Santa Cruz County History - People

Uncle Dave's Story: The Life of Ex-Slave Dave Boffman
by Phil Reader

For thirty-six years he lived quietly on a small homestead which was located atop a wooded hill at the end of Branciforte Drive in the Vine Hill district. When he died in 1893 he was a wizened old man bent low with age, sporting a balding pate and grizzled white beard. In death his looks belied the once hulking ex-slave who had trod barefoot across the prairie in search of freedom. Tales involving slavery have, by their very nature, an underlying sense of pathos. No story in Santa Cruz county history is more poignant than that of Dave Boffman. It is indeed one of those stories which cries out to be told.

He was born at the Baughman plantation in Crab Orchard, near Stanford, Lincoln County, Kentucky. The exact date of his birth and the name of his parents remain lost to history having been recorded in one of those slave inventories which reduces the nativity of a human being to a mere number. "Born on this date, one Nigger boy." Boffman, himself, estimated the year be about 1820.

His old master was Henry Baughman, a transplanted Virginia aristocrat, who owned one of the largest cotton plantations in central Kentucky. To work his fields, he owned nearly one hundred slaves, and it is among these people that young Dave grew into manhood.

In 1837 he was mated to Matilda a sixteen year old fellow resident of slave row. During the next ten years, six children were born to this union, three boys and three girls. Old master Henry died in 1843 and Dave and his family were deeded to a grandson, Newton Baughman.

The word that gold had been discovered in California spread quickly across the country, reaching Kentucky during the summer of 1848. Newt Baughman, who was a restless sort, immediately made plans to move west with his wife and daughter. In late summer they left Kentucky, taking with them their slave Dave and his family. Crossing the Mississippi River, they continued on into north-western Missouri and bought a farm at Lafayette township in Clinton county.

After settling in, Newt Baughman began to prepare for his trip to the gold fields. In order to finance the journey he sold three of Dave's children to a slave buyer from the south. He then asked Dave to accompany him to California in return for the opportunity to purchase his freedom once they had reached the mines. Dave readily accepted, seeing in it the chance to not only buy his freedom, but to reunite his family.

During the month of May, 1851, master and slave set out, planning to follow the Missouri River up to old Fort Kearny and, there, pick up the California Trail. But this was not meant to be an easy journey.

All of the border states were fraught with slave hunters forever on the lookout for run-away slaves, and most were not opposed to kidnapping a freedman, or stealing a slave from his master. All of the points of terminus for the overland trails were closely watched.

As luck would have it, Dave and Newt Baughman were quickly separated and he had to make it to Fort Kearny on his own. One day as he walked along the river bed, he happened upon a party of slave hunters, who were running a large pack of blood-hounds. He immediately dove into the swift current, where he knew that the dogs would not follow, and swam to the opposite shore while a hail of bullets plunked into the water all around him. He was forced to employ this maneuver on two other occasions to avoid capture before arriving safely at the fort where he found his master waiting.

After resting a few days they set out across the prairie following the Platte River through Nebraska and Wyoming toward the Rocky Mountains. This was Indian country and the Cheyennes and Pawnee were on the prowl. Twice they were attacked and during the second raid Dave, who was not allowed to carry arms, was taken prisoner.

He was marched with much ceremony into the Indian camp. Because he was the first black man that this tribe had ever seen, they looked upon him more as a curiosity then a captive. During his time with the Indians, he was puzzled by the fact that he was constantly being touched and rubbed. Dave soon learned that his capture was considered to be a good omen and that anyone who touched his black skin would surely have good luck.

His special standing with the tribe proved to be a boon because they did not post a guard on him and he was able to effect his escape.

Continuing westward alone, he found Baughman again waiting for him at Fort Laramie. There they joined a large flotilla of wagons and completed the rest of their journey to California in relative comfort and without further incident. Dave, now in the prime of his life, had walked the whole two thousand miles barefoot.

October, 1851 found the two men busily prospecting near Mokelumne Hill in the northern mines. Their efforts met with success and Dave was able to unearth enough gold to meet the one thousand dollar price that Baughman wanted for his freedom. He stayed on at the diggings long enough to accumulate a small stake.

