by Paul R. Spitzzeri
In 1828, there was only one American residing in the remote frontier town of Los Angeles, an outpost in what once was called “the Siberia of Mexico.” He was Joseph Chapman, who was a deserter from an Argentine ship led by a French pirate named Hippolyte Bouchard (now, there’s a story for another time!) earlier in the decade.
Chapman was joined that year by another Yankee who came to southern California by sea:” Jonathan Temple. Born on 14 August 1796 in Reading, Massachusetts to Jonathan Temple, a militia captain during the Revolutionary War, and his first wife Lydia Pratt, Jonathan remained in the town north of Boston until probably about his early to mid-twenties when he took to the sea.
Temple was a Congregationalist and this Christian sect was particularly vigorous in its missionary work in various parts of the globe, including a small chain of islands in the Pacific called, by the British, the Sandwich Islands and known now as Hawai’i. As is often the case, missionaries are followed quickly by merchants and then the military as a general template for colonization.
The first Congregationalist missionaries to Hawai’i arrived in 1819, shortly after the death of the powerful king who united the several islands, Kamehameha I, and quickly became influential in more than spiritual matters, including politics and economics, as the kingdom was quickly exposed to (and, in many ways, exploited by) European and American influences.
Sometime in the early 1820s, Jonathan Temple arrived and it was said that he owned his own ship, trading in such products as the native sandalwood (which was quickly harvested to extinction there.) As tensions quickly grew between natives and foreigners, however, Temple encountered trouble.
In September 1823, a missionary wrote that the governor of O’ahu, Kalanimoku, “ordered Marine, Mr. Warren, Mr. Navarro and Mr. Temple to be stripped of their property.” The reason was not stated, but could have been because of furnishing liquor to the natives or smuggling items to avoid customs duties.
The problems appeared to have passed, at least for a time, but, within a few years, Temple began looking for a new home. An obvious choice was a place that had direct trading relations, especially since the independence of Mexico allowed for direct contact to be made unlike the policy of imperial Spain, this being California.
On 20 February 1827, Temple wrote a letter from O’ahu to a ship captain acquaintance, John B.R. Cooper (later a prominent resident of Monterey), in which he wrote, after discussing the shipment of brandy and wine, “I expect we shall sail for California in the course [of] six weeks.” Sure enough, he arrived in San Diego, where he was baptized a Roman Catholic on 30 July—a clear sign of his intention to stay permanently.
While many sources state that Temple came to Los Angeles that same year, he stated, in his testimony years later in a land grant hearing for his half-brother, F.P.F. Temple, that he arrived in the town in 1828. A letter he wrote on 23 March 1828 stated he’d just arrived in the pueblo . He quickly made his mark in the pueblo of the Angels, opening the community’s first store and acquiring property at the then-junction of Main and Spring streets (then Calle Principal and Calle Primavera, respectively) a bit south of the Plaza.
His store prospered, as he was the first “middleman” in Los Angeles, importing goods thanks to his connections made as a merchant in Hawai’i and building up a solid clientele, though he soon had some competitors, including Massachusetts native Abel Stearns, who came to Los Angeles just after Temple and, like him, became a success. Temple’s store remained open for nearly thirty years, closing its doors in 1856, by which time he’d diversified into other larger-scale projects.
In September 1830, Temple married Rafaela Cota, a 19-year old native of Santa Barbara and a relative of the Dominguez family, who owned Rancho San Pedro near the rudimentary harbor where Temple’s goods were received and forwarded to his store. About a year later, their only child, Francisca, was born.
Temple’s connections through his wife also led to the purchase of a major piece of property, the 27,000-acre Rancho Los Cerritos, encompassing most of modern Long Beach and some surrounding areas and which was acquired in 1843. Temple built a two-story adobe home, while maintaining his permanent residence near his store in Los Angeles, on the east bank of the Los Angeles River and stocked his rancho with cattle. Its proximity to San Pedro made the shipment of hides and tallow from his ranch easy and convenient.
Beside his store, Temple also engaged in trade throughout California, dealing in hides and tallow, wine and brandy, and field crops as early as the late 1830s, with one of his most prominent trading partners being Thomas O. Larkin of Monterey, a merchant but also the influential United States consul for Mexican California.
