by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Visitors to the Homestead can see two visual statements about the birth date and year of the site’s founder, William Workman. Both were installed by his grandson, Walter P. Temple, including the crypt in the mausoleum Temple finished in 1921 and which contains the remains of Workman and his wife Nicolasa Urioste. The marble shutter was carved to include his name, place of birth (shown as Clifton, Westmoreland County, England), and dates of birth and death, these being 15 January 1802 and 17 May 1876.
Then, there is an elaborate tile panel at an archway leading to the rear of Temple’s home, La Casa Nueva. In colorful blue and yellow colors the panel has the lettering, “WORKMAN HOMESTEAD / FOUNDED / 1841 / BY / WM. WORKMAN / A PIONEER / 1802 / 1876.” The panel, which has been replicated, was clearly placed at the entrance most visitors would have used to the home in the late 1920s and was a way for Temple to honor his grandfather and the founding of the Homestead.
Both elements, however, have errors (another commemorative aspect of the site that has this common problem are the plaques marking the site as a state historic landmark, but that’s another story for another post!). The crypt, for example, has Workman’s birthplace incorrect. While he was raised at Clifton, a small town in Westmorland [no “e”] County, now part of Cumbria County in northwestern England near the Scottish border, he was actually born in Temple Sowerby, several miles to the east.
As for the plaque, Workman didn’t establish residence at the site in 1841, though that is the year he, his wife and their two children arrived in the area. Instead, John Rowland secured a land grant to Rancho La Puente in March 1842 and, a month later, Workman wrote a letter to Rowland, who was on his way back to New Mexico to retrieve his family and bring them back to La Puente, saying that he’d just settled “on the little river [San José Creek]” and was “well pleased” with the situation.
Another point of contention is the use of the term “pioneer.” After all, while the Homestead site was established by Workman and his family, there were people, namely the native aboriginal Indians, who lived in the immediate area (one source suggests the village of Awigna was near the cemetery) for thousands of years.
Then, in both cases, there is the date and year of birth. The crypt gives the date “January 15, 1802” and that year is on the tile panel, as well. Notably, information from Workman’s lifetime indicated differing possibilities.
The 1870 federal census, taken in at the end of July, listed his age as 69, which would mean before August 1801. The 1860 census, taken at about the same time of year, states that he was 60, meaning he was born before July 20, 1800. The 1850 census, taken on 12 February 1851, because of California’s admission to the Union in September, gave his age as 50, so, that would indicate prior to mid-February 1801. Very soon after, Workman left for his only return trip back home to Clifton and was there when the British national census was taken later in 1851. His age was recorded as 50, matching that of the one in which he’d just been counted.
An obituary from a Los Angeles newspaper after Workman’s tragic suicide in May 1876 gave his age as 76 and another stated the year of birth as 1800. This was indicated in other biographical accounts, as well. So, despite his grandson’s enshrining of the 1802 year, the Homestead Museum, using contemporary written sources, used the 1800 year.
Then, in the 1990s, correspondence was shared with John Sharpe, a retired police inspector living in Clifton, the town Workman grew up in. Sharpe owned a house that had been owned by members of the Workman family and, curious about its history and using his talent for research and investigation, mined local records.
His work yielded a great deal of information about the family generally, including William’s ancestors a few generations earlier, material about his parents and siblings, and information about how William and his older brother David used settlements of money given by their parents to migrate to America.
One of the records John located was about Workman’s christening into the Anglican Church (Church of England). Interestingly, although the baptism was conducted on 31 December 1800, there was a record of his birth date, given as 15 November 1799. However, it has also been stated that his birthday was actually the 17th.
In any case, the listing of the date of birth was, in fact, unusual and, because it was well over a year prior to the christening, it is possible that there was a health reason for the delay. In other words, Workman’s birth may have involved significant complications and a lengthy convalescence and recovery.
The question of Workman’s birth date is not earthshaking in terms of how the museum interprets his life. The understanding visitors have of Workman’s life is not materially affected by whether he was born in late 1799 or within the two or three years afterward. But, what is at issue is that historical interpretation is a process in which new discoveries can change our understanding.
For me, coming up on thirty years (I still marvel at this sometimes–three decades at the same place!) and reflecting on how much has changed in terms of what we know, something like clarifying a birth date is a small piece in a large puzzle. There are still many pieces missing, given how much has been lost and what will never be retrieved, and our understanding of the history is necessarily limited by the fraction that we know of what was once there.
What makes working at the Homestead (even after some 10,000 days!) exciting and very interesting is that new information still comes along and will long after I’m gone. Easily the most thrilling part of being at the museum is doing research and finding something notable or that changes our understanding. I’m sure when John Sharpe unearthed that original christening record from some two centuries earlier, he had that thrill, too.