Captivity Narratives Involving William Workman and John Rowland, 1838-1841

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

The Homestead’s History Book Club, skillfully moderated by museum volunteer Tony Ciarriocco, is a stimulating series in which participants read three books grouped under a common theme and then discuss the works in Friday morning sessions.

The current theme has to do with race and ethnicity and today’s meeting concerned Margot Mifflin’s The Blue Tattoo: The Life of Olive Oatman (a link to Amazon’s offering of the book is here.)  Oatman was captured in southern Arizona by Yavapai Indians in 1851 and held by them and then Mojave Indians for four years before she was released to military authorities at Fort Yuma near the California border.  Oatman was well-treated by the Mojaves and her life after being released by them is covered in Mifflin’s book.

My part in these Book Club sessions is to do a short (10-15 minute) presentation that relates the site’s history and the museum’s artifact collection to the themes of the book under discussion.  This morning, I discussed other Indian captivity narratives relating directly to William Workman, owner of the Homestead site from 1842 to 1876, and his long-time friend and co-owner of Rancho La Puente, John Rowland.

The first narrative was written by Sarah Ann Horn, a native of England, who, with her family, was part of a colony that settled on the Rio Grande River near present Eagle Pass, Texas, southwest of San Antonio on what became the border with Mexico.  In April 1836, just weeks after Americans in Texas declared their independence, Horn was captured by Comanche Indians as her family and others sought to leave their colony to head back to England.

A closeup of a daguerreotype photo, allegedly taken by Mathew Brady, later known for his Civil War battlefield photos, of William Workman, New York, 1851.

Horn, who was taken along with her two young sons and a Mrs. Harris, was held by the Comanches for seventeen months and was separated from her children.  Finally, in September 1837, she was purchased by unnamed Americans in San Miguel, a town near modern Las Vegas, New Mexico.  Unsure of the fate of her sons, she pondered going to Missouri over the Santa Fe Trail.

As Horn later recounted:

In the month of February [1838], I received a present of two dresses, presented by Messrs. Workman and Rowland of Taos, with a note, bearing their kind respects, and a request, that I should delay my intended journey to the States, until after they should make another effort to recover my children; and further, if I should think it best to go the ensuing spring, that I should by all means come to Taos in season to spend as much time as I could before I should leave the county; and, at the same time, they gave me to understand, that all they possessed was at my command, as far as my wants should require; – all of which, (with an inexpressible sense of gratitude do I record it,) they performed to the latter.

Horn took up the offer of the two friends, both prominent merchants and distillers in Taos, where they had lived since 1823 (Rowland) and 1825 (Workman), married, and raised families.  She went on:

I arrived at Taos on the 10th of March, and stopped at Mr. Rowland’s, and I found him and his amiable lady all I could wish. I spent my time about equally in this excellent family, and that of Mr. Workman, until the 22nd of August.  Here I learned, that this same Mr. Rowland had sent out a company of men, some time before Mrs. Harris or myself were brought in, to rescue us, if possible; that on their way they were met by another tribe of Indians, when a number of them were killed, and the rest, after suffering severely, returned to the settlement.

Following up on their offer to Horn, she continued

While I was here, Messrs. Workman and Rowland sent by two trading companies, and at a great deal of trouble and expense, authorizing them to obtain my children at any price.  On their return, they informed me that my little son John was no more!  and that Joseph could not be obtained by any means but that of force.

Young John had died of exposure while being forced to hold a horse in the freezing cold at an encampment and Joseph was never heard from again.  With this dire news delivered and “having every assurance of the best possible efforts of the American Traders to assist me”, Horn “became still more reconciled to the idea of returning to the States.”

Consequently, on 22 June 1838, Horn “left Santa Fé under the protection of my sympathizing and honored friends, Messrs. Workman and Rowland.”  Two and a half months later, at the end of September, she stated,

I arrived at the house of Mr. David Workman (a brother of my kind friend William Workman), New Franklin, Howard County, Missouri, and beneath whose hospitable roof I have since continued to share the kind attentions of him and his amiable lady.”