In 1845, Temple and David W. Alexander, an Irish native who came to Los Angeles via New Mexico with John Rowland a couple of years earlier, purchased Abel Stearns’ Casa de San Pedro, a store and warehouse at the port community and the two owned it for about seven years. For a couple of years in the mid-Forties, Temple was a partner in a business involving a store in Yerba Buena (later San Francisco) and coastal trading by ship.
Temple also became involved in some important social and political matters, as well. A notorious example came in 1836 when hosted the meeting of California’s first vigilance committee, formed after a woman and her lover murdered the lady’s husband. Concerned that the criminal justice system was inadequate, citizens, including Spanish-speaking Californios, Americans and Europeans, took it upon themselves to preside over the matter, finding the woman and her paramour guilty and carrying out their public execution.
A decade later, when American forces invaded Mexican California during the Mexican-American War, Temple was involved in several ways. Prior to the first seizure of Los Angeles in August 1846, Commodore Robert F. Stockton of the U.S. Navy used Rancho Los Cerritos as a base of operations and met John C. Fremont, an Army officer and famed explorer, there before they marched north to take Los Angeles.
The garrison left behind after Stockton and Fremont went elsewhere, however, was led by a self-important and overbearing officer and the Californios revolted. It was reported that Temple’s wife, Rafaela Cota, took ammunition from his store and supplied it to the rebels. Significantly, Stockton appointed Temple alcalde (basically, mayor) of Los Angeles after the town was captured, so there might have been some marital discord at work! Gillespie was overtaken and forced to leave the town and take refuge on a ship anchored off-shore at San Pedro. Temple, as alcalde, gave him a permit to seize horses as needed for his retreat.
When the Californio resistance united under the command of José María Flores, he encamped his regiment at Los Cerritos and met a new American force returning to retake Los Angeles in early October. The next month, a group of Americans and Europeans captured at the Chino ranch, east of La Puente, were escorted to Los Cerritos for a period as the Californios awaited an American force coming up from San Diego. The final conquest of Los Angeles, with William Workman playing a significant role in arranging an amnesty for the Californios defending the town against the Americans and bringing out the flag of truce after the last battle near the town in early January 1847.
Later, Temple filed a large claim with the United States government for supplies, horses and other material provided to Stockton and Frémont during their operations in 1846 and 1847. Temple wrote to a half-brother back in Massachusetts in early February 1847 that he provided $10,000 worth of material, but later requests reimbursement for $18,000, of which the military only allowed some $2,300.
In that letter, he also stated that he and his brother, F.P.F., who came to Los Angeles in 1841 to meet Jonathan for the first time (they were 26 years apart in age, F.P.F. being the youngest child through a second wife) worked for him in the Los Angeles store, were captured and held by Californios in the waning weeks of the war.
Notably, the Temple brothers and William Workman were among many Americans and Europeans in greater Los Angeles who requested that Frémont remain in Los Angeles after hostilities ended because of fears of another revolt. The dashing Frémont, who was angling to be military governor, but ran afoul of General Stephen W. Kearny, who had orders to establish a government in California, did not stay in Los Angeles, but wrote Workman of his appreciation for their support in late March 1847.
The views of the Temples and Workman about the war, especially any support for the American seizure of Mexican California, is not entirely clear. Workman seemed to be more aligned to the interests of the Californios and was even called “ever hostile to the American cause” by a captain commanding the local garrison in Los Angeles in 1848. F.P.F. Temple didn’t leave much behind as to his opinion, writing in a remarkable letter to a brother in early 1848, that the war was over and gold was discovered in the north in one brief paragraph, but refraining from offering a direct opinion.
Jonathan, however, had his ranch used as a staging ground prior to the first capture of Los Angeles and was appointed alcalde by Stockton after the seizure was completed. His wife’s supplying the local rebels with bullets may well have been done without her husband’s knowledge. It seems likely that either Temple was in support of the American invasion or at least was willing to side with it if it seemed inevitable.
There is much more to the story of Jonathan Temple’s remarkable life, so there’ll be a part two, probably on Thursday, so check back then!