On This [St. Patrick’s] Day: David W. Alexander, 1810-1886

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

The earliest known photograph of Homestead patriarch William Workman was taken about 1851 or 1852, allegedly by famed Civil War photographer Mathew Brady in New York, and shows the 50-something Workman with David Watt Alexander, a friend of long standing with whom he traveled to and/or from England during Workman’s only trip home after leaving for America in the early 1820s.

David W. Alexander & Workman 1851
A daguerreotype photograph, said to have been taken in New York by Mathew Brady, later famed for his Civil War battlefield images, in 1851 or 1852, as William Workman (right) and David W. Alexander traveled to England and Ireland, respectively, for their only visits to their home countries.

That friendship began in New Mexico in the 1830s, where Workman settled in the middle of the previous decade, setting up residence in Taos.   Alexander, born in Donegal County, at the northwest edge of Ireland (part of Northern Ireland) in 1810, migrated to America in 1832 with his brother George.

He spent a few years in Philadelphia before heading west to the edge of the country in Missouri, settling in Rocheport, a small town along the Missouri River just east of Franklin and Boonville.  Workman lived in Franklin for a few years after coming to the U.S. with his brother David before decamping for New Mexico and David and his family lived there and in Boonville at the time Alexander moved there.

David W. Alexander 1850 census
The 1850 federal census, actually taken in January and February 1851 because of California’s statehood late in 1850, showing David Alexander living next to his business partner Francis Mellus and family.  Alexander later married Mellus’ widow, Adelaida, shown here with her first child.

Because the Santa Fe Trail originally began from Franklin, it’s obvious that Alexander joined one of the many trading caravans plying that route and ended up in New Mexico in 1837, the year of a revolt emanating from Taos (and for which Workman was forced to swear loyalty) followed by a counter-measure that crushed the rebels.  Alexander stayed for a few years as a merchant and further political turmoil led Workman and John Rowland to take a large group of Americans, Europeans and New Mexicans to Los Angeles in fall 1841.

When Rowland returned to New Mexico to retrieve his family, leading a group back to California in fall 1842, Alexander joined.  After arriving in the area, he lived for a time at Rancho El Rincon, near where today’s Prado Dam is situated adjacent to Corona and Chino Hills.  In 1844, he joined prominent Los Angeles merchant Jonathan Temple in a forwarding and commission business near the rudimentary port at San Pedro.  This successful partnership lasted five years and Alexander and Temple were also the first to bring a four-wheeled carriage (a Rockaway imported from New York and costing a princely $1,000) to Los Angeles in 1849 just as the Gold Rush erupted.

David W. Alexander 1860 census Tejon Tulare
In 1860, Alexander resided at the “Sinks of Tejon” north of Los Angeles and south of present Bakersfield.  At the time this was Tulare County, but became part of the new Kern County within a few years.

Alexander then became a partner with Massachusetts native Francis Mellus in a store in Los Angeles, which lasted for about five years, during which time then bought the Rancho Providencia in what is now the southeastern portion of the San Fernando Valley.  He also acquired interests in the Rancho Cahuenga and Rancho Tujunga   It was also during this period that Alexander made his sole visit home to Ireland, traveling in company with Workman and having that photo taken.  When the two men returned home, Alexander was a witness for Workman’s land claim to Rancho La Puente, providing information about his friend’s settlement on the rancho shortly after it was granted to John Rowland in spring 1842.

In 1855, Alexander, who’d served as a councilman in Los Angeles in 1850 and 1851 and then as a county supervisor in 1853 and 1854, won election as Los Angeles County Sheriff and sold his interest in the store with Mellus. His term as sheriff, however, was cut short in 1856 around the time that a near riot occurred that summer over the killing of a Latino man by an American deputy constable.  While it is not known if the unrest was directly tied to his resignation, Alexander moved to oversee a ranch in the Tejon Pass area between Los Angeles and the Central Valley, remaining there for most of a decade.

David W. Alexander 1870 census
In 1870, Alexander was back in Los Angeles with his family and working as a commission merchant.

During that time, he worked at the ranch with Workman’s son Joseph, who’d returned to the region when he joined his uncle David Workman and family on their migration to the coast from California.  In 1864, Alexander and F.P.F. Temple, William Workman’s son-in-law, purchased, at a sheriff’s tax sale, the Rancho San Emigdio, on the west side of today’s Grapevine near Tejon.

That same year, Alexander married Adelaida Johnson Mellus, widow of Alexander’s former partner.  The couple was married for over twenty years and had five children in addition to her children with Mellus.  Two of Alexander’s sons were named Samuel Temple and Joseph Workman, as a way to honor his deep relationships with the Workman and Temple families.

David W. Alexander 1880 census
In 1880, the Alexanders were living in Wilmington and David was listed as “Retired or ex-sheriff.”  He died there five years later.

Though Alexander sold the Providencia rancho to David Burbank, who subdivided his namesake town, he continued to own land in the region and, in his mid-60s, decided to make another run for county sheriff, winning election in 1875 and succeeding Wiliam R. Rowland, John Rowland’s son.  Alexander assumed office just as his friends F.P.F. Temple and William Workman experienced the devastation of the failure of their bank in early 1876.  When he had to fulfill his duty in seizing property for a sheriff’s sale, including some claimed by Workman’s daughter and Temple’s wife, Antonia Margarita, she sued him, unsuccessfully, over the matter.

It must have been extremely difficult for Alexander to see his friends go through the turmoil, especially when Workman, who Alexander knew for nearly forty years, took his life in May 1876 and when Temple, a friend for a quarter century, died after a series of strokes four years later.

David W. Alexander 1880s
A cabinet photo of Alexander taken at the end of his life, ca. early 1880s.


As for Alexander, he retired at Wilmington, the town established by another longtime friend and associate, Phineas Banning, remaining there until his death in 1886 at age 75.  He is interred at Evergreen Cemetery in Boyle Heights, a community founded by William H. Workman in the 1870s. The native of Ireland, like Workman, migrated across the ocean and then across the American continent, going through a wide array of experiences during his three-quarters of a century.

Leave a Reply