by Paul R. Spitzzeri
After a brief flurry of activity in 1874 concerning the possible advancement of a claim by John C. Frémont and John G. Downey for Alcatraz Island, the matter went silent for another four years. In their correspondence, Frémont and Downey suggested that “bringing forward Mr. Workman” would strengthen their case, because William Workman was the grantee of the island in 1846 by a proclamation by Governor Pío Pico.
Yet, Workman died in May 1876 and was followed four years later by his son-in-law, F.P.F. Temple, to whom Workman gave the island shortly after the grant and from whom Frémont agreed to buy Alcatraz on behalf of the United States in March 1847.
There was, however, one piece of correspondence to Downey by Joseph C. Palmer, formerly of the San Francisco banking firm of Palmer, Cook and Company, which counted Frémont as a valued client and it appears Palmer was acting on Frémont’s behalf when the 2 March 1878 missive was written.
In it, Palmer wrote “I wish you would send me all papers and records connected with or concerning the transaction mentioned by him, viz the Alcatraz.” Evidently, Palmer quoted a letter sent to him by Frémont eight days prior, in which he wrote,
In a few days I shall go on to Washington, and I am disposed to make a final effort for the Alcatraz Island. To succeed I shall need aid and I write to ask if you can help me? I shall not push it, unless I can have your aid. A friend at Washington has just obtained permission from the Sec. of War to look over the Records at the War Dep. in order to ascertain if there are in these records any documents upon which the U.S. can found a title. I have either lost or in some way put out of my possession such title papers as I had except the receipts for purchase money and interest paid and [?] Capt. Phelps . . . There must be some where (probably at Los Angeles) some record of the Grant of the Island and also of the transfer to me. There certainly must be some evidence of the fact of the grant and the occasion for it even if the Records have been destroyed.
Frémont, then in his mid-60s and in straitened financial circumstances, found a lifeline from President Rutherford Hayes who appointed him Governor of the Arizona Territory, but it is curious that he wrote Palmer that he’d lost or “put out of my possession” his papers except for some receipts, including one purportedly paying the $5,000 to Captain William D. Phelps, who brought F.P.F. Temple’s bond east in 1848. Temple, however, denied that he’d received the payment.
In his desperation to regain his financial footing, Frémont was absent so often and, therefore, neglectful of his job that he was forced to resign as governor in 1881. Just prior to that, and eight months after Temple’s death, his widow executed an agreement that brought another figure into the Alcatraz tangle.
On 11 December 1880, Antonia Margarita Workman de Temple, for a $5 straw deed (basically a minimum payment for such a document), issued to her son John H. Temple and to W.W. Jenkins
the equal undivided two-thirds (2/3) part of that certain Island, piece, parcel or tract of land, better known and described as “Alcatraz or Bird Island” . . . being the same premises granted by Pio Pico, Governor of California, to William Workman, intending by this conveyance to convey to the parties of the second part the undivided two-thirds of my interest in said Island.
William Wirt Jenkins (1835-1914) was a truly colorful and controversial character in greater Los Angeles. Born in Circleville, Ohio, his father died when Jenkins was young and his mother married British-born George Dalton, whose brother, Henry, was owner of the Rancho Azusa, north of William Workman’s La Puente. In the early 1850s, George Dalton and his family moved to Los Angeles and young William became embroiled in a major controversy in 1856.
The 21-year old was appointed a deputy constable by a justice of the peace for the purposes of serving a writ of attachment on Antonio Ruiz in a civil matter involving a $50 debt owed by Ruiz. When Jenkins went to Ruiz’ house, he seized a guitar which led to a physical struggle, the outcome of which was that Jenkins pulled out a pistol, reached over his shoulder, and fired, mortally wounding Ruiz.
In the aftermath, a mass of enraged citizens, mostly Spanish-speakers, threatened to seize Jenkins from the town jail and lynch him, a too-common occurrence in those extraordinarily violent years in the City of the Angels. After a defense committee was formed to circumvent any mob activity, Jenkins was tried and acquitted of second-degree murder.