During this time he met a young man named Samuel McAdams, who told him about the opportunities to be found working in the redwood groves near the coastal community of Santa Cruz. Lumber was selling for 5100 per thousand feet, and if a man was willing to work hard, he could amass a fortune. In early spring the ex-slave, who now referred to himself as Dave Boffman (spelled phonetically), set out with McAdams for Santa Cruz. Boffman's goal was to earn enough money in the woods to buy freedom for his wife and children, whom he had not heard from in well over a year.

Upon arriving at Santa Cruz, he bought a small house on an acre of land in pueblo de Branciforte. He then went up to Zayante and leased a saw mill from Isaac Graham. Boffman and McAdams spent the rest of the year milling enough lumber to fill a large schooner which they planned to ship up to the market in San Francisco. However on the way up the coast, the schooner was caught in a storm and dashed upon the rocks Pescadero. The cargo was lost and consequence the two men were ruined.

McAdams left the county in despair, but Dave knuckled down and went to work for the Weeks Brothers, who were putting in their first crop of potatoes along Branciforte Creek. By dint of much hard labor he accumulated the money to purchase a nice little 45 acre ranch at Rodeo Gulch in February of 1860.

He took on as a partner, a German immigrant named Herman Siegmann. They planted a orchard and sowed a crop of wheat and oats. Prospects had never looked brighter for Dave and he began to plan for the day when he could send for his family.

When they had taken possession of the ranch they had found running there a young unbranded colt. In May, Siegmann, against Boffman's advice, traded the colt to Live Oak stockman Martin Kinsley for a mare and her foal. Thinking nothing more of the matter they set about the business of ranching.

Photo of John T. Porter
John T. Porter

Several days later, Kinsley appeared at their door in the company of county sheriff John T. Porter. Kinsley stated that the colt which Seigmann had traded to him belonged to sheriff Porter and that he, Kinsley, was there to retrieve his mare and foal.

At this point, Porter stepped in and told Boffman and Seigmann that what they had done was a crime punishable by imprisonment at San Quentin. Boffman protested, saying that he had nothing to with the trade, so he was innocent. But the sheriff insisted that Dave and the German were partners and if they didn't immediately pay him two hundred dollars, he would have them sent to prison. Boffman asked for time to go into Santa Cruz and talk to a lawyer.

Again Porter threatened them with jail, adding that if they didn't have cash, they could give him a promissory note for the amount. He then guaranteed them if they paid off the note he would not say anything about the affair. The sheriff had known Boffman for several years, and knew the man's reputation for honesty and fair dealing. Porter also knew that Dave was of innocent of any wrong doing, yet he continued to force the issue.

Boffman realizing that he was a poor man, who on account of his color could not testify in court on his own behalf, and knowing full well that Porter, in his role as sheriff, was quite capable of sending him to jail, acquiesced to the extortion. Porter wrote out the note which Boffman and Seigmann then signed.

On October 9, 1860, local businessman George Otto, also of German extraction, paid Porter the sum of one hundred dollars to be applied on the note in the name of Herman Seigmann. Both Boffman and Seigmann hoped that this would satisfy the sheriff, as it was the German alone who had inadvertently wronged him. But this was not to be, because on January 3, 1861 Porter initiated court proceedings against Boffman for the full amount.

Being ignorant of the laws and intimidated by Porter's standing in the community, Dave didn't contest the suit and a judgment of one hundred and eighty-five dollars plus interest was granted in Porter's favor. At the hearing the sheriff also claimed that Otto had only paid him fifty dollars not one hundred dollars.

Judge McKee, in who's court the case was heard, denounced the way Porter had handled the matter and publicly regretted that he would have to rule in the sheriff's favor. Kinsley too, later testified as to the illegal actions taken by Porter.

Boffman was unable to pay the judgment and lost the property when it was sold off at a constable's sale on March 16, 1861. The ranch was auctioned for eight hundred dollars, much more then the one hundred which Porter bid. Afterwards he learned that Boffman still possessed some stock -a mare, a colt, two milk cows with their calves, and a heifer - which he ordered seized and sold to satisfy the judgment.

>>Continue with Part 2

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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