Sadly, the torments of her captivity seemed to have taken their toll quickly on Horn, who died in 1839, sometime after her narrative, written by E. House, was published in St. Louis.  Notably, House inserted a notice concerning suggestions that he compiled the account from “sinister motives” and that it was not factual.  In reply, House stated:

Mrs. Horn was brought from Santa Fé under the immediate care of Messrs. Workman and Rowland, who, it is presumed, are well known to respectable merchants in this city, and elsewhere, as Santa Fe traders.  Mrs. Horn was placed by Mr. Workman in the family of his brother, in New Franklin, when she first came to the States, as her book says, and she still remains there.  Many other names might be given, but those referred to are above suspicion.

Two years later, in early 1841, James Smith and his 11-year old son Lafayette, were looking for some stray hogs near their home in Travis County, Texas, near Austin, when Comanche Indians swept in, killed James and took Lafayette captive.  The Indians headed to the northwest and rejoined tribal members, taking the boy with them as they continued their route in that direction.

A detail of a portrait featuring John Rowland, ca. 1850s, courtesy of the La Puente Valley Historical Society.

The boy’s uncle, William Smith, set out in search of the child, but was unsuccessful.  Meanwhile, the Comanches reached the Texas-New Mexico border and treated Lafayette cruelly, according to published accounts.  Once there in the spring, it was reported,

some Mexican Comancheros [those who carried on trade with the Comanches] appeared on the scene.  Word of a captive American boy had gone from Santa Fe to Taos, some miles north, an American, Mexican, and Indian trading village.  Here lived John Rowland, an American who married a Mexican.  Hearing of the American boy’s plight, Mr. Rowland fave some Mexicans sixty dollars and told them to go out and find the child.  From all accounts they were just in time . . .

This appears to have been because of the boy’s supposed mistreatment at the hands of the Comanches.  Then,

They [the Comancheros] reached the trading post of Taos, and Fayette was turned over to Mr. Rowland.  Naturally he was well pleased with the outcome of the mission and treated the boy with great kindness . . . Mr. Rowland wanted to adopt his newly acquired boy, but nothing was ever done about it.  He explained afterwards that he would have written to Fayette’s mother immediately but for lack of direct communications between Texas and New Mexico.  He did, however, write as soon as he had an opportunity to send the letter by way of St. Louis.

After about a year, Lafayette’s fortunes changed when “in mid-summer of 1842 an overland train left for Missouri, and Mr. Rowland placed Fayette in charge of a friend to make the first lap of his journey homeward.”  The day after the party arrived at the Santa Fe Trail’s end at Independence, Lewis Jones wrote to the boy’s mother, Angelina, stating “your Son La Fayette arrived here yesterday under care of Mr. Peter Duncan, under whose charge he was placed by John Rowland of Touse [sic] New Mexico—to be placed under my protection.”

Jones related the child’s story, noting that

a Party of Mexican traders—set out by Mr. John Rowland to trade with the Comanche Indians with express orders to purchase any American Prisoners they might have, met with the same party of Indians [who took Lafayette] . . . and [they] sold him to Mr. Rowland’s company for the sum of Sixty Dollars in silver—he was taken by the company to Mr. Rowland (an American) at Tous where he received every attention that he could bestow upon him.  Mr. Rowland wrote to you a short time after receiving your son—but received no answer.  La Fayette was with Mr. Rowland some fifteen or eighteen months.

These instances are among many captivity narratives published over the years, but their direct reference to the unstinting efforts of William Workman and John Rowland to assist Sarah Ann Horn and Lafayette Smith add to our growing knowledge of these future owners of Rancho La Puente in the years that they were in New Mexico.


Carl Coke Rister, Comanche Bondage (Glendale: Arthur H. Clark Company,) 1955, reprinted Bison Books, University of Nebraska Press, 1989, pp. 95-187.

Col. Wilson T. Davidson, “A Comanche Prisoner in 1841,” Southwestern Historical Quarterly, 45: 4 (1942), pp. 335-342.

2 thoughts

  1. Thanks, Dana, for the comment and it is a remarkable story fairly recently discovered by us at the Homestead!

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