by Paul R. Spitzzeri
If President Millard Fillmore’s executive order of December 1850 stipulating that Alcatraz Island, along with other California parcels, was government property was truly the last word about the legal status of the island, this post would have been limited to yesterday’s part one.
But, over five years later, a newspaper article appeared in the Los Angeles Star that caught the eye of F.P.F. Temple, who executed an agreement in early March 1847 with U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel John C. Frémont to sell the island for $5,000 with the proviso that the federal government would approve the deal.
Not only did this not happen, but Frémont was court-martialed later that year for a number of reasons, including the Alcatraz arrangement. With Fillmore’s order, the matter would appear to have been over, except that Frémont, characteristically, was not done with the issue.
The Star notice of 23 February 1856 was simple:
Palmer, Cook, and Co. have commenced suit against the U.S. authorities for the recovery of Alcatraz Island, upon which fortifications to the value of $500,000 have been erected. It appears that Palmer, Cook, and Co., purchased the Island of Fremont, Fremont from a Mr. Temple, Mr. Temple from Julian Workman, who obtained it from Pio Pico.
At least this brief reporting was correct in terms of the island’s chain of ownership, as opposed to federal documents which stated that Temple was given the grant to the island from Pico, rather than his father-in-law Workman. Also noteworthy is the statement about the expenditure of a half million dollars to fortify the island for military purposes. This week’s reporting of archaeological work on the island mentions that Civil War-era remnants of tunnels and structures at Alcatraz were unearthed, but there were prior fortifications there as the 1856 article shows.
The situation involving the San Francisco banking firm of Palmer, Cook and Company and Frémont is complicated, but there was a court action in early February that led to a Sheriff’s sale of Frémont’s interest in Alcatraz being auctioned for $200 to Edward Jones, who received a certificate of the sale and then handed it over to William H. Palmer. This may have been part of a larger scheme involving Frémont and the firm who had such close ties that, when Frémont was the first Republican candidate for president later in the year, it was believed the bank would benefit from their connections to him, though Frémont lost to Democrat James Buchanan.
Temple did not wait long to respond to the news he read in the Star. On 4 March, he penned a letter to either three men or to one, depending on the source. A transcription of the missive made by Temple’s son, John, had the names N. Callahan, John G. Downey, and V.E. Howard, while a typed transcript, likely provided by John H. Temple to an attorney, simply had the addressee as “Howard, Esq., San Francisco.”
The identity of Callahan has not been determined, but John G. Downey (1827-1894) was a native of Ireland who came to the United States in his teens, living in Baltimore with family before he was apprenticed to a druggist in Washington, D.C.. He practiced that trade in Vicksburg, Mississippi and Cincinnati, where, at the latter, he had a drug store with a partner.
With the onset of the Gold Rush, Downey sold out his share in the business and headed to California. As for so many, prospecting yielded little, so Downey went to work for a wholesale drug company in San Francisco and dabbled as a money lender. At the end of 1850, he bought a cache of drugs and medicines and shipped them to Los Angeles, where he was advised to go by James P. McFarland who became his partner in the City of Angels, opening the first drug store in the town.
The business operated for just a couple of years when it was sold, but, by then, Downey, who’d become a naturalized American citizen in 1851, entered local politics, serving on the Los Angeles Common [City] Council and the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. He was serving on the latter when Temple wrote his letter, but in September 1856 won election to the California Assembly.
In February 1852, Downey married María Jesús Guirado, whose family had a ranch in modern Whittier, though they two were childless, and that relationship would help with his future activities in real estate. This included joining Phineas Banning, Benjamin D. Wilson and others in buying part of Rancho San Pedro for a new port and town, which became Wilmington. Then, with McFarland, he foreclosed on Rancho Santa Gertrudes, whose insolvent owner, Lemuel Carpenter, killed himself as a result. On this land, Downey later subdivided his namesake town.
