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Santa Cruz County History - People
Uncle Dave's Story: The Life of Ex-Slave Dave Boffman
by Phil Reader
A demoralized Dave Boffman moved back to town and went to work as a day laborer. He was employed for a time by Elihu Anthony, a local merchant. Anthony, also a Methodist minister, befriended him and was to keep an eye on Boffman's interests so that he would never have to undergo another shameful incident like the Porter affair. It was also Anthony who suggested that he take up a preemption on eighty acres of school land in section 16 of the Vine Hill area. Boffman filed the necessary papers in 1864 and took up residence at that time.
The hillside land was so densely covered with brush and chaparral that Dave was forced to crawl on his hands and knees to find a clear spot. For three weeks no one heard from Dave, so Anthony rode out to the property were he found Boffman hard at work clearing the land. During the time he had nothing to eat except for a few wild berries. The preacher took him home, fed him a hot meal, and drove him back to the homestead with a wagon load of provisions.
In time Dave finished clearing most of the land and built himself a small wooden shack with a stone fireplace. In later years he planted an orchard and a forty acre vineyard. This was to be his home for over thirty years.
Little by little he gave up on his dream of being again united with his wife Matilda and the children. He was to remain desperately poor, earning only enough from his fruit and vegetables to keep himself alive. He bought an old mare to help him with the plowing and was never known to ride it. When he went to town for supplies, he would lead the mare, plodding along barefoot next to it, for Dave Boffman never owned a pair of shoes in his life.
The 1870s were exciting times for him because his nearest neighbors were the Lorenzana's and the Rodriguez's. The young bandidos from these families trusted him and would sometimes hide out in his cabin. Faustino Lorenzana stayed there when things got too hot for him around Branciforte. During September of 1871, Tiburcio Vasquez and his gang which included one of the Rodriguez boys were hiding there after they had robbed the stage coach at Soap Lake near Hollister. On the 13th of the month, Vasquez was camped in a ravine next to Boffman's house recovering from a bullet wound, when a gunfight broke out between the desperadoes and a posse led by under sheriff Charlie Lincoln. Dave helped load the dangerously wounded man into a wagon so that he could make good his escape.
The years slipped away and he became quite well known in the area for his many eccentricities. His hair and beard turned white with age and his body shrunk and became gnarled by the passage of time. The children in town came to know him as "Uncle Dave" and he was never without a story for them. His constant companion was an old dog called "Watch" and he treated the animal with kindness allowing it to sleep on the foot of his bed.
On one occasion when Dave was bitten by a rattlesnake and the Santa Cruz Sentinel , printed a story reporting the incident and declared the old man dead. The following day, however, he was seen in his orchard pulling up weeds with a bandaged hand. The paper was forced to print a retraction, concluding that it was the snake that was dead not Uncle Dave.
For many years his friend Elihu Anthony had been searching for any member of Dave's family that remained alive. One day he heard about a granddaughter who was living up in northern California at Colusa county. Her name was Annie Drisdom and she was the child of Dave's oldest daughter Matilda. Anthony sent her money for a ticket and was at the depot with Dave to meet her train.
For Dave Boffman it was to be a bittersweet reunion as the girl brought him up to date on the fate of his family. His wife Matilda, thinking him dead, had remarried and moved to Kansas where she had passed away several years before. The only one of his children who was yet alive was a son George, then living in Topeka. George had been a baby of less then one year when Dave had left home in 1851, he therefore had no memories of his father.
Annie stayed with Boffman for six months taking care of his every need in an attempt to make up for all of the missing years. But then the day came for her to return to her own life, leaving the old man to the company of his dog.
On the night of April 19, 1893, Uncle Dave, almost senile and well into the eighth decade of his life, fell asleep in an arm chair next to a roaring fire that he had started in his fireplace. As he slept the flames leapt out of the hearth and caught the wooden floor boards of his cabin on fire. He barely escaped with his life as the fire all but completely destroyed his shack.
Once again his longtime friend Elihu Anthony came to his rescue taking Dave into his home and providing for him until it became necessary to commit him to the state asylum at Agnews. On September 23, 1893, Dave Boffman, the luckless ex-slave died quietly in his sleep. His remains were brought back to Santa Cruz and buried in the Anthony family plot at the Odd Fellows Cemetery where a humble tombstone now marks his final resting place.
The Santa Cruz Sentinel eulogized him as "honest, confiding, simple, industrious, and without a vice", remembering a day "thirty years earlier when we saw Uncle Dave carrying on his back a heavy plow from a Santa Cruz blacksmith shop to his farm, a distance of fully eight miles, performing this great task to save the strain on his old horse."
However it was his faithful dog "Watch" who was to have the final word of praise for Uncle Dave. The animal escaped from the Anthony place where it was being kept, and found his way back to the Boffman ranch. For many months afterwards he lay in the burnt out shell of the cabin whining for his master.
The name of Dave Boffman sits uneasy on the ledger books of Santa Cruz county because there is still a debt that is owed this meek and mild man, who for so many years could be found among us. This obligation can best be resolved by simply revealing the truth about his life.
Notes and References on Uncle Dave Boffman
- Wills and Inventories, Lincoln County, Kentucky, 1800-1850.
- United States Census
- Lincoln County, Kentucky, 1820-1840.
- Clinton County, Missouri, 1850.
- Santa Cruz County, California, Soquel Township, 1860.
- Santa Cruz County, California, Santa Cruz Township, 1870- 1880.
- Santa Cruz Sentinel: September 2, 1885, April 21, 1893.
- Santa Cruz Surf: April 21, 1893.
- The Riptide: Pioneer Edition, November 5, 1953.
- Uncle Dave and the Rattlesnake
- Santa Cruz Sentinel: September 22, 1877, September 29, 1877.
- The Porter Extortion Affair
- Pajaro Times: August 31, 1867.
- Santa Cruz Sentinel: February 23, 1861 (Legal Ad re: Constable's Sale), January 2, 1864.
- Handbill in the David Jacks Collection, Special Collections, Stanford University.
From: It Is Not My Intention to Be Captured. Copyright 1991 Phil Reader. Reproduced with the permission of Phil Reader. Photographs courtesy of Phil Reader.
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