William Benitz Page last modified:

William Benitz
Brief Biography

No Papa

William - ca.1855, age 40+/-
(Earliest photo we have.)
(Source: John C. Benitz)

William is a commanding and romantic figure in the family history of his descendants.  Consequenty, the stories about him have been embellished by each passing generation.  Yet, to have accomplished what he did, he surely must have been intelligent, hard-working, and very determined.

He was born Wilhelm Böniz on 8 February, 1815, into a middle class family in Endingen, Grand Duchy of Baden, Germany.  He was the sixth child of Franz Antonius Böniz, a master cooper (barrel maker), and Maria Anna Wagner.

Growing up in Endingen he would have spoken Badischen, the dialect of German spoken in Baden.  He was well educated for the time.  According to family legend he attended the University of Freiburg, but this is unlikely given his social standing as the son of a tradesman.  He may have been in Freiburg, but as an apprentice learning the skills of a topographical draftsman.

As an adult, he was 5 foot 8 inches (1.73 meters) tall, with fair hair (white in old age) and grey-blue eyes.  His US passport (1874) describes his nose as “proportionate, with depression near tip, caused by a grazing shot.

No middle name: William never had a middle name. i.e. his initials were always WB.  No official record nor any unofficial document, from baptism to tombstone, shows him with a middle name — none.  It was his children, and particularly his grandchildren, who later invented one for him:  Otto .

Chapters in his life

William led an event-filled life.  We have split his life story into the following easily defined chapters, represented by the buttons in the top menu.

Endingen: 1815-1833, 0-18 years old
His birth, youth & education; family background and life in Endingen, Baden.
New World: 1833-1835, 18-20 years old
Possible reasons for emigration, his arrival in New York (Dec.1833), and then disappears for almost three years, reappearing in the Texian army in 1836.
New York & Texas: 1834-1841, 19-26 years old
Ship-wrecked on the Mexican coast, service in the army of the Republic of Texas (Oct.'36-Aug.'37) — and then he disappears again, reappearing 5 years later in California. What did he do?
California: 1842-1874, 27-59 years old
The most productive 32 years of his life, arriving with little more than his clothes, he departed a very wealthy man.  He managed, rented, then bought Fort Ross.  He made it profitable; he also married & had children.  However, he earned most of his fortune trading in real-estate & investing in mines, both at Fort Ross & later in Oakland.
We have split this period by subject, with some overlaps: early years (as Sutter’s employee), Family (life at Fort Ross & Oakland), Rancher (Fort Ross, Rancho de Hermann, New Breisgau), Capitalist (real-estate & mines).
Argentina: 1874-1876, 59-61 years old
Possible reasons why he emigrated, the long journey, finding land, and establishing estancia La California, death.

Event Timeline

(2.47 acres = 1 hectare.)