Volney E. Howard (1809-1889) is a remarkable figure. Born in Maine, he went to Mississippi in his early twenties to join an uncle in a law practice, but arrived to find the elder Howard died weeks before. He went ahead and was admitted to the bar and opened a practice, but he also ran a newspaper and was elected to the state legislature. Howard was, for several years, the reporter of the Mississippi Supreme Court and, in 1840, ran for governor, though he lost. After a controversy over the state’s role in a bank led to a duel in which Howard was wounded, he left for Texas, then readying for admittance into the Union.
He’d been at San Antonio for just a short time when he was elected to the convention that drafted the Texas state constitution. Resuming a law practice, which was successful, he also secured election to the House of Representatives, serving in Congress from 1850 to 1853 and resigning his seat when he was named federal attorney for land claims cases in California stemming from an act of Congress passed in March 1851. Howard came out to San Francisco and was later joined by his wife Catherine, and their many children, including sons who became lawyers.
Dissatisfied with the position, however, Howard soon resigned and opened up another law practice, specializing in land titles. One client was William Workman, specifically for a claim for the lands of the secularized Mission San Gabriel, the deed of which Workman and Hugo Reid received in 1846 at the time the Alcatraz grant was made by Governor Pío Pico.
Later in 1856, Howard got into difficulties as serious as the one that led him to flee Mississippi. A vigilance committee formed in San Francisco, ostensibly because of high crime but which also took on political dimensions that led to martial law. After Governor J. Neely Johnson ordered the committee to disband and was ignored, he appointed Howard, a vocal opponent of the vigilantes, a militia general, but he was unable to end the vigilante regime. Howard left for Sacramento and later lived in Oakland and briefly returned to San Francisco, though his anti-vigilante past was held against him and he moved south, settling in San Gabriel in 1861.
Howard raised oranges, practiced law and later was Los Angeles County District Attorney and a member of the 1879 convention that rewrote California’s constitution. He served a term as Superior Court Judge, when that new level of court was created in 1879, and then retired. He kept his residence at San Gabriel, but declining health led him to Santa Monica where he died.
Temple’s letter, apparently directed primarily to Howard because of the attorney’s extensive experience with land cases, stated that he’d noticed the article in the Star and added:
for my part, I cannot see the least shadow of right Fremont had to dispose of the island . . . Alcatras Island was granted to my father-in-law, Mr. W. Workman, in the spring or early in the summer of 1846 by Don Pio Pico, then Governor of California. A few months afterwards Mr. Workman transferred to me the original documents with a deed from him. Then Col. J.C. Fremont was in this place in 1847. I sold him the Island in the name of the U.S. (not to him as a private individual) for the sum of Five Thousand Dollars for which he gave me his bond in the name of the U.S., said amount on any part of it has never been paid (at which time I gave him the original title and transfer.
Temple went on to note that when Fremont was court-martialed the purchase was disallowed by the federal government, but now he tried to claim the island “without the slightest ground in justice.” Given the circumstances, Temple told Howard “I consider my claim to the Island still good” and asked the attorney to “examine into the merits of the case” and if recovery for Temple seemed feasible, “I will give you fifteen per cent interest in the claim, if you feel disposed to attend to the business without any further expense on my part.”
He concluded that “the Island is very valuable, and I am confident if my claim is presented Palmer Cook and Co. will have no show whatever to recover the island. By examining Fremont’s trial, I think you will see a copy of the bond he gave me.”
Notably, John H. Temple wrote, decades later, some notes concerning Alcatraz, stating that on 20 April 1848, his father “endorsed Gov. Fremont’s bond in favor of Capt. William D. Phelps which said captain took to Washington to collect . . . [but] it was not collected,” as documented in a letter F.P.F. wrote to his brother Abraham, that September. Phelps, incidentally, was captain of the bark Tasso, which brought F.P.F. Temple to California from Boston seven years before.
We’ll pick up the story soon with part three of this post, so check back for the continuation of this fascinating story!