On This Day: The Birthday of Jonathan Temple (1796-1866), Part Two

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

By the end of the Mexican-American War and the seizure of California by the United States, Jonathan Temple had been a resident of Los Angeles for twenty years, building a successful store, acquiring valuable property in the town and outside it, and establishing himself as a prominent citizen.

This trajectory continued in the postwar years, beginning with his appointment as alcalde (the equivalent of a mayor) in Los Angeles, which retained its form of government for three years after the conquest of the town.  He also served on the ayuntamiento (basically, the city council) and, as the only Anglo on the council, he arranged for and monitored an important event in early American era Los Angeles.

jonathan temple & wife & son in
Jonathan Temple with his wife Rafaela Cota and their son-in-law Gregorio de Ajuria, ca. 1855.

This was the Ord Survey of 1849, which was conducted under the direction of Army Lt. Edward O.C. Ord, and mainly done by William Rich Hutton.  In his journal, later published, Hutton complained of Temple’s consistent interference in his work to ask questions about how the survey was being conducted.

It turned out that, because the cash-strapped town lacked the funds to pay for the project, Temple advanced the $3,000 out of his own pocket and was reimbursed with proceeds from the sale of lots public lands laid out in the survey.  In any case, the Ord Survey is an important document in the transition from the Mexican to the American periods.

The entry for Temple’s cattle brand and other marks, dated 15 May 1852 and from the official brand register, now at the Seaver Center, Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.

In 1850, Temple built a two-story adobe building, one of the very few in town, for his business with the site being at the junction of Main and Spring streets (later, Temple received permission from the city to build a small street west of that point and the new road was named Temple Street.)  This structure stood until 1871 when it was torn down by his brother, F.P.F. Temple, for the last of a series of buildings known as Temple Block.

The first of those structures was built by Jonathan in 1857 at the south end of that block and it was a modern brick building that housed commercial and professional enterprises.  Today this is the city hall site.  Two years later, in an island of open space south of that, Temple constructed a more elaborate structure called the Market House, with small stalls on the first floor and the town’s first true theater on the second level.  The inspiration for this edifice was Fanueil Hall, the landmark Boston building.

This article refers to the newly completed Temple Block commercial building, which was later followed by three others built by F.P.F. Temple.  The site is now Los Angeles City Hall.  From the Los Angeles Star, 14 November 1857.

The poor state of the economy, however, doomed the commercial nature of the structure and it was, by 1861, leased to the city and county for use as city hall and county administration while the theater was replaced by courtrooms.  Topped with a noisy, but noticeable clock tower, the building became simply known as the Courthouse (and, after a little patina, the Old Courthouse) and operating until the late 1880s when a new city hall and separate courthouse were built.  The older building was soon razed.

Meanwhile, Temple’s ranching enterprises, centered from his Los Cerritos headquarters in the modern Long Beach area, expanded as the Gold Rush transformed the hide-and-tallow trade with cattle to meet the demand for fresh beef in the teeming mining regions to the north.  For example, as a waystation on the long cattle drives, Temple purchased a half-interest in the famed Rancho El Tejon along today’s Grapevine between Los Angeles and Bakersfield.  He also owned the Rancho El Consuelo in Tulare County near the gold fields.

This 31 July 1856 note from Temple gives his former business partner at San Pedro, David W. Alexander, the authority to handle his cattle, horses, and miles at Rancho San Emigdio, near Rancho Tejon in the Grapevine area north of Los Angeles. Alexander and F.P.F. Temple later acquired the ranch.  Courtesy of Eric A. Nelson.

His long-standing mercantile pursuits continued into the American era, as well, though he sold his San Pedro store and warehouse in 1852 and followed this, four years later, with the liquidation and closure of his Los Angeles store, the first to open in the town back in the late 1820s.  Part of the reason for this may have been his growing interests in Mexico.  Reportedly, Temple had interests in trading ships working the coast between San Francisco and Acapulco and was said to have owned large tracts of land between the latter city and Mazatlán.

The move into Mexico was enhanced by an important personal connection.  In a letter of 22 September 1848 to his half-brother Abraham Temple, living in the family’s ancestral hometown of Reading, Massachusetts, Temple wrote, “My daughter [Francisca] was married on the 1st of this month to a gentleman belonging to Spain by the name of Gregorio de Ajuria {pronounced, Ah-hoo-ree-a].”  De Ajuria was a successful importer and exporter with crucial connections to political leaders in Mexico City.

An advertisement for the auction of all the goods in Temple’s store, Los Angeles Star, 17 May 1856.

In 1855, during one of the many revolutions which roiled the young republic, Ignacio Comonfort became president of Mexico and de Ajuria, a resident of the capital city, was a supporter of influence through large loans made to the new leader.  In July 1856, de Ajuria enlisted his father-in-law Temple to invest in the lease, with a partner named Bellange, of the national mint of Mexico.  It was said Temple invested a half million dollars, a huge sum for the day, in the project.  Despite Comonfort’s short grip on power, the seizure of Mexico by France and the resulting revolt and return of independence, Temple retained the lease, passing his interest to his daughter, who held it until mint was nationalized under dictator Porfirio Diaz in 1893.

