Pirates?

11/18/09

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Christopher Bensemann – Prussian Pirate or Pioneer?

Edward Christopher Bensemann, grandfather of the webmaster, wrote in a note about his ancestors that in the C19th while one branch of the family sailed to Nelson, New Zealand, another went to America. He said there were many American descendants and especially the Wagendorf family. Later, E C’s sons occasionally told a story about a Bensemann joining the Alaskan gold rushes and his wealth from the gold passing on to American descendants. Another "believe it or not" vague family memory asserts a Bensemann was a successful pirate captain around the Americas.

Our Aunty Adelaide Bensemann said in our 1956 family reunion booklet that a brother of Cordt Bensemann (ancestor of New Zealand Bensemanns) may have jumped ship (the St Pauli) in Bahia, Brazil, on the way to New Zealand. He was “fed up with things” on the ship and went on to North America. “He later went on to Alaska where he struck gold and died in the USA a millionaire,” the booklet said. “This could be true as a kinswoman of ours, Miss Lydia Heine, of Milwaukee, a grand-daughter of Pastor Heine came to NZ in May 1956 to visit her relatives and said she could remember visiting a Mrs Bensemann in Chicago when she was a child. This aristocratic old lady lived in a big staff with numerous staff and reputed to be a distant relative.”

One written account solidly confirms that a Bensemann arrived in the States at an early period of its settlement and generations before either the New Zealand-bound emigration or the Alaskan gold rushes. This man, Captain Christopher Bensemann (spelt Benzemann in the account), was one of the earliest Alaskan pioneers, arriving at a European foothold called New Archangel on the south coast of Alaska in 1806.

On arrival, Christopher Bensemann found himself in the middle of a long-running and brutal war between two distinct cultures. The then powerful Kolosh tribes were forming alliances with other indigenous Alaskan peoples to try to wipe out white settlements along the coast at a time when the Russian outposts amounted to nothing but little wooden forts. These were occasionally burnt down by the American Indians after occupants were killed or captured.

The written account mentioning Christopher (which spells his surname Benzemann) is found in a well-researched book titled Lord of Alaska, by Hector Chevigny and published by Robert Hale Ltd in 1946. It focuses on the Russian pioneer to Alaska Alexandr Baranov, using a large number of Russian and English-language sources.

At the time of Christopher’s visit, the war between the Russians and Indians was going slightly in the European’s favour but only due to the recent arrival of a 450-ton Russian frigate called the Neva, which pounded a prominent Kolosh coastal fort on a bluff in Sitka Sound with cannon fire all one morning until the occupants fled. The Indians did so after murdering their youngest children and leaving the bodies, apparently so that most of the surviving tribe could escape quickly.

After driving off the Kolosh, the settlers at Sitka suffered also, with a report of February 1806 saying that out of a Russian population there of 192, 60 had become seriously ill from scurvy and eight had died of it. Also just before Christopher arrived, the Kolosh had struck back, sacking the fort north of Sitka called Yakutat and killing all but 13 occupants, who were captured as slaves. The Kolosh impaled heads of the forts’ dead on sticks and stuck a line of such sticks along the Yakutat Beach to warn off Europeans.

Christopher arrived at New Archangel in an American ship called the Peacock, captained by an Oliver Kimball. Our Bensemann ancestor had come perhaps from California, or as far away as Boston where the American ships were based; and if the latter would have to have sail via the wild southern seas off South American. Christopher, described in the book as "a very fine navigator of Prussian birth", was brought to Alaska specifically to become one of the foremen of the new Russian-American Company led by Baranov.

Any further details on what became of him, his descendants or any other American "pirates and pioneers" would be welcomed.

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This site was last updated 11/18/09