by Paul R. Spitzzeri
I spent most of my day today in Ontario at the national conference of the Genealogical Society of Hispanic America, staffing a table on behalf of the Homestead as well as giving a Powerpoint-illustrated presentation on Thomas W. Temple II (1905-1972), who was an early genealogist in greater Los Angeles.
The talk gave some personal background on him, including his ancestry on his mother’s side to the Valenzuela family, early arrivals during the Spanish era, and on his father’s side to the Temples and Workmans, including the New Mexican origins of his great-grandmother, Nicolasa Urioste, a native of Taos.
Temple was raised in the community of Old Mission, the first site of Mission San Gabriel in the Whittier Narrows near El Monte, by his father, Walter P. Temple and mother Laura Gonzalez, both born and raised in that area. After their 1903 marriage, Walter and Laura lived in a wood-frame house on the homestead Walter inherited from his mother a decade or so before and which had been in the family for about a half-century.
In fall 1912, however, Walter sold the homestead and purchased sixty acres just west along a corner of the Montebello Hills and some flat land adjacent to the Rio Hondo, the old channel of the San Gabriel River. That land was owned by Walter’s father, F.P.F. Temple, before the mid-1870s failure of the Temple and Workman bank and then lost to Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin, who’d loaned money to the stricken institution before its collapse.
Thomas was nine years old when, in April 1914, he made a stunning discovery of oil indications on the hill portion of the property, which his father called “Temple Heights.” A year later, a lease was arranged with Standard Oil Company of California and the first well was brought in, as discussed two months ago here, in late June 1917. The Temples were suddenly catapulted into wealth and moved to Alhambra, while Thomas and his three surviving siblings (a sister died in infancy) attended private boarding schools. The Temples also purchased the Homestead, lost by Walter’s brother John in 1899, later that year.
After completing his elementary education at a military academy in Pasadena, he went north to the prep school at the University of Santa Clara and then attended college there, receiving a bachelor’s degree in 1926. Having studied law there, Thomas went on to Harvard University Law School, where he completed an L.L.B. degree three years later. While he was prepared to assist his father in legal matters for Walter Temple’s business activities, Thomas, by 1925, was, as he put it, “bitten by the history bug.”
Less than a year after Thomas’ graduation from Harvard, the Temple family vacated the Homestead and Walter Temple tried to salvage what he could of his estate, but all was lost by summer 1932. By then, Thomas moved in with his mother’s sister near the Mission San Gabriel and decided to pursue a career in history and genealogy.
When the City of Los Angeles celebrated its 150th birthday in 1931, Thomas conducted research in old Spanish-era records that led him to conclude that the city was established on 4 September 1781, which is still recognized, though later researchers differ on that point. For the 1931 annual publication of the Historical Society of Southern California, Thomas wrote articles on the founding date and other matters relating to the establishment of the pueblo. He also served on some committees for the Society and, in 1939, was a founder of First Century Families of Los Angeles, whose members claimed ancestry in Los Angeles prior to 1881.
At San Gabriel, Thomas became the historian of both the city and the mission and, with his wife of 37 years, Gabriela Quiroz, hosted a “Pioneer Reception” and many other events at the mission, including visits by dignitaries, political figures and others. He also wrote articles on the history of the mission and city. Much of this was done in the romantic tenor common at the time, in which the story of the mission, in particular, celebrated Spanish missionary efforts to Christianize and civilize the native aboriginal Indians, but not delving into the destruction of native cultural and social practices.
However, he was best known for his professional genealogical work and was among the first to go in depth into early mission and other records from the Spanish and Mexican eras, translating documents that were often in poor condition and in difficult to read script incorporating a version of Spanish different from his time and ours. Individuals and families contracted with Thomas to do research and provide family charts and he was widely known for this work.
In 1966, he traveled to Spain to conduct research for local families and did the same in Mexico a couple of years later. After this death, a friend, Marie Northrup built upon his work to compile two published volumes, through the local GSHA chapter, of material on early local families. Decades later, people sometimes call, email, or visit with these charts or questions about Thomas’ efforts.
When I did my first talk for the Southern California chapter of the GSHA some twenty years ago, a few people approached me to tell me that, while they found much of Thomas’ genealogical work useful, there were also errors. Occasionally, others have done the same. This raises some interesting issues and questions about genealogy and changing conditions over time.
For example, Thomas was an early expert in such research and was generally recognized as an authority. But, there are times in compiling genealogies when dead ends are reached, connections and ties between people and families are elusive, and documents are difficult to decipher.
There can be a temptation to try to work around those roadblocks, to creatively connect the dots linking people, or to walk over the fine line to interpret materials when, for whatever reasons, they are not clear. It is certainly likely that any or all of these (or more) happened with Thomas’ genealogical studies.
Essentially, the presentation concluded with the recognition that Thomas engaged in difficult genealogical work at a time when there were very few recognized people in that field locally. He deserves credit for tacking the tough work of translating and transcribing hard-to-read Spanish and Mexican era documents. A testament to his standing in San Gabriel was reflected in the fact that he was buried with the clergy in a space next to the old stone church at the mission and he remains the only layperson to be so honored.
But, later research by genealogists and others have exposed problems in some of this work and this also needs to be acknowledged. Whereas for decades, he was an undisputed authority in his field, of which there were few practitioners, the situation has changed. What I mentioned in my remarks were the two Cs—critical thinking and corroboration—for anyone covering the same ground and encountering problems with his findings.
There is still value in much of Thomas’ work, though it is not as iron clad in authenticity as was assumed years ago, and his early role in working through old documents and compiling lists, charts and the like can still be important for modern genealogists. But, his work needs to be cross-checked and verified with the findings of today’s researchers, who can correct and improve upon his work, not to mention the fact that technology and large-scale organizing and indexing of materials has revolutionized the genealogical enterprise.