequently he was not a party in the suits they instituted. Thus, it appears, these large and valuable holdings, which the natives had disposed of to the Muscovites for two axes, three hoes, three pairs of breeches and a few strings of beads, next brought $30,000 from Sutter, and ultimately netted succeeding purchasers only $6,000.

Some of the settlers on these lands denounced the Muldrew claim as a blackmailing affair and severely censured Sutter for selling him and his partners the land, charging that the Sacramentan sanctioned the methods employed in trying to force payment, as might have been natural for them to think in view of the circumstances. There can be no doubt, however, that Sutter himself had been led by the Russians to regard their claim to the lands as valid, for it appears unlikely that so shrewd a business man would have paid $30,000 for only the livestock and chattels, valued by General Vallejo at $9,000. Unquestionably Sutter believed that he had become a land baron with almost provincial possessions, until the day of his disillusionment.

A county event of primary importance in 1845, causing considerable excitement and leading to official investigation, was a raid made by Sonoma rancheros or their agents upon the Indians in the Ross district, to secure laborers. The natives offered resistance and several of them were killed; about one hundred and fifty of them were captured and taken away. Some of the Indians were employed on the rancho of William Benitz; it was his complaint that led to the court inquiry. In this last instance of Indian mention under Mexican rule in the county, the chief offenders were Antonio Castro and Rafael Garcia. The court investigation which followed the deaths and kidnappings shows that civil authority was beginning to assert itself.

Page 352

Russian River Ferry

Many of the early institutions of Somona county are today only memories, all visible evidence of their existence having disappeared. Nevertheless, a knowledge of them is valuable to the student of history; without this information there would be missing links in the process of social or commercial evolution. At least two features of pioneer transportation come within this category.

Reference to the minutes of the Board of Supervisors shows that in November, 1857, William Benitz was licensed to operate a ferry across Russian river on his own land, about a mile above the mouth of the stream. The county collected no fee for this privilege, it being known that the profits of the venture would be insufficient to warrant such a charge. In fact, a license to operate such a ferry for six months had been granted in 1856 to R.W. Kibbe; he refused to continue the service because it did not pay, and Hugh Patton was given a license.

This ferry was on the road leading from Bodega to Fort Ross and Salt Point. Benitz also was licensed for only a half year, and to assure faithful service was required to file a bond of $1,100. The board authorized the following tolls: Man and horse, 50 cents; horse and buggy, $1.50; wagon and two horses or oxen, $1.50; wagon and four horses or oxen, $2.00; loose horses or cattle, 10 cents a head; loose hogs or sheep, 5 cents a head; foot passenger, 25 cents. What made the ferry produce inadequate returns was the requirement that it must be operated if only one pedestrian appeared or only a few hogs or sheep were to be taken across the river. The ferry was maintained by Benitz for some years, his license being renewed when necessary.

In September, 1857, the board granted a permit for construction of a draw or swing bridge across Petaluma river at the foot of Washington street to the following-named citizens of Petaluma: Thomas Hopper, S.C. Hayden, W.D. Bliss, John Ralkman, W.S. Bryant, S. Payran, O.A. Sackett, and their associates. The petition requesting this permit was drafted by Attorney Frank W. Shattuck and signed by a majority of the citizens of Petaluma, Vallejo and Sonoma townships. This old bridge was a large factor in the social and business life of these districts for many years.

Page 406

Grizzly Bear Encounter

Shortly after William Benitz acquired the Fort Ross property he took his rifle and set up the mountain-side to try to kill one of several “vultures or California condors” perched on the dead limb of a pine tree, in order to obtain the feathers, which he knew would be highly prized by his Indian retainers. Keeping under cover of trees and shrubbery, he managed to get fairly close to the huge birds and was seeking a position from which he might get an unobstructed view when he was startled by the breaking of a twig close at hand. What happened is best described in his own language.

“One look,” asserted Benitz, “was enough to set every hair of my head on end! Not much over the length of my gun from me stood, erect on his hind feet, a grizzly bear of monster size – at the time he seemed to me ten feet high! By impulse I wheeled, brought my gun to a level, and without any attempt at taking aim, fired. The bear pitched forward upon me and we fell together – my gun flying out of my hands, and some distance away. I was frightened beyond the power of language to express. The bear and I had fallen together, but I had given myself a rolling lurch down the mountain-side, which for the moment took me out of the reach of his dreaded jaws. This advantage was not to be lost; and I kept going over and over without any regard to elegance of posture, until I had got at least 200 yards from where I fell; and when I stopped rolling it was a problem to me which I was most, dead or alive.

“I ventured upon my feet and looked cautiously around, but could see no grizzly. To borrow a miner’s expression, ‘I began prospecting around.’ I had an earnest desire to get hold of my gun, but a dislike to the neighborhood in which we had parted company. With the utmost caution I worked my way up to a position overlooking the spot where I and the grizzly together fell. To my surprise, and gratification as well, there lay the bear stretched at full length, and dead. My random shot had proved what seldom occurs to grizzly bears, a dead shot. That was the biggest scare of my life.”

© Peter Benitz (Benitz Family)