As the ‘e’ in Petersen indicates, I am Danish. In fact, I was born, raised, and educated in Denmark. We were dairy farmers, but Dad told me he would pay for my education as long as I moved into any profession except farming. I got an engineering degree from Sunderborg Technical School, moved to the United States, got a job in Silicon Valley, rode the dot.com boom to success, and purchased 20 acres in Knightsen that quickly became Petersen Vineyards. We are one of the few wineries in the area that grows, processes, and bottles our products right on site. We are currently offering six wine labels including a Petite Sirah, a Blanco, a Rosado, a Diablo Sunset, a Valdepeñas, and a Tinta da Vida. If you schedule a visit or wine tasting, I will tell you a story about each vintage.
However, in 2016 I created a port wine that I named Bombordo, to serve as an homage to the history of my Danish Bugslag forebears that stretches three centuries into the past. Port seems appropriate for such a purpose, since it was originally created as a fortified wine, able to preserve itself. The name Bombordo is a Portuguese word meaning port side, as on a ship.
Bombordo is an estate wine, made from a blend of four Portuguese grape varietals grown on my property. Since 1695 the Taylor Fladgate company in Vila Nova de Gaia, Portugal, has been dedicated entirely to the production of port wine. The varietals in my Bombordo port are blended according to a formula Taylor Fladgate created more than three centuries ago.
My mother was my connection with the Bugslag family. Grandmother Henny was born in 1924, the single child of Johann Christof Bugslag. The Bugslag name itself was derived from an original spelling, Buchschlag, meaning “book cover,” which leads me to wonder if an original family occupation might have been as a printer or book designer.
My great-great grandfather Johann, the patriarch of my story, grew up on a farm but changed the name to a Danish spelling when he moved to town. The story began in 1860 when Johann tired of the rural life and secured the necessary “royal privilege” from the King of Denmark, Frederick VII, to open a grocery store in the little seaport of Aabenraa, which is a harbor connected by a series of bays and channels to the Baltic Sea. The village is in the southernmost Schleswig region, 115 miles due north of Hamburg, Germany. In Johann’s day, it had been a separate state for 700 years, even though it owed allegiance to the Danish king. The region is now called Schleswig-Holstein and is the most northern of Germany’s 16 states.
Johann, his wife, and their six boys and five girls moved into rooms above the grocery. In those days Denmark was an empire carrying on thriving trade with colonies in the Caribbean and around the world. The grocery store was located on the waterfront and so became a popular destination for sailors from the ships that made Aabenraa a stopover.
“Being raised on the farm had caused them to develop attitudes and skills that would stand them in good stead.”
The Bugslag children were prepared to make something of themselves. Being raised on the farm had caused them to develop attitudes and skills that would stand them in good stead. They were self-organizing and self-reliant. They could work hard and smart.
The oldest of the Bugslag children, my great-great grandfather, Hans Christopher Bugslag, was only 12 years old when the family left the farm to join Aabenraa’s cosmopolitan society. The little village had only 5,000 residents but many of them worked in the town’s prosperous shipbuilding industry. When he was 14 years old and big enough to swing a hammer, Hans apprenticed as a carpenter with a shipwright named Rebin Shipworks.
After completing work on his first vessel, he signed on as a crewmember, became the ship’s carpenter, and set out with the intention of seeing the world. The label on my Bombordo port displays a 3-mast barque in full sail, which is an image of Han’s ship, named Wodan after the Germanic god of the sky or the wind. Wodan became first in a line of vessels that Hans, and later his three younger brothers, would build and then join as crewmembers. Han’s travels eventually took him to Japan, Ecuador, Indo China, Africa, and America.
Han’s younger brother Jes followed in his older brother’s footsteps, becoming an apprentice shipwright and then joining the crew of his first ship when it launched. On that first voyage Jes ended up in Africa where he became acquainted with a German military man named Hermann Wissmann. King Leopold II of Belgium had given Wissmann the assignment of creating an African empire, which would be known as the Congo Free State. Wissmann was drawn to Jes’ organizational skills and can-do attitude. Even though he was still relatively young, Jes became the great man’s personal assistant.
Wissmann was summoned to return to Germany and left Jes behind charged with constructing a fort and finding an ideal place to build a harbor that could be used for military purposes as well as commerce and trade. It was a cold-hearted decision for Wissmann because he later wrote that, upon his return ten months later, he hadn’t expected to find Jes alive. However, Wissmann and his companions were astonished to discover that Jes had not only built an outpost and located a suitable spot for a harbor, but he had organized the locals into a marketing system that was efficiently delivering food and supplies to the fort. Wissmann later wrote that he became convinced that his gifted assistant would have been able to do anything asked of him. Sadly, during Jes’ second visit to the Congo, he contracted malaria. In 1891 he returned to Aabenraa where he died with his family.
