by Paul R. Spitzzeri
A native of frontier England, meaning he was raised in a sparsely populated rural area near the Scottish border, William Workman emigrated to the United States in September 1822 in company with his older brother, David, who’d moved to America a few years prior. David resided at the western frontier of the country, settling in Franklin, Missouri along the Missouri River and taken up the profession of a saddler and William lived with his brother for a couple of years before making his next move.
This, just four years after Mexico’s independence from Spain, involved traveling on a new trail from Franklin to Santa Fe, New Mexico naturally called the Santa Fe Trail. In early summer 1825, William checked in to the customs house at Santa Fe and, shortly afterward, settled in Taos to the northwest. There, he did some fur trapping and opened a store, later collaborating with American migrant John Rowland (who’d settled in Taos a couple of years before) in the distilling of Taos Lightning whiskey.
Workman had a common-law marriage (as many residents of New Mexico did in those years) with Taos native Nicolasa Urioste and the couple had two children, Antonia Margarita (born 1830) and José Manuel (born about 1833). The Workmans appeared to have lived a pretty successful life in Taos, though there were occasional problems, such as a revolt in 1837 from that town that unseated and led to the murder of the departmental governor and which precipitated a counter-revolt that squashed the rebellion.
Having been forced, evidently, to swear loyalty to the Taoseño rebels, Workman and Rowland were not looked upon favorably by Manuel Armijo who engineered the response from Santa Fe. Probably not coincidentally, later in 1837, the two men were accused by the government of smuggling, which was more than commonplace, suggesting political recriminations.
A year before that, Americans in Texas engineered a revolution against Mexican authorities that led to the creation of the independent Republic of Texas, the goal of which was immediate annexation to the U.S. That didn’t happen for nearly a decade, but, in early 1840, Texas President Mirabeau Lamar concocted a half-cocked plan to invade New Mexico and seize all territory east of the Rio Grande, but to do so under a pretense of commercial trade and cooperation.
It just so happened that the three principal New Mexican towns (Albuquerque, Santa Fe, and Taos) were all along that desired border, so, when Rowland and Workman were named agents of the Texas government to spread the good news to New Mexicans about Texas’ “peaceful” ambitions, it didn’t likely go over swimmingly. It may even be that the two men were unaware of the honor, bestowed upon them by Lamar at the instigation of William G. Dryden, a Kentucky-born adventurer whispering sweet nothings (or little more than) in the president’s willing ear.
By early 1841, Rowland and Workman were no longer commissioners of the so-called “Texas-Santa Fe Expedition,” with a New Mexican and an American replacing them on the roster. The damage, however, was done. During the next several months, Rowland and Workman made plans to leave New Mexico and head west to California, specifically greater Los Angeles. Rowland, through an agent in 1834, purchased several horses from the Rancho La Puente, then just being liberated by Mexican decree from the control of Mission San Gabriel, so was certainly familiar with the area.
As for Workman, he managed to secure, with the help of U.S. Consul Manuel Alvarez, a travel permit from New Mexican authorities so that he could travel to the coast. The document, signed by Agustín Duran, a departmental official, noted that Workman had 800 pesos worth of goods and had 290 days (an interesting number) from the issue date of 14 July for which the permit was valid.
In addition, Workman had a factura, or bill of goods, dated the 13th, drawn up that listed two sets (totaling 840 pieces) of serapes, eight loads of household furniture and furnishings, and one load of effects for the support of his family while on the road. The document, written up in Santa Fe, was signed by Workman and John Scolly, who was, perhaps, acting as witness.
In a way, it was surprising that Armijo allowed the two men to leave, given the obvious enmity he felt for them, especially when he wrote ahead to warn California officials of the “traitors” who were going to the Coast “to seduce and confuse” the residents of their new home. Then again, maybe he was relieved to see the pair leave!
By early September, Rowland, Workman and about two dozen other Americans, Europeans and New Mexicans departed and were joined at nearby Abiquiu by about forty New Mexican, including experienced travelers on the the Old Spanish Trail (which, being established in 1829, was neither old nor Spanish.) It took about two months for the group, which followed a regular trade caravan, to make the 1,200 mile trek to California via central Utah, southern Nevada (including a stop at a desert watering hole called Las Vegas) and through the Mojave Desert to the San Gabriel Valley.
As for that “Texas-Santa Fe Expedition,” really an invasion, it was poorly planned, staffed, supplied and executed and, therefore, was easily routed when it straggled into New Mexico. Dryden, among its ringleaders, was arrested and taken south to Chihuahua for interrogation, including about why Rowland and Workman went to California.
In 1850, Dryden made the trip to Los Angeles to settle and got reacquainted with his old friends. He served as an attorney (including for his compadres), justice of the peace, interpreter, and, for about a dozen years, county judge and was widely known for his colorful courtroom demeanor and antics (you can learn more about him at the final Curious Cases presentation, held on 4 November at the Homestead.)
The permit and bill still survive and are in the possession of Workman descendant Josette Temple, being among the very few and ultra rare documents of the pre-California lives of the Workman family.