He later resided in several places outside of Los Angeles, including the port town of Wilmington and, in the late 1860s, on some land he and his brother Charles, just home from being the sole Angeleno to fight for the Union Army in the Civil War (blog posts here from a few years back cover Charles Jenkins’ amazing diary), on the Rancho San Antonio along the Rio Hondo.
This made Jenkins a near neighbor, a few miles downstream, of the Temples, with whom he became close in following years. After F.P.F. Temple’s death in 1880, Jenkins managed to get himself named as an administrator of the estate. Though there were soon problems with this and those letters of administration were revoked by the court, Jenkins never returned the tin deed box containing many of Temple’s papers and descendants are still in possession of the box and some of the documents nearly 140 years later.
But, because of his good standing with the Temples, specifically young John, Jenkins not only was involved with F.P.F.’s estate, but also acquired an interest in the Temple family’s lingering claim to Alcatraz.
Meanwhile, in October 1881, Frémont wrote Palmer from New York City, where he’d moved after his hapless turn as Arizona governor, and claimed that “in regard to the Alcatrases, I think that with the aid of Gov. Downey it would be carried and there will be no difficulty in making a satisfactory arrangement,” adding that a new claim could be filed at the next session of Congress. Notably, the aging Frémont turned in the missive to other financial matters pressing in court, as his prospects were still dim when it came to the his finances.
On 21 November, Palmer, from San Jose, wrote a short note to Downey, stating that he hoped to see him soon and that “if we could be at Washington after the holidays, it would be to our mutual interests.” This was presumably about Alcatraz and it is interesting both that Palmer asked Downey “please destroy this within letter after perusal” and that the former governor did not.
Whether any such trip transpired or not, Frémont then wrote Downey in March 1882, telling him that
I am about to bring before Congress my claim to the Island of Alcatrases and if possible obtain a fair payment for it. I have been informed that you understand and appreciate the justice of my claim and that you are willing to aid me in having it recognized. Proofs of the validity of the title in Mr. Temple and its derivation to myself and other information in support would doubtless be within your knowledge and all these would be necessary in prosecuting the claim.
Frémont informed Downey that he’d hired attorneys in the nation’s capital and would pay their fees out of any proceeds from a successful claim. Continuing that any help the ex-governor could render would involve time and expense, the aging “Pathfinder” added “my object in writing is therefore to ask if you would also be willing to accept in requital an interest in the results we may obtain.”
Explaining that it was expected that “my petition will be referred in the House to the Private Land Claims Committee,” then headed by California representative Romualdo Pacheco, who served in the House of Representatives from 1879 to 1883 and was also a former California governor for most of 1875, Frémont told Downey “probably you can aid us in procuring his attention to the subject, which will be important as the members are crowded with business.”
He concluded “you are probably familiar with and can obtain the chain of title from 1846. Any transcripts which you may be able to obtain would be of immediate service before the Committee.”
Nine days later, however, on 13 March 1882, Palmer wrote from Oakland a letter marked “Private'” to Downey, acknowledging receipt of a missive from the latter dated the 7th and this being three days after Frémont’s correspondence. Palmer stated that “I was under the impression that we had some written agreement with you in relation to Alcatraz . . . and a still stronger impression with the fact that I had a deed from Genl. F. to Mrs. Palmer [Palmer’s wife] for 1/2 of the property.”
Yet, Palmer continued, “I should consider his word just as sacred as his deed. I myself paid every dollar of expense in litigation of the matter,” listing some $4,000 in costs he incurred, presumably on promise from Frémont of remuneration from the proceeds of a successful claim on Alcatraz.
Adding that “I have now no misgivings as to Fremont’s acting square up in the case,” Palmer quickly noted that “if Fremont hesitates to act square with you, I’ll join you and do whatever is right in the matter.” Moreover, while Palmer wanted to realize something from the effort to get a successful claim through, he proclaimed that “I would rather have nothing than to feel there is any infidelity in Camp” and promised Downey to relay any news received from Fremont.