Harris Newmark, a Los Angeles merchant wrote years later in his memoir that Temple was “a very rich, if miserly man” who “had a large reserve of cash to his credit” in San Francisco, on which “he was thus able to issue drafts against his balances there . . .”   Then, there was the recollection of Horace Bell, another contemporary, who claimed

Old John Temple used to bleed this county at the rate of about $100,000 a year, money received from his immense sales of cattle, all of which he would carry to the City of Mexico for investment . . . Temple was at one time the richest man in Mexico.  He almost owned the whole Mexican government; foreclosed a mortgage on the Mint at the City of Mexico, and coined money on his own account.  He owned four hundred miles of sea-coast territory above and below Acapulco . . . and was the cutest monte dealer that ever flipped a card for an angel to bet his pile on.

Almost none of this is actually known to be true.  Firstly, selling cattle on the open market is hardly a way “to bleed this county,” especially if much or most of the money was made in the gold fields.  Second, if all his proceeds were going to Mexico, he couldn’t have built commercial buildings in Los Angeles, invested in real estate in the region and elsewhere in the state and so on.  He clearly was not “the richest man in Mexico” and certainly did not own “the whole Mexican government.”  Bell’s characterization of Temple’s use of the Mexican mint to coin money for his use is also uncorroborated.  Never a man to let facts get in the way of a story, Bell’s line about Temple being a card sharp (shark) also can’t be corroborated and sounds like a snide characterization of someone Bell didn’t like—a trait well demonstrated in his two memoirs.

Local economic conditions were poor in 1861, when this article discussed Temple’s contract with Phineas Banning and A.F. Hinchman (who was later Temple’s estate executor) to slaughter and process 2,000 cattle because the beef trade that existed since the Gold Rush had softened considerably.  Los Angeles Star, 27 April 1861.

After 1860, Temple, who took long trips to New York and Paris, where his daughter and her family lived after fleeing Mexico, became increasingly disenchanted with the City of Angeles.  There was good reason.  The end of the Gold Rush, a national depression in 1857, and a glut in the local cattle market hit the greater Los Angeles region hard and it got harder.

Massive flooding in the winter of 1861-62 was followed by severe drought the following couple of years and the combination was devastating for the cattle-based local economy.  Temple’s business buildings in Los Angeles were struggling and it appears that he felt the town was in a long-term freefall.  By 1866, he sold his half-interest in Tejon to Edward F. Beale and then, for far under $1 an acre, sold Los Cerritos to Flint, Bixby and Company, sheep ranchers in central California.

Temple was the founding president of the Los Angeles Library Association in 1859 and retained that office another year.  The effort was unsuccessful, however, and a new association and library opened in 1872, with Temple’s nephew, Thomas W. Temple, as one of the directors. Los Angeles Star, 23 July 1859.

Temple then packed up and moved to San Francisco, where, undoubtedly, the prospects seemed much better.  He was only there a short time, however, dying at the end of May 1866, a few months shy of his 70th birthday.  Rafaela Cota, his wife, moved to Paris to live with her daughter (Gregorio de Ajuria died in 1864) and died there in the 1880s.  Francisca de Ajuria followed several years later.

The Temple Block, the valuable property in downtown Los Angeles he acquired in his early years in the pueblo, was acquired by his half-brother, F.P.F. Temple, son-in-law of Homestead owners William and Nicolasa Workman.  Just after Jonathan’s death, with the droughts gone and the Civil War over, migration to Los Angeles picked up and the town entered its first sustained era of growth, lasting through the mid-1870s.

Temple was a candidate in 1859 and 1860 for county supervisor, losing both times because he was a Republican in a Democratic-dominated region.  One of his fellow candidates was William Workman on the “People’s Ticket,” and Workman, while a Democrat, was from a more moderate wing than the ruling clique. Los Angeles Star, 9 July 1859.

F.P.F. Temple added to his brother’s 1857 commercial building on the block, adding three more structures between 1868 and 1871, making the Temple Block the commercial core of the emerging little city.  In the last structure, the bank of Temple and Workman opened, but its vigorous investment of depositors’ dollars in a wide array of development projects was tied to poor management.

When the state economy tanked in summer 1875, the bank encountered a run by depositors and could not meet the demand.  Despite a loan from Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin, the bank was doomed and depositors withdrew the borrowed funds and the institution collapsed.  The preeminence of the Temple brothers, stretching back nearly a half-century, was over in dramatic fashion.

The listing in the 1860 federal census for Temple, his wife Rafaela Cota, and others.  This was the first of two (1870 being the other) where self-declared real and personal property values were included.  At $158,000, Temple’s amounts, while certainly on the low side, were far higher than almost anyone else in the county.  A few years later, he and his wife moved to San Francisco, where he died at the end of May 1866.

Today, Temple’s adobe at Rancho Los Cerritos, much altered by the Bixby family over the years, remains as the core of a historic site museum.  There is a Temple Street in Long Beach to commemorate him, but it is the Temple Street in Los Angeles, began by Jonathan as a one-block long dirt lane in the 1850s, that is the best-known tie to him.  In the 1920s, there was a movement to rename the street, which at one time extended much further west than it does now, but the effort was blocked, so that connection remains.


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