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

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Following from yesterday’s first part concerning the migration of the family of William Workman’s brother, David, from central Missouri, where they lived for almost forty years, to Los Angeles, we pick up the thread of the tale as the family left for their trip west.

For this, the story relies exclusively on the recollections of David and Nancy Workman’s youngest child, William Henry (1839-1918).  He presented his memoir of the trip to the Pioneers of Los Angeles County, an association of early Anglo settlers in the region, and it was published in organization’s annual for 1908-1909.

When David returned to Missouri after a devastating fire destroyed his Sacramento store in November 1852, but inspired by encouragement from William to join him in greater Los Angeles, William Henry wrote “Father and other trappers and scouts had told me and my brothers about their experiences in the west, so I looked forward eagerly to the coming adventure.”

WH Workman 1854
A daguerreotype photograph of William Henry Workman (1839-1918), nephew of William Workman, and taken in spring 1854 before his family’s departure from central Missouri to Los Angeles .

When it was time to leave their town of Boonville, William Henry remembered his Sunday School teacher presented him a Bible and the family also had daguerreotype photos taken.  Finally, on 17 April 1854, the journey began with neighbors swelling the group to over twenty persons.  The caravan passed Westport Landing, now Kansas City, and then the remove military post, Fort Leavenworth.  William Henry wrote “from there on we found a barren wilderness” as the pressed on towards the Rocky Mountains.

Some weeks into their journey, however, “we were surrounded by a band of five hundred Sioux and Cheyenne Indian warriors on horseback.  They were a magnificent sight, decked in war paint and feathers but were very savage and fierce.”  The natives then approached and “with shrill, unearthly cries, they circled our wagons again and again.”

William Henry’s older brother, Elijah (then about 19 years old), grabbed a hunting rifle and aimed it at the chief, but David “intervened just in time to prevent a shot that could have meant the massacre of the entire party.”  David’s facility with Spanish, which the Indian chief spoke, led to the travelers being allowed to continue provided that the food in the caravan be yielded to the hungry natives.  Fort Laramie was a couple hundred miles away, but the party subsisted until they arrived to restock their provisions.

WH Workman Reminiscence 1908
A typescript of William Henry’s recollection of the journey to California, published in the 1908-1909 annual of the Pioneers of Los Angeles County.

After a rough passage through the Rocky Mountains and more fear of Indian attacks, the caravan arrived in Salt Lake City, the capital of the Mormon settlement in Zion, on the 4th of July.  William Henry wrote that “Brigham Young came to see us to induce us to settle in Utah.”  David declined the offer, though the party stayed for a month and were well fed and rested.  William Henry stated “we said goodbye to the people of Salt Lake who had been so good to us, and started for California.”

Another difficult and dangerous stretch of the trip was the crossing of the massive desert between Utah and the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California, where “feed and fresh water were scarce in this barren desert” and the party “formed a corral with our wagons, and put our animals inside” when stopping evenings.

Climbing up the Sierra Nevadas and into California, the party skirted the west shore of Lake Tahoe and rested where the Tallac historic site, where the summer homes of Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin and others were later built.  Emerging where U.S. 50 leaves South Lake Tahoe, the caravan, which had huge boulders blocking the route forcing the group “to let our wagons down by ropes,” arrived at Placerville, then called Hangtown.  William Henry noted “we were indeed glad at last to reach” that town “as the season was getting late and we were afraid of heavy snows in the mountains, such as had caused the hardships of the Donner party” eight years before.

Routes to California
A map of “Routes to California.”  In 1825, William Workman took the Santa Fe Trail from Missouri to New Mexico and, a little over fifteen years later, he and his family migrated to Los Angeles over the Old Spanish Trail (also shown partly as “Salt Lake-Los Angeles Route.”)  In 1854, the David Workman family took the Oregon and California trails into northern California and then ships down to the Los Angeles area.

The group made its way some forty miles down to Sacramento where it “camped in the willows on the American River, and a few days later, proceeded to Stockton, fifty miles south of the state capital.  The members of the caravan “sold our outfit, and went by boat [via the San Joaquin River and its confluence with the Sacramento River before heading into San Francisco.  They stayed in the “small town,” which dwarfed their destination of Los Angeles, however, a few days “before leaving for the south on the steamship Goliah.”

That coastal trip took four days and “we arrived at San Pedro on October 17, 1854, just six months to the day after leaving Boonville.”  Recalling that the steamer had to anchor offshore because of the shallow conditions and lack of a wharf and that small boats brought the party to shore, William Henry recalled

My uncle [William] met us there and took us to his ranch at the Puente.  The two brothers, my father and my uncle, had a joyous reunion, and we remained for a time at the ranch.  Their joy, however, was to be short-lived.

This brings us to a transition from “All in the Family” to “Beyond the Grave,” our special tour program this Sunday focusing on American attitudes toward death and memorialization.

So, check back tomorrow as we discuss the untimely demise of David Workman and his funeral and burial at his brother William’s newly established cemetery, El Campo Santo.

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