On This Day: A Letter from William Workman to John Rowland, 14 April 1842

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

A series of posts in the first three months of this year covered the granting in early 1842 of Rancho La Puente to John Rowland.  It was observed then that it was noteworthy that William Workman, who came with his family on an expedition that appears to have largely been led by Rowland, was not included as co-owner in the grant made by Governor Juan Bautista Alvarado.

Workman not only had every intention of residing with his wife and two children on the ranch, but wound up receiving documents that look to have provided him with the rights to use La Puente as if he was an owner.  The most likely reason why this circumstance arose was that Workman had to or felt the need to “lie low” after leaving New Mexico to come to California.

He and Rowland were accused by New Mexico’s Governor Manuel Armijo as being “traitors” who were out to “seduce and confuse” the residents of California.  Armijo didn’t say why, in a letter sent to California officials as Rowland and Workman were on their way to the coast, but there’d been bad blood between the three men for a few years.

This stemmed at least from 1837, when a revolt emanating from Taos, where Workman and Rowland lived for many years, overthrew New Mexico’s governor, who was killed.  A Missouri newspaper reported that the two naturalized residents were forced to swear loyalty to the Taoseño rebels.  Armijo then engineereed a counter-revolution, unseating the upstarts.  Shortly afterward, Rowland and Workman were arrrested on charges of smuggling.  Because such activities were so commonplace, it can be assumed that the crackdown was political, rather than legal.

This 14 April 1842 letter from William Workman to John Rowland, in the collection of the La Puente Valley Historical Society, is a rare example, not only of Workman’s correspondence, but of that from greater Los Angeles at the time.

Then, in 1840, Texas President Mirabeau Lamar, who was plotting to extend the western boundary of his new republic to the Rio Grande in the heart of New Mexico, was advised by William G. Dryden, a Kentucky native, to appoint Rowland and Workman as agents of the Texan government in paving the way for support in New Mexico for that countty’s aims of expansion.  This was done in an official proclamation from Lamar, though it is unknown whether Workman and Rowland actively sought this honor or whether Dryden nominated them without their knowledge.

This is because the two men were quickly replaced by others in early 1841, at which time they were actively preparing to leave for California.  Probably, their association, intended or not, with Lamar’s plans made them highly suspect and they realized they had to evacuate for greener pastures–literally, to the pastures of La Puente.  Significantly, Rowland was well aware of the rancho, having purchased some horses from La Puente in 1834, and this fact might also explain why he went and got the grant and then, perhaps, made sure Workman was given the right to use the land.

In any case, after securing the grant in early March, Rowland headed back, on 7 April, to New Mexico to retrieve his wife and children, who stayed behind in 1841 when he made the journey to California.  It was  a week after when Workman wrote one of the very few letters that have survived the ravages of time.  Dated 14 April 1842 and from “El Puente” [Workman was clearly still learning about his new home, though his use of everyday Spanish for “the bridge” was , the little missive, addressed to “Mr. Juan Rowland,” is short and sweet:

Sir, I am hear on the little River at work, and am well pleased with the situation.  Old Man Futer [?] told me that his Compadre had come back from Montarey and he had done nothing and found the Governador very much displeased with him and he ask for another plase but he could not get any plase without the money, and that Did not suite Old futer.  Mr. Night the Bearer of this wants you to Asist him in bringing his family and if you cant do it on your Ac’t do it on mine and you will Oblige your Friend,

Wm Workman

The “little River” mentioned is San José Creek, on the north side of which Workman settled in a temporary dwelling, probably of rough timber and brush, while he set out to make the adobe portion of the Workman House that still stands.  Rowland, after his return at the end of 1842, also established his residence to the north of the creek, though he moved to the south of it when he built a new home, the current Rowland House, in 1855.

The reference to what looks like “Futer” in the letter is interesting, because it refers to an attempt to get a land grant from Governor Alvarado, but not “without the money.”  It was stated by Isaac Given, who came to California with Rowland and Workman and who surveyed La Puente for Rowland’s grant petition, that $1,500 was presented to Alvarado to “grease the wheels” for the process.  While there is no hard evidence or corroboration of Given’s assertion, this letter indicates that money was changing hands in grant petitions, which is hardly a surprise!

“Mr. Night” was William Knight, a member of the Rowland and Workman expedition of 1841, who, like those two and William Gordon, another member, married New Mexican women and had children with them.  Knight, who may have gotten tied up in some affair (perhaps seeking land in Monterey) and had to catch up to Rowland, settled in northern California and had ferries at Knight’s Landing on the Sacramento River, northwest of our state’s capital, in Yolo County and Knight’s Ferry on the Stanislaus River in the county of that name east of Modesto.

Unlike a February 1843 letter, highlighted in a post here two months ago, this was written (not just signed) by Workman. The quality of his writing indicates that he received a modicum of education and a number of spelling errors and syntax problems shows that it was somewhat limited.  The document, owned by the La Puente Valley Historical Society, is a rare surviving example of not just Workman’s writing and correspondence but of the era in greater Los Angeles generally.


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