He was a man who would not give up…willingly. Benjamin Norton Bugbey came to California in 1849 to find his fortune in the Gold Rush and fell in love with California. He was involved in mining, law enforcement, farming, politics, and socials affairs from Folsom to Sacramento. Bugbey finally found gold not in mining, but wine, brandy, and sparkling wine. His famed Natoma Vineyard business would collapse, he tried to kill a constable, and then rebounded finding a place in Sacramento law enforcement. His life inspired me to write his biography: Benjamin Norton Bugbey, Sacramento’s Champagne King.
I stumbled across B. N. Bugbey when I was doing research for my first book Hidden History Beneath Folsom Lake. On a government map from 1866, along the South Fork of the American, it showed the location of Bugbey’s winery and two homes. A quick search for his name on the California Digital Newspaper Collection showed entries from 1853 all the way to 1914. From the establishment of his furniture store in Sacramento at 5th and K Streets to his death and burial in the Historic Sacramento Cemetery.
As I researched more, (you can see a full time line of his life in the Folsom and Sacramento regions here) I realized that the story of B. N. Bugbey needed to be put into a book. Over the next year and half, I did as much research as I possibly could. This meant spending hours at the California State Archives and Library. I conducted searches on Ancestry.com and chased all sorts of internet mentions of Bugbey.
Research Brings Bugbey Champagne King to Life
My research took me to the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley where I found some important letters and images of Bugbey’s Natoma Vineyard in El Dorado County. The letters, from a local Folsom resident, describe how the prevailing opinion of the town was that Bugbey himself had set the 1871 fire that burned several buildings including his wine storehouse. The gossip was that he was in financial troubles and needed the insurance money.
Next, the Bancroft had two images of the Natoma Vineyard property on the South Fork of the American River. Both show Bugbey’s large house on the hill overlooking his vineyard and winery. The images, taken by a local Sacramento photographer in that late 1860s, includes Bugbey and two other women. I can only surmise that one of the women was Mary Jane Bugbey, who later died in a riding accident near Mormon Island.
Also associated with UC Berkeley was a review a court case regarding U.S. Commissioner Bugbey’s attempt to prosecute a gang of Nicholas men who had driven out Chinese immigrants from the hop fields in area in 1886. The review of Baldwin v Franks confirmed many of the details reported in the local papers and shed additional light on Bugbey’s actions to protect the civil rights of Chinese immigrants in California.
The result of my research, and some would say obsession, is the book Benjamin Norton Bugbey, Sacramento’s Champagne King. I am not a professional historian. But I did attempt to document every fact in the book with hundreds of citations from newspaper stories, books, journals, court cases, public documents, and land deeds. I have included over 20 images from newspaper advertisements and other sources related to Bugbey and the Natoma Vineyard in the book. I also provide short profiles of some of the men Bugbey worked closely with such as James McClatchy.
McClatchy – Bugbey Political Feud Revealed
McClatchy and Bugbey traveled together from the East Coast to California in 1849. Both men stayed in the Sacramento region. As editor of the Sacramento Daily Bee, McClatchy worked to scuttle Bugbey’s appointment as a federal internal revenue assessor. A bitter political feud developed between the two men. However, they also worked together on different philanthropic causes for Sacramento.
Most of the awareness of who B. N. Bugbey might have been comes from the two pieces of music he commissioned in 1870, Bugbey’s Champagne Waltz and Bugbey’s Champagne Galop. (You can listen to both pieces by clicking on the links to YouTube videos.) But aside from establishing himself as Sacramento’s Champagne King, a moniker I have given him, he led a very colorful and eventful life. Both Folsom and Sacramento play a prominent role in his life. He witnessed the birth of both communities. He loved both cities. He had plenty of opportunities to leave, especially after financial or personal disaster struck, but he didn’t.
Bugbey just wasn’t quoted in newspapers, he was part of important U.S. Supreme Court decisions, he had a railcar patent, he who wrote testimonies about his Natoma Vineyard, and a fairly detailed outline for land reform and wealth distribution for California. Essentially, virtually all of this public life, and much of his private life, was chronicled either by him or the daily newspapers and periodicals. He knew and served with the leading men of Sacramento during his life including Leland Stanford, James McClatchy, Hiram Johnson and many others.
His exploits to arrest gangs of thieves and robbers in the Folsom region made the newspapers in the 1850s. His term as Sacramento County Sheriff was carefully watched and reported on. The Natoma Vineyard’s grapes, raisins, wines, brandies, and sparkling wines were celebrated. Bugbey’s unfortunate money problems were noted in the newspapers as was his attempt to kill the Constable of Granite Township.
Bugbey Civil Rights Pioneer
All this drama in Bugbey’s life had occurred by 1878! In the next 22 years he would go on to win awards for another farming operation in Sutter County. He was appointed a U.S. Commissioner and had white men arrested for harassing Chinese immigrants working in the farm fields of Nicholas, CA. He helped young Chinese women escape prostitution by getting them on trains, away from their masters, and down to San Francisco. This was during the height of the anti-Chinese hysteria of the 1880s. Can you imagine what it must have felt like to leave your office at 3rd and J Streets in Sacramento and make your way to your home at 23rd and N Streets, knowing that people are staring at you and calling you names for defending the civil rights of Chinese men and women?
Bugbey was not particularly good at politics. He was never able to get elected again as Sacramento County Sheriff after 1864. Lord knows he tried, running for the office at least 6 different times. However, he did prevail at being elected Sacramento County Tax Collector in 1898 at the age of 71. His election forever split the tax collector position away from the Sheriff’s office, that had been the ex-officio tax collector.
Bugbey was married 3 times. His first wife Mary Jane died in a riding accident in 1869. His second wife divorced him in 1879 after he lost the Natoma Vineyard, took to the bottle, and tried to kill the constable. His third wife died a couple years after he did. Bugbey never had any children.
Through all of Bugbey’s successes and misfortunes, he remained a relatively humble man. Most interesting to me was how his political philosophy evolved and changed over time. He also came to detest party politics after being a loyal Republican for decades. He could not stand the unethical and corrupt behavior of politicians. This prompted him to run as an independent candidate for sheriff and then tax collector. At the age of 65, when he began his independent candidacies, he had probably felt he had nothing to lose and was no longer beholden to anyone.
While Bugbey’s life was far more interesting than mine will ever be, for better or worse, I can see little parts of him in my life, as well as, other men and women. We all have successes and we all have had major failures. I do not hold up B. N. Bugbey as some role model or profile in perseverance over life’s setbacks. Bugbey was married to Sacramento. It was his adopted home. He watched it grow from a collection of dusty streets and wooden shacks to a fairly large economic hub anchored by the Southern Pacific Railroad.
Even though at one point he owned a large profitable farm in Sutter County and then a gold mine in Shasta County, Bugbey remained loyal to Sacramento. He only returned home to Connecticut twice. For anyone who has fallen in love with the Sacramento region, you understand why he didn’t leave. This book is dedicated to people who have fallen in love with Sacramento and its history.
Kevin Knauss is available for speaking events with a PowerPoint presentation on the life of B. N. Bugbey. If your historical or community group would like to schedule a presentation about the life and times of this Sacramento pioneer, please contact me on my Contact Page.
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Paperback and eBook Available, From Amazon
Link to paperback https://www.amazon.com/dp/0997818867
Kindle eBook edition https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07T8C2VG8
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