William Workman on the Santa Fe Trail, May 1825

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Years ago, I was at the Huntington Library, Art Gallery and Botanical Gardens and, after some time spent outdoors in the gardens, ventured into the old library to see the exhibits.  Walking through the west entrance to the main space, I approached a display case and was surprised to see the customs house register from Santa Fe, New Mexico from 1825.  More interesting was that the book was opened to a page that included the registration of William Workman when he checked in during July of that year.


Workman went on the settle in Taos, north of Santa Fe, and engaged in fur trapping before opening a store.  With his long-time friend John Rowland, a migrant to New Mexico a couple of years prior and whose vocation was as a miller, Workman engaged in distilling whiskey, specifically Taos Lightning (the name of which was appropriate for the strong liquor fur trappers wanted after months in the wild.)


In 1840, Rowland and Workman were named agents of the Republic of Texas in a scheme to annex all the land west to the Rio Grande, including most of the populated areas of New Mexico.  Though they were replaced by others by the following year and it is not certain how active or supportive they were of the Texas plans, the two men and their families left for California in fall 1841, taking the Old Spanish Trail, recently designated a national historic trail under the aegis of the National Park Service.


As to Workman’s earlier migration to New Mexico, he took another famous trail to get there.  He left England in 1822 to join his brother, David, in Missouri, with the brothers leaving Liverpool and landing in Philadelphia, followed by a lengthy visit in Baltimore with their sister Agnes Vickers.  Arriving in Franklin, where David established himself as a saddler by 1819, the next spring, Workman lived with and was employed by his brother for about two years.


After Mexico’s independence was won from Spain, the new republic decided to encourage American traders and settlers to come to its northern territories, including Texas and New Mexico.  This was a decision the Mexican government would later come to regret, but Franklin became the jumping off point for the Santa Fe Trail, when William Becknell took the first caravan over in 1821.  The town, formerly the western edge of Missouri and of American territory, remained the trailhead for several years, including in spring 1825 when a caravan left and included William Workman among its number.


Information about the expedition is pretty hard to find, which is why seeing the customs house register at the Huntington was so notable.  In the Homestead’s collection is a 9 July 1825 issue of the National Intelligencer, a newspaper published in Washington, D.C.  Printed in the paper is a short article titled “Santa Fe Adventurers” and which was dated 4 June from Franklin.


An explanatory note stated “we received, by the last Western Mail, the following letter, written by one of the gentlemen composing the company which left this place a few weeks since, on a trading expedition to Santa Fe, in New Mexico.”  The missive, the name of the writer of which was not given, was dated 16 May and from “Camp near Fort Osage.”  The fort was established in 1808 to protect lands newly acquired from France through the Lousiana Purchase and was situated in today’s town of Sibley near Kansas City.  Reconstructed about 1950, the site is now a national historic landmark.


The correspondent on the trail observed that the trip from Franklin, just under 100 miles, was “pleasant,” save for rain, though there were some issues, including the loss of horses, the poor condition of roads due to mud, and the need to build a bridge over a water course southeast of the fort.  After everyone convened at the fort, the packers, who had all the supplies on pack mules, moved ahead, with a company of wagons to follow.  The account continued:

The company are in fine spirits, and I have no doubt that their arrangements and conduct will ensure safety.  The company here this morning consisted of one hundred and five men, who have thirty-four wagons, and about two hundred and forty mules and horses.

There was reference made to “a code of laws,” a common system of order on overland migrant parties, with five men appointed to be a committee to develop these rules of the road.  Augustus Storrs was elected captain of the company with authority to name men to be subordinate officers for subdivisions of the group.

Storrs, a native of New Hampshire and rare college graduate (having attended Princeton University), lived in Franklin, where he was postmaster and a representative in the Missouri legislature.  By 1823, he was operating a store in Santa Fe and, in 1825, probably after this caravan arrived, he was named United States consul there.  From 1831 to 1839 he lived in Chihuahua, Mexico, where William’s brother David frequently traded merchandise.  He moved to Texas in 1840 and remained there until his death a decade later.


Notably, the article listed the surnames of some of the expedition’s packers, including “Mr. Barnes, of Boon[ville.”  This was likely Abraham Barnes, who resided for years in Boonville, a town established near Franklin by sons of the famed frontiersman Daniel Boone.  In February 1826, when William Workman wrote a letter from Taos to David that happens to be oldest surviving missive by an Anglo in New Mexico, he asked his brother to have Barnes send him material for a still to make liquor, cautioning that the items should be well hidden because they were contraband.  It was illegal then for Anglos to manufacture alcoholic beverages in New Mexico, though that changed to allow Workman and Rowland to partner in that endeavor.

Appended to the letter was another from “Passo del Norte,” probably modern El Paso, Texas, and dated 21 September 1824, warning that trade was so bad because “cash is scarce here, or, rather, in the hands of a few, who are able to live without parting with it.”  This could be a problem in sparse, frontier areas, and was true of Mexican-era Los Angeles and Alta California.

There are some other items of interest in the paper, including references to Fourth of July celebrations; news from Mexico including the assertion that General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna swore loyalty to the government [he wound up serving as president a few times and was a key figure during the Mexican-American War]; a short item about talks with “friendly Indians” in Georgia; and the formation of a relatively new type of organization, a historical society in Pennsylvania.


Some of the advertisements are also notable, including for lotteries; a performance in the nation’s capital of Carl Maria von Weber’s opera Der Freischutz; and several for runaway slaves, with the descriptions being remarkable for the way in which these people were being identified.

With regard to the news of the expedition on the Santa Fe Trail, Workman is not named (nor are almost all of those involved), but it is certain that he was a member given the fact that he checked into the Santa Fe customs house within two months of the letter from Fort Osage.  This account is a very rare one dealing with Workman’s migration from the U.S. to Mexico and is part of a larger story of his (and others’) transnational movements from frontier England to frontier Missouri to frontier New Mexico and, finally, to frontier California.


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