Years Ages Event
1815 0 Born Wilhelm Böniz, 8 Feb., Endingen, Baden; parents: Antonius Böniz (cooper) & Maria Anna Wagner.
’30+ 15+ Studies in Freiburg.
’33 18 Emigrates; arrives in New York City on December 2, 1833.
’34-35 19-20 Ship wrecked on the coast of Mexico / Texas.  May have been a seaman.
’36-37 21-22 Serves in the army of the Republic of Texas.
’42 27 Arrives in Alta California (today: California, Arizona, Nevada, & Utah).
’43-45 28-29 Employed by John Sutter to manage Hock farm then Fort Ross.
’43-45 28-30 At Ft.Ross, fathers Mary Bennett/Salvador, & possibly another daughter (Helena).
’44 29 Granted Mexican citizenship (as Guillermo Benitz), allowing him to own land.
’44 29 Granted New Breisgau (15,300 acres, est.) on the Sacramento river.
’45-50 30-35 Ft.Ross - with Ernest Rufus & Charles T. Meyer, rents it from Sutter (early 1845), then Manuel Torres (Dec. 1845).
’45-67 30-52 Ft.Ross - William operates it profitably for 23 years, as a farm (wheat, barley, potatoes, apples, etc.) and ranch (sheep & cattle), supplying the markets in San Francisco & Oakland.
’45 30 Ft.Ross - raided in his absence; women raped & abducted.
’46 31 With Rufus, petitions for Rancho de Hermann / German (17,580 acres); granted to Rufus alone who gives ½ to F. Hügal & Henry Haegler.
’46 31 At Ft.Ross, marries Josephine Kolmer (marriage registered Feb.’47).
’46-50 31-35 At Ft.Ross, first 3 children die, 2 tragically (names & dates unknown).
’48 33 Becomes US citizen. (By treaty, when Mexico ceded Alta California to US.)
’49 34 With Meyer, exchanges ½ New Breisgau (+ $1,000) to Rufus for his share in Rancho Herman, & Hügal signs quit claim for his part.
’50-63 35-48 At Ft.Ross, 7 more children born: Frank’50, Josephine’52, William’54, Charles’56, Alfred’59, John’61, Herman’63.  They all reach adulthood.
’51 36 Ft.Ross - with Meyer buys it from Torres with a $5,000 promisory note.
’51 36 At Ft.Ross, gives father-in-law (Michael Kolmer) 215 acres to farm in Timber Cove.
’53 38 With Meyer, sells Rancho de Hermann + livestock to W. Bihler & C. Wagner, $26,500.
’53 38 Per letters, he has $36,000 invested (we assume in mines), earning $500 per month.
’54 39 Loses 2/3 of New Breisgau in US land courts ($12,000 legal); remainder goes to Rufus.
’54 39 Riding near Santa Rosa his nose & cheek are grazed by a bullet.
’55 40 Ft.Ross - buys Meyer’s share, $22,500.
’57 42 Ft.Ross - pays Torres’ promisory note, $5,000.
’58 43 Father-in-law dies (Michael Kolmer).
’59 44 Ft.Ross - settles Sutter’s claim (Sutter & Muldrew, $6,000 + $2,000 legal).
’60 45 Ft.Ross - original grant is surveyed & patented at 17,760 acres.
’60 45 Ft.Ross - sells 1,500 acres on Russian river to J. Orr & F. Sheridan, $3,000.
’63-65 48-50 Ft.Ross - various sales of mineral rights for % produced - nothing found.
’65 50 Mother-in-law dies (Josephine Wagner/Kolmer).
’65-67 50-52 Buys family home in Oakland, at 320 Webster; family moves to Oakland.
’66 51 Ft.Ross - sells 1,500 acres in Timber Cove to W. Miller & W. Allison, $1,500.
’66 51 Ft.Ross - gifts in Timber Cove: 215 acres to John Kolmer, 103 acres to F. Blanchard.
’66 51 Ft.Ross - sells 1,900 acres on Russian river to A. Thing & S. Rien, $7,500.
’66 51 Brother Franz X. Benitz, after 5+ years at Ft.Ross, emigrates to Chile & Argentina; is a founding member of Colonia California near San Javier, Santa Fé.
’67 52 Ft.Ross - sells northern 7,000 acres to James Dixon, $30,000.
’67 52 Ft.Ross - sells southern 7,000 acres to Charles J. Fairfax, $25,000.
’67-74 52-59 Invests in real estate & mines, listed as ‘capitalist’ in Oakland city directory.
’70 55 Benitz Building completed, on Broadway between 10th and 11th Streets.
’73 58 Brother Franz returns from Argentina with tales of the open pampas.
’74 59 Sells everything (Oakland properties: $100,000+) & emigrates to Argentina.
’75 60 Buys 4 square leagues (10,800 hectareas) in Santa Fe (16,000 pesos fuertes); founds estancia La California.
’76 61 Dies 27 June, and is buried, at La California.


© Peter Benitz (Benitz Family)