by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Tonight it was my pleasure to return for what I believe is my fifth or sixth presentation to the local Covina Valley Historical Society, this time to share some of the history dealing with political motivations of the move of John Rowland and William Workman from New Mexico to California in late 1841.
A good-size crowd came to have dinner and hear the talk, which included my mention of having just finished a book that provided some interesting and relevant context to tonight’s presentation, Bruce Cuming’s Dominion from Sea to Sea, which analyzes the American movement west to the Pacific in a variety of ways.
In the case of Rowland and Workman, the two took similar paths to get to California. Rowland, a native of Maryland, spent much of his youth and early adulthood living in Ohio, before heading west through St. Louis to take the new Santa Fe Trail to New Mexico, arriving in Taos about 1823.
Two years later, Workman, born in the far northern reaches of England near the Scottish border, arrived in the same pueblo, having come from Great Britain with his brother David, landed in Philadelphia, spent time visiting a sister in Baltimore and then going to Franklin, Missouri. This town along the Missouri River in the center of the state was the western edge of the United States in the mid-1820s. After a couple of years, Workman took the Santa Fe Trail and settled in Taos.
The two were very successful, starting with fur trapping but engaging in the more settled occupations of miller (Rowland) and merchant (Workman) while working together to distill Taos Lightning, a powerful liquor well-suited to fur trappers returning to the pueblo to winter after long, difficult hunting in the Rocky Mountain region.l
Both men married (well, Workman’s was common-law until a formal church marriage was conducted in California) and raised families and were well settled in Taos until political problems arose in 1837. Just after the Texas revolution, in which Americans encouraged to settle in the Mexican department formed their own republic, and at the same time that internal disputes were rocking California, rebels in Taos overthrew and killed the governor of New Mexico.
Manuel Armijo led a counter-revolt against the Taoseños and succeeded in capturing the reins of government. Shortly afterward, Rowland and Workman were arrested for smuggling, which seemed likely to be an act of political recrimination by Armijo. After all, smuggling was rife and generally unchecked and it had been reported in the Missouri newspaper, the National Intelligencer, that the Taoseños swore the two men to loyalty in their uprising.
In any case, matters calmed for a while until a new political threat loomed. Mirabeau Lamar, the president of the Texas republic, agitated to expand the fledgling nation’s west border out to the Rio Grande. This meant that substantial portions of New Mexico and the three principal towns (Albuquerque, Santa Fe, and Taos) were in the cross-hairs of Lamar’s scheme.
He was aided by Kentucky native and long-time Taos resident and trader (traitor?) William G. Dryden, who arranged a meeting with Lamar and convinced him there was substantial support in New Mexico for a Texas annexation. Heartened by this, Lamar issued a proclamation in April 1840 naming Dryden and two other men a commission to spread the good word about the plan among the New Mexican citizenry. The other two members of the commission? Rowland and Workman.
Whether or not they were asked or otherwise informed of this honor, the two Taos merchants, who certainly knew Dryden well and may have been sympathetic to the concept of an annexation, did not long remain on the commission. As plans for a “Texas-Santa Fe Expedition,” ostensibly for trade and peaceful cooperation, but really an armed force prepared to invade and seize New Mexico’s main towns, catalyzed, Rowland and Workman prepared to leave for California in early 1841.
The Texas-Santa Fe Expedition was nothing short of a disaster. Poorly organized, planned and executed, the group wandered through the long stretches of wide open and not particularly friendly territory and were quickly captured when the survivors (many abandoned the enterprise or died on the way) stumbled into New Mexico. Dryden was among those taken to Mexico and thoroughly interrogated. Among the questions he was asked was his relationship with Workman and Rowland. Notably, Dryden moved to Los Angeles in 1850, reunited with his friends, who he represented as an attorney, served as a long-time county judge and died in 1869.
By then, the two men were on the coast. Along with about 60 others, including Americans, Europeans and New Mexicans, Rowland and Workman, starting about the 1st of September 1841 plied the misnamed Old Spanish Trail (it was opened about 1830, almost a decade after the Spanish period and was only about a decade old when they used it), which wended its way northwest into Utah and then down, roughly along today’s Interstate 15 (including a stop at a desert spring called Las Vegas) through the deserts and into greater Los Angeles. Workman remembered his arrival as being on a British holiday, Guy Fawkes Day, which is the 5th of November.
Meanwhile, Governor Armijo, who it was claimed by some was the target of an assassination plot by Workman and others (though this comes from a sole source and can’t be substantiated), sent a letter ahead to authorities in California warning of the “traitors” Rowland and Workman, who were out “to seduce and confuse” the residents there.
Instead, the two men built very successful lives in their new home, centered on a land grant to Rancho La Puente. Notably, the original spring 1842 grant was only to Rowland, though Workman was given rights to use the rancho as if an owner. Three years later, after the two men helped Pío Pico ascend to the governorship of California, Rowland submitted a request for a new grant, claiming, fantastically, that Workman was inadvertently left off the original grant. Pico readily complied and kindly enlarged the grant from about 18,000 to nearly 49,000 acres, the maximum allowable under Mexican law.
Yet, there was obviously a reason for Workman’s low profile—in fact, he and his family were not counted in the 1844 census conducted by Los Angeles officials, while Rowland was. It wasn’t as if he and his family were on a vacation when the enumerator came around!
Was Workman’s reputation from New Mexico a reason for him to lay low? Was it the alleged assassination attempt, or his occasional displays of temper including horse-whipping a member of a well-known New Mexican family, or support for the Texas annexation scheme? There simply is not enough evidence to know, but what we do know is that political tensions definitely were a major factor in the decision of he and Rowland to hightail it out of New Mexico for California.