On This Day: A Rare Letter from William Workman, 23 February 1843

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

There are only a very few examples of correspondence sent by William Workman, but whether this was because of the ravages of time and lost documents that may have included more letters or because he simply was not prone to penning missives is not known.

A rare example that has survived is one from this date 175 years ago when Workman communicated with Manuel Alvarez, the United States Consul in New Mexico.  Alvarez was a native of Spain born there about 1794 (making him a few years older than Workman) and he settled in Mexico at age 25, just at the end of the Spanish period as Mexico won its independence after a decade-long revolution.

After a few years, Alvarez traveled to Cuba and then at the western edge of the United States in the new state of Missouri, where Workman was then living in Franklin with his brother, David.  He went to New Mexico and opened a store in Santa Fe until the Mexican government, in 1829, ordered the expulsion of Spaniards and he left to do fur trapping in the Rocky Mountains in the employ of the American Fur Company.

Alvarez returned to New Mexico in 1834 and opened a new store in Santa Fe.  Described as “an artful dodger and a pragmatist of the highest order,” he became American consul, taking dual American and Mexican citizenship, and representing citizens of the United States.  While this often put him at odds with local Mexican authorities, he was highly respected by the Spanish-speaking population and served as acting governor of New Mexico in 1850, after the takeover by the U.S. during the Mexican-American War.  He died six years later, at about age 62.

A copy of a rare letter from William Workman, bearing his signature but written by another, to United Consul in New Mexico, Manuel Alvarez, 23 February 1843, from the Benjamin Read Collection, State Records Center, Santa Fe, New Mexico.

The consul was a close friend of Workman and John Rowland and assisted them by penning a letter of introduction to California officials as they prepared to leave New Mexico when the Texas-Santa Fe Expedition was heading to New Mexico under a thinly disguised ambition of conquest.  The Rowland and Workman Expedition left for the coast in September 1841, arriving two months later.  After Rowland secured a land grant for Rancho La Puente and returned to New Mexico to retrieve his family, Workman stayed behind with his wife and two children and settled on the ranch, building the first portion of the Workman House in 1842.

Rowland came back to California with another group of settlers and travelers at the end of that year and brought a letter from Alvarez to Workman, leading the latter to send the reply of 23 February 1843.  Here is a transcription of the document, the original of which is the Benjamin Read Collection at the State Records Center of New Mexico in Santa Fe:

Rancho de la Puente near El Pueblo de los Angeles Feby 23d 1843

Mr. Manuel Alvarez

Dear Sir

I received your letter which came by the company which arrived here from New Mexico about the 12th of last December and heartily sympathize with you in the persecutions which you have had from the Barbarians amogst whom you are; but what disgusts me most is to hear of the conduct of those who presented to be our friends and countrymen to which you alude [sic] in your letter in reference to signing a certificate for Martines [Martinez] in particular the base and doublefaced conduct of Old Scolley [John Scolly], however, I always had a poor opinion of him notwithstanding all his professions of friendship not only to myself but to many others of our mutual acquiantances particularly to you, but it only confirmed his character for falseness and duplicity[;] in my opinion he must be an undeserving old hypocrite or he never could have been inducted to have acted such a treacherous part neither from motives of fear nor interest; and I should be glad that you would take the trouble to let him know that such are my opinions respecting him.  Mr. Roland [sic] and myself are busily employed in establishing our farms[;] all your acquaintances here are well and I believe pretty well satisfied with this country—I shall at all times take a pleasure in hearing from you; wishing your welfare and happiness, I remain sincerely yours,

Wm Workman

The reference to “the company which arrived here from New Mexico” more than two months prior was the return trip made by Rowland.  As to the major theme of the letter, it is not known what the issue was that raised Workman’s ire.  John Scolly was a prominent Santa Fe merchant and he evidently tussled with Alvarez over a document the latter signed for a member of the numerous and well-known Martinez family.

Workman’s reference to “barbarians” is interesting as well as his disgust for “those who pretend to be our friends and countrymen,” with the latter presumably referring to Americans and Europeans.  His undisguised contempt for Scolly is visceral and seems to reflect Workman’s occasional conflicts with people in New Mexico before he left, the most notable of these being a horsewhipping delivered to Esteban Vigil, but also including an accusation (though only derived from a source which can’t be corroborated) that Workman plotted with others to assassinate New Mexico Governor Manuel Armijo.

By loosening venom against Scolly’s “base and doublefaced conduct” as well as his “falseness and duplicity” as a “undeserving old hypocrite,” Workman’s asking his friend Alvarez to “take the trouble to let him know that such are my opinions respecting him” reveals a personality that did not suffer opponents (if not fools) gladly.

The only news conveyed back to the consul had to do with Workman and Rowland settling in to their new “farms” on Rancho La Puente, which likely seemed a quiet and peaceful haven compared to the turmoil left behind in New Mexico.  After a heartfelt expression of wishing Alvarez “welfare and happiness,” Workman closed his missive and it is not known if there was further written contact between the two men.

Significantly, it is clear that, while Workman signed the letter, he did not pen the document.  Perhaps he had a friend in Los Angeles, who had superior penmanship and grammatical skills, write the letter from dictation.  In any case, this is a very rare surviving example of a letter from Workman and gives some strong indications of his forceful and direct personality.

Leave a Reply