by Paul R. Spitzzeri
On this day in 1830, Antonia Margarita Workman de Temple was born in Taos, New Mexico, the first of two children (her brother, José Manuel, followed in 1833) of William Workman of England and Nicolasa Urioste, a Taos native with a significant Pueblo Indian heritage.
In her 61 years, Margarita, as she was typically known, witnessed a great deal of personal, family and societal changes. She was born in a town centered around the Pueblo Indian community on the northern reaches to the Mexican frontier and spent her first decade or so living in a period of great turmoil.
Her father was part of a small cadre of Americans and Europeans to come to the Taos/Santa Fe area when fur trapping in the American West was peaking just a few years after Mexican independence from Spain.
When Margarita was six years old, Americans encouraged by Mexico to settle in Texas revolted and created their own independent republic. The following year, 1837, a group of men from her native Taos overthrew the New Mexico government and forced her father to swear loyalty to it. Then, a counter-revolution took place and defeated the Taoseño rebels. William Workman’s arrest for smuggling contraband items (which was common) was likely part of the political turmoil.
Four years later, as Texas supported an invasion of New Mexico by a ragtag force of Americans, the Workmans and many others took the opportunity to abandon New Mexico for far-flung California. It’s not hard to imagine that the 1.200-mile two-month trek on the Old Spanish Trail was a difficult journey for an 11-year old girl, who had probably never left or gone very far from her hometown.
Settling on the Rancho La Puente in the eastern San Gabriel Valley, Margarita was soon separated from her younger brother, who was sent to Baltimore to live with a maternal aunt and stayed east for about a decade. Then, in September 1845, having just turned 15, she married the Massachusetts-born merchant, Pliny F. Temple. The marriage ceremony was also a baptism for her new husband, who took Francisco as his baptismal name and was known afterward as F.P.F.
For the next 27 years, Margarita bore 11 children, 8 of whom lived to adulthood and spent most of those years on the Temple half of Rancho La Merced in modern South El Monte/Montebello. While her husband, on his own and with William Workman, rapidly climbed the political, social and economic ladder in Los Angeles through cattle ranching, farming, banking, real estate and others, she, like other women, remained largely anonymous as far as the historical record is concerned.
In September 1853, just after giving birth to her fifth child (all boys) Margarita was assaulted by a neighbor, Isidro Alvitre, but managed to escape from her home to the fields and alerted ranch workers. Alvitre was captured, subjected to a “popular tribunal” of friends, neighbors and others, and sentenced to 150 lashes and a cropping (a brutal shaving of his head.) He died the following year, probably as the result of the injuries inflicted upon him. This was one of the few instances when she could be found in a public record.
There were others, however, dealing with land given to her by her father, including substantial property around the Workman Mill on the southwestern corner of Rancho La Puente and half of the Potrero Grande near El Monte. These gifts of property turned out to be important given what took place later, but more on that below.
Margarita’s most important role was certainly the raising of her large family, especially in guiding her 8 children through a rapidly changing world that involved negotiating the identities of being Latino and Anglo. Though the children bore names like Thomas, Francis, William, Lucinda and Walter, they were fluent in Spanish and well-versed in the traditions of Californio (and probably, New Mexican) life that their mother and grandmother Nicolasa instilled in them. Several of them lived or traveled extensively in Mexico and passed on these traditions to their own children–this is vividly and visually demonstrated in her son Walter’s building of his 1920s home, La Casa Nueva.
By the 1870s, Margarita and her family were among the wealthiest and best-known families in greater Los Angeles, which was in the throes of its first growth period. Her husband’s many business endeavors, centered around his bank of Temple and Workman, seemed to be thriving. Then, an economic crash and the failure of the bank abruptly ended the good times.
In her mid-40s and with four children still under 17, Margarita undoubtedly did the best she could to hold her family together, but her father committed suicide, her husband suffered a series of strokes and died within a few years, her mother needed caring for, and she struggled to hold on to her home at La Merced, even when it was purchased for her from new owner, “Lucky” Baldwin.
Lawsuits, financial distress, and family infighting roiled the Temples through much of the 1880s–conditions not unexpected when a family’s world had been turned upside down by turmoil and tragedy. Having survived so much, Margarita then fell victim in late January 1892 to a flu epidemic that struck Los Angeles. Within two weeks of her death, the contagion took her oldest son, Thomas, and her mother, Nicolasa. The grief of the Temple and Workman families can only be imagined during that terrible time.
Still, Margarita left an indelible mark on her children and their descendants and her story is an integral one here at the Homestead–one that we need to tell more in our programs and publications.