The third brother, Carl, followed in the trail left by his older brothers and ended up as crewmember of a passenger ship delivering travelers to Liverpool, Falmouth, Brisbane, Cairns, and Sydney. He followed the route until in 1884 he met Marie Johnson, a young Scottish lass bound for Brisbane. He jumped ship in Brisbane, married Marie, settled down to the life of a grocer, and became an Australian citizen.
While all this was going on, Aabenraa had been going through some radical changes. Following seven centuries of independence, in 1863 The Danish Parliament decided to annex Schleswig. The decision led to turmoil because the residents were divided on the issue — some had been happy with their independence and created a separatist movement. Others were willing to become part of the German Union, and a relatively small faction were happy with the Parliament’s decision to be part of Denmark.
The Danish Parliament’s decision to annex Schleswig turned out to be a horrible miscalculation. Otto von Bismarck, who was a Prussian Chancellor at the time, was engaged in his role as the architect of the emerging German Empire. He used the annexation decision as a pretext for war by claiming that a foreign power was taking control of what should rightfully have been a German State. Bismarck persuaded Carl Ludwig Joseph Maria Austria, heir to the throne of the Austria-Hungarian Empire, to join him in mounting an offensive against the perceived Danish threat. They sent an army to conquer the small state in what would become Denmark’s final war.
By 1871 Schleswig and the other states had become united under Germany, which meant that the young men in Schleswig, including the town of Aabenraa, had to fight in the German army. Anti-German sentiment was running high. Young men began fleeing the country in order to avoid conscription into the army. The exodus turned into a route because between 1871 and the beginning of WWI, 95,000 of Schleswig’s 400,000 residents had departed, most of them immigrating to the U.S.
Peter Bugslag, the fourth brother, was 14 years old in 1871 when the troubles began. The little town of Aabenraa had become a German port, providing Germany with a much-needed access to the ocean and playing an important role in Germany’s goal of colonizing the world. Because of all the shipping, Peter was able to avoid military service by signing on as a crewmember with the German Trade Fleet. Just like his brothers, Peter learned the shipbuilding trade and served as the ship’s carpenter.
Peter’s ship docked at ports around the world. The ocean nearly took them to a watery grave when a major South Atlantic storm knocked out their rudder, leaving them to drift for three weeks at the whim of winds and tides. They were finally rescued by an American steamboat, which towed them to Brisbane.
When they got to port, Peter abandoned ship and enlisted as a crewmember on the rescuing steamboat and sailed to San Francisco where he jumped ship again. This was 1881 and the Gold Rush had mostly played out. Peter wondered if he could find some gold that had been missed. He never found any gold, so he turned his attention to finding coal from Brentwood’s Black Diamond Mines coal region, but discovered that the coal had all been extracted. Peter then traveled to British Columbia on the report that Robert Dunsmuir, a Scottish-Canadian coal developer, was mining a huge coal field on Vancouver Island. Peter never dug any coal, but found a position working for James Dunsmuir himself.
Just as his brother Jes had done with Wissmann, Peter now became Dunsmuir’s right hand man. He greatly assisted Dunsmuir in becoming one of the wealthiest persons in Canada by managing the laborers who were laying the railroad tracks and building the bridges to transport the coal. Peter then helped Dunsmuir build a lavish residence, named Hatley Castle. Peter, his wife, and their 11 children lived in a house along the drive into the castle. Peter’s woodwork shop was located behind the castle, and his children would often run to the shop to assist Peter with his projects.
The castle is now a National Historic Site. Visitors are impressed with the quality of the extensive woodwork found in every part of the site. Even a casual observer can tell this was Peter Bugslag’s work because it was all designed as though it could be part of a ship.
“I felt a special kinship to them because of own status as an immigrant and world traveler.”
I have devoted innumerable hours and traveled countless miles to learn about relatives and events that are important to our family story. They were a globetrotting clan of people who moved over the face of the planet and settled in a number of countries. I felt a special kinship to them because of my own status as an immigrant and world traveler.
Of course, many important details from the story have been ground down beneath the incessant hammer of passing years. However, DNA registrations on ancestory.com greatly clarified their connections to each other and with me. In 2016 I learned that Peter Bugslag’s granddaughter Madeline was still alive and living on Vancouver Island. I flew to Victoria, met with her, and learned that she had been Peter’s caregiver during the final 20 years of his life.
Madeline was 99 years of age but remained perfectly clear in her mind. She told me stories about Peter, who had died in 1952 at age 95, which means that Madeline provided a living connection to a person born in 1857 and who would have remembered the Civil war. We learned first-hand stories about Peter’s travels to Canada and San Francisco.
This article has only begun unpacking the Bugslag legacy. I wish I had space to continue with stories of the children born to the four brothers. I’m doing what I can to ensure that these interesting people and their amazing stories will not fade into history. I will share a bottle of Bombordo any time and speak about the significance of the ship shown on the label.
I will continue to recount our stories to anyone who will listen to what I say or read what I write.
Photos by Ron Essex