On 13 April, Frémont wrote Downey a lengthy missive, acknowledging the ex-governor’s letter of two weeks prior, and informing him that a petition was made to Congress and referred to a Senate committee as preliminary to a Senate vote and court proceedings. He went into a drawn-out discussion of his claim, including his court-martial in 1847 for “alleged mutinous offences” and the “alleged unauthorized purchase of ths property for and on behalf of the government” as a specific charge. These allegations were, as discussed earlier, found to be true by the military tribunal.
Frémont reminded Downey that as governor of California he “purchased from Francis Temple the Alcatraces” and that “Mr. Temple insisted upon my personal and individual responsibility in the transaction and held me personally liable.” So, he continued,
on the 24th of April 1848 Mr. Temple constituted and appointed Wm. D. Phelps his atty. in fact to collect and receive the purchase money—that I accepted and settled the order, executed my three several promissory notes in full payment for the property and the order for Temple, for which I hold Mr. Phelps’ receipt and release, and his certificate that aid notes were given in payment of said property and fully paid, and in lieu and discharge of my original bond for said purchase—that these documents, with others which I have, and other evidences which will be adduced in support thereof, constitute my claim and title to the Alcatraces.
Frémont went on to note that “I agree with you in your statement . . . that ‘there never was a more perfect grant made by the Spanish or Mexican Govt. that that made by Gov. Pico to Wm. Workman.'” Reiterating that he paid Phelps on Temple’s demand, Frémont pivoted to the need “to trace the title from the Govt. of Mexico to Mr. Temple through Mr. Workman.”
He continued by saying to Downey “I take the liberty of asking your aid and active co-operation at once . . . I am willing and hereby agree to pay you fully and liberally for such aid and service . . .” Yet, Downey apparently informed Frémont that there had been “an interchange of papers,” but this was “not within my present recollection.” The former governor was asked for copies, specifically by Frémont imploring, “please act in the matter without delay. Send me the certified copies as stated of Pico and Workman, with a statement of facts within your own knowledge as will weigh with a Committee of the Congress.”
Another notable tidbit from a short note a week later, 20 April 1882, in which a man only named as “Fitz Maurice” wrote from San Francisco to “Mrs. E. Martin,” this being the sister of Downey and widow of William H. Harvey, briefly agent of Frémont, Downey and Temple more than twenty years before in the Alcatraz matter. “Fitz Maurice” wrote Ellen Martin that William H. Palmer acquired Frémont’s interest in Alcatraz (in 1856 as noted in an earlier part) and conveyed his power of attorney to his brother Joseph before his death in 1857.
But “Fitz Maurice” stated that, “I have also discovered a recent recording, viz: a deed from Temple to his wife of 1/2 the Island recorded Nov. 6th, 1880, which said deed is alleged to have been executed January 1858.” This is also of interest because of the transaction from husband to wife was not formally recorded for twenty-two years and done so just over six months after F.P.F. Temple’s death and a month before Antonia Margarita Workman de Temple transferred her interest in the island to her son and Jenkins.
Finally, W.G. Ford, from the same address as Frémont at the time, wrote Downey in late June 1883 to ask questions about the chain of title to Alcatraz. Even though Frémont clearly laid this out in previous correspondence, Ford asked Downey about evidence of the Pico grant to Workman and of Workman’s transfer to Temple and inquired “Is Workman now living?”
Ford provided another significant bit of detail, stating an affidavit of a Colonel Folsom, probably Joseph L. Folsom, founder of the town of that name near Sacramento, “that the Record of Grants for 1846 had been burned in the fire of 1850 (major conflagrations erupted in the rapidly growing city of San Francisco in April, June and September of that year, if that’s where the records were located.)”
Next, we move to the end of the 19th century as well as the final parts played by such important actors in this drama as Frémont, Downey and Pico, so check back tomorrow.