All in the Family: The Arrival of the David Workman Family in Los Angeles, October 1854, Part One

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

It is a remarkable immigrant story, as so many are.  David and William Workman, brothers in a prosperous family in the far northern reaches of England, left their home on what was eventually a long journey of over 5,000 miles to the Los Angeles area.

Notably, when David, at age 20, embarked for America in 1817, just after the conclusion of the War of 1812, he was the eldest son in the family—meaning he would have, by the law of primogeniture, been the heir of the substantial property of father Thomas.  In fact, Thomas Workman provided bequests for his children and David cashed out on half of his.  Perhaps because Thomas, in his youth, left northern England for the London area, there was a bit of wanderlust in the genes!

By 1819, David settled in Franklin, Missouri, a new town on the western frontier of the United States, and established himself as a saddler.  Three years later, he returned home to take the remainder of his request and enticed his younger brother, William (who succeeded David as eldest son and would have been his father’s heir, as well!) to join him and cash out on his bequest.

In September 1822, the Workman brothers, having departed from Liverpool on a ship of that name, landed in Philadelphia.  They evidently spent the next half a year with their sister Agnes Vickers, who’d moved with her husband to Baltimore in 1820, making a trio of expatriates from the family in the U.S., before arriving in Franklin in March 1823.

William’s sojourn with David in Franklin was temporary, lasting two years.  He then joined a trading caravan on a new trial, the Santa Fe, into the department of New Mexico recently opened to outsiders by the newly independent country of Mexico.  In summer 1825, he settled in Taos, a fur trapper’s outpost near an Indian pueblo.  For more than 15 years, William worked in fur trapping, distilling whiskey and ran a store and did well for himself.

David Workman portrait
The sole known photograph of David Workman, a daguerreotype likely taken just before he and his family left Missouri in spring 1854 to settle with his brother William on Rancho La Puente.

As for David, he remained in the Franklin area for another thirty years, though he was involved in trading expeditions that took him as far as the northern Mexican stage of Chihuahua and, later, to Gold Rush California.  In 1825, he married Mary Hook, a native of Virginia and resident of Franklin.  After she died in childbirth, David married her sister, Nancy, and the couple had three sons: Thomas, Elijah, and William Henry.  The family moved to Boonville, named for the sons of famed frontiersman Daniel Boone, after Franklin was destroyed by a flood of the Missouri River.

A notable tidbit of history involving David Workman was that he had an apprentice in his Franklin saddlery who demonstrated the restlessness and desire to see the world that affected the Workman brothers.  The young man was named Christopher “Kit” Carson, then in his late teens.  When David Workman advertised, as he was legally required to do, in the local newspaper for Carson’s return he offered the minimum reward—1 cent!  Clearly, he didn’t want or need Carson to return to the saddlery!

In late 1841, William Workman, his wife Nicolasa Urioste and children Margarita and José, migrated to Los Angeles over the Old Spanish Trail, due to political problems in New Mexico stemming from plans for an invasion by the independent Republic of Texas.

After becoming well established on Rancho La Puente, co-owned with John Rowland, and which was a massive 49,000 acres, William enjoyed the fruits of political alliances with Governor Pío Pico, weathered the storms of the American invasion of California in 1846-47, and then benefitted from the Gold Rush trade in his cattle.

David, too, was lured by the discovery of gold in California.  According to his son William Henry:

In 1849, attracted by the gold discoveries, he came to California for the first time.  Seeing the opportunities that lay to selling supplies to the minders, Father returned to Missouri in 1850.  He purchased a train load of supplies and equipment and came back across the plains to California.  He then opened a merchandise store in Sacramento, but on November 2, 1852, he store and its stock were destroyed by a great fire that wiped out seven-eighths of the city.

Devastated by the loss, David ventured south to visit William, who consoled and then encouaged his brother to resettle with him:

It was at the Puente that William persuaded David Workman to bring his wife and three sons to Southern California to live.  Father came home in the summer of 1853, bringing news that the following spring we would all head for California.

During the ensuing several months, intensive preparations were made for the migration west with three wagons and a carriage for Nancy Hook Workman loaded up for the long, difficult trip, which David had already made twice, to the coast.

Apparently included in the group was William’s son José, who was sent back to Baltimore to live with his aunt Agnes within a few years of his family’s move to Los Angeles.  She died in 1848 and it may be that José (commonly called Joseph or “Joe” to family and friends) then moved to Missouri with his uncle, aunt and cousins.

Tomorrow’s post follows the David Workman family on their eventful trip “across the plains” to California, as related decades later by William Henry. So, check back then for more!

Leave a Reply