"Uncle Dave" Boffman
by Debra Staab
This tombstone is marked with the name 'Bofman'. However, both sources used as reference for this article refer to "Uncle Dave" as 'Boffman'. We have chosen to follow suit. Photo © 2023 The Loma Prieta Museum.
“Uncle Dave” Boffman was known as a wonderful storyteller and a man of integrity. He managed an 80 acre fruit ranch in Blackburn Gulch (near Vine Hill) with half of it planted in quality wine grapes and the rest in orchard crops. He was also a vintner and used a handmade wine press with a timber beam as its lever to produce his own wine. His wine and fruit were sold all over Santa Cruz and Santa Clara counties. Dave’s bare feet were the only sign of a difficult past.
From the start, Dave endured a life of bumps and potholes. He was born on a Kentucky cotton plantation around 1808. While enslaved there, the young Dave was partnered with a girl named Matilda, and they had three sons and three daughters. When his master Henry Baughman died, Dave became the property of a grandson, Newton Baughman. The family moved to Missouri in 1848 where they caught Gold Rush fever and headed to California.
Newton Baughman promised Dave he would be allowed to buy his freedom in California, but sadly Newton sold three of Dave’s children to finance the journey which turned out to be fraught with danger. Along the Missouri River Dave became separated from Baughman, and he had to withstand a frenzied chase by slave hunters, a pack of bloodhounds, and rifle fire. With a mixture of tenacity and good luck, Dave survived and he eventually reunited with Baughman at Fort Kearny in Nebraska.
They continued west through territory belonging to Cheyenne and Pawnee who attacked the westward bound party on several occasions. Because slaves were not permitted to carry weapons, Dave was defenseless and was quickly captured by one of the tribes. Taken to their camp Dave feared for his life, but he was amazed to find himself being paraded around the village with many hands reaching out to touch him. He was later made aware that his black skin was seen as a sign of good fortune. Security was lax, and Dave easily escaped the indigenous village, reuniting once more with Baughman at Fort Laramie in Wyoming. From Wyoming the group joined a wagon train and finally made it to the gold fields of Calaveras County, California. Dave had made the entire journey westward, about two thousand miles, barefoot.
Dave worked hard in the gold mines, and by the end of 1851 at age 43 he was able to buy his freedom from Baughman for $1000 and still had some money left for his future. California had become a State the year before under the condition that slavery would be prohibited within its borders, so in any case Dave was now a free man. Dave took the last name Boffman, spelling out Baughman phonetically, and he bought a small house on an acre of land in pueblo de Branciforte.
Dave Boffman and a friend, Samuel McAdams, headed to the Santa Cruz Mountains to try their hands at logging. They leased a saw mill from Isaac Graham in Zayante. After just one season of cutting timber, Dave and Samuel loaded a schooner with redwood logs bound for San Francisco. Sadly, destiny was not on their side, and the schooner sank in a winter storm near Pescadero. Both men were bankrupted.
Samuel left the country in despair, but Dave was resilient and almost immediately went to work for Tomas J. Weeks to farm various fruit crops along Branciforte Creek. By 1860 Dave had recovered financially and, along with a partner, he purchased a 45 acre farm in Rodeo Gulch where they grew fruit, wheat, and oats. It was a productive life until a wild unbranded colt wandered onto their property. Although Dave had no hand in the matter, the local Sheriff insisted that both land owners were liable for stealing the horse. Boffman was prohibited from giving testimony to defend himself in court because he was Black, and he and Weeks were forced to settle the debt by selling off Boffman’s land and livestock. It was an outrageous injustice.
Dave Boffman’s friend Elihu Anthony immediately hired him to work in his store and advised him on how to homestead by clearing land himself. Dave put in months of back-breaking labor to clear 80 acres of brush in Vine Hill. Anthony helped Dave file the paperwork in 1864. Now at 56 years old Dave was back in the fruit and wine business. He would continue that lifestyle for nearly another 30 years.
Dave Boffman received a late-life blessing when a friend located his granddaughter Annie, the child of his youngest girl. The two reunited and she cared for him for six months before returning to her home. While napping beside the fireplace in the cabin that he had built, Dave and his dog Watch were nearly burned to death, but they managed to survive. Anthony took him in, then later Dave was admitted to Agnews State Hospital and died five months later at the age of 85. David Boffman is buried at Santa Cruz Memorial Park in the south west quadrant of Lot A.
Sources: The Black Winemaker of Blackburn Gulch by Ross Eric Gibson
Uncle Dave's Story: The Life of Ex-Slave Dave Boffman By Phil Reader
Photo by Garth von Ahnen © 2023 Loma Prieta Museum