by Paul R. Spitzzeri
As the 19th century came to a close, three of the principal characters in our continuing story about the tangled tale of Alcatraz Island and its ownership passed away. The first was John C. Frémont, the fascinating and flawed “Pathfinder,” who tried to purchase the island from F.P.F. Temple in March 1847, only to see the United States Army court-martial him for many reasons, including the acquisition, and then tried for decades to make a personal claim for Alcatraz, despite the government’s seizure of it for military purposes. Frémont died in New York City in July 1890 at age 77, soon after which his widow and indefatigable champion, Jessie Benton Frémont, moved to Los Angeles.
At the end of February 1891, the San Francisco Examiner published a lengthy front-page article with the headline “Fremont Owned Alcatraz.” The piece began by stating that, as Mrs. Frémont was unable to talk to a reporter from a seaside cottage at Santa Monica, a daughter, Elizabeth did so, claiming “I am fully familiar with the circumstances of the claim my father maintained on the ownership of Alcatraz Island.”
She went on to state, “it is really one of our great family treasures . . . and thought that the Government had not treated us rightly in the matter.” She then presented a document prepared by her father and dated 1 December 1885. In it, Frémont said he was first aware of Alcatraz because of reading about it in a volume of the explorations of Captain George Vancouver of the British Navy. He added that an unnamed French consult was about to buy the island until “I intervened and purchased it for the United States.”
After noting the government’s decision to court-martial him and decline the acquisition, Frémont stated the island was granted “in the usual form” by Pío Pico, though it is not stated that this was done for William Workman. He did add that he bought Alcatraz from “Francis Plinio Temple, a Mexican citizen residing at Los Angeles . . . Don Pio Pico still resides there.”
Frémont also stated that “in the course of business,” the bond he gave to Temple went to Captain William D. Phelps, whose ships plied the route between Boston and California many times in the era. Temple, as noted earlier, wrote his brother Abraham in 1848 to this effect, but only as Phelps being an agent who would receive a commission for the funds received. It was claimed, however, that no monies changed hands at that time.
So, according to Frémont, “in 1856, I settled with him [Phelps] by notes, which I afterward paid and took up the bond, paying the principal and interest. This was done through Mr. Simon Stevens of New York.” In a transcript of this article, typed up probably in the early 1900s, there is a pointed marginal note on this claim: “No— Not so! A Lie.” Who wrote this rejoined is not, however, known.
The Pathfinder continued that he learned of some $8 million in fortifications made by 1859 (the total was actually nowhere near that amount), when he filed a suit of ejectment against two Army engineers (including Zealous Tower, mentioned earlier) at work on the improvements, but withdrew it on the advice of an attorney that any action would have to be against the United States. Frémont, though, did not say why he chose not to refile.
What he did say is that he did not pursue action until he approached Congress the session before the one during which he wrote this account, though, as we have seen, he did engage in contacts with ex-governor of California John G. Downey and/or F.P.F. Temple from at least 1860 onward. He said his very powerful father-in-law, Senator Thomas H. Benton of Missouri, pressed him to submit a claim, with Frémont citing Benton’s statements as somehow definitive.
As the most valuable island in America, according to Frémont, Alcatraz was taken from him by the federal government and, because
no other occupant or claimant has eve intervened between my acquisition of title and the forcible occupancy by the Government . . . my title is perfect, and the obligation of the Government to pay for the property is undeniable.
Frémont’s daughter, when asked by the reporter, attested to the truth of the document’s statements, adding that her brothers were taking up the mantle of pursuing a claim. She was then asked a further question, which elicited a further response, “yes, the Rev. Mr. Covert is interested with us” in the idea of continuing the fight.
This apparently caught the eye of John H. Temple, who, with William W. Jenkins, acquired by deed at the end of 1880 the interest in Alcatraz of his mother, Antonia Margarita Workman de Temple, daughter of William Workman and widow of F.P.F. Temple. John H. Temple, owner of the Homestead for a few years, sent two letters to Covert in late April 1891, and received a reply on 4 May.
Covert, a Church of God minister of note, was affiliated with Findlay College (now the University of Findlay) in Ohio, answered that “I most certainly agree with you that Plinio Temple did not receive a grant from the Mexican Government for Alcatraces Island. But ‘Julian’ (you say William) Workman did on June 8, 1846, from the Governor Pio Pico.”
The minister then inquired
But did not Julian Workman sell or dispose of the grant to Plinio Temple and did not Francis Plinio Temple sell the Island to Gen. John C. Fremont? Did not Gen. Fremont give his bond to F.P. Temple and did not he (Temple) afterwards dispose of this bond so that it fell into the hands of William D. Phelps, at that time master of Ship trading? Did not Fremont lift the bond by notes which he afterwards paid with interest?
Continuing that this was what Covert knew (not covertly!) of the matter, he added that, if F.P.F. Temple had not sold the island to Fremont, then John H. Temple would have inheritance. Covert then asked if Pico was still alive, whether there were any documents showing a transfer of the island from Workman to F.P.F. Temple, and if John Temple had a copy of the grant. If not, the minister concluded, “I will send you one by return mail,” clearly having been given one by the Frémont family.
On 28 February 1893, John G. Downey executed a straw deed (for $5) with William W. Jenkins, in which the aging former governor gave Jenkins one-third of Downey’s half interest, acquired from F.P.F. Temple back in the late 1850s, in Alcatraz. The documents listed the chain of interest as derived in deeds from Temple to his wife, from her to Jenkins, and from Jenkins to Downey, as well as a specific reference to “an undivided one-half of the undivided one-half interest in said Island as deed to the said John G. Downey by F.P.F. Temple.”
On 17 September, Jenkins wrote out a receipt, acknowledging that he received seventeen “divers papers relating to the ownership of Alcatras or Bird Island.” It was also stipulated that, if a successful claim on the island was made by Jenkins, the ex-governor would receive a quarter of all proceeds, in money or land, without incurring any expenses. On 1 March 1894, however, Downey died, making him the second of three significant actors in this drama to depart this life in the last decade of the century.
A month-and-a-half later, on 16 April, Pío Pico dictated a statement in Spanish, likely on the urging of Jenkins, John H. Temple or a legal representative of one or both of them, on the grant of Alcatraz, asserting:
By virtue of the power vested in me [as governor of Alta California], and by reason of the services rendered by Señor Julián “William” Workman, I granted to said Julián “William” Workman the title of the Island denominated “Alcatraz” situated in the Bay of San Francisco, known at that time as “La Yerba Buena.”
Those unspecified services may well have been the assistance Workman gave, as captain of the extranjeros (foreigners, meaning Americans and Europeans) comprising part of an armed force gathered by Pico, as head of the California legislature, in his conflict with Governor Manuel Micheltorena in early 1845. This led to the so-called Battle of Cahuenga in present Universal City in which little fighting transpired but Micheltorena yielded the governorship to Pico. After that, Pico issued several grants to Workman and others, including an expanded Rancho La Puente; the lands of Mission San Gabriel; San Clemente Island; and, of course, Alcatraz. Of these, only the new grant for the enlarged La Puente remained in Workman’s hands.
On 16 September 1894, Pico, who lived to the remarkably advanced age of 93, died at his home in Los Angeles, the third of the key characters to pass on in that decade. The last document of note for this post in the 19th century is one dated 21 February 1899, on which Jenkins wrote John Downey Harvey.
Harvey, it will be recalled, was the son of John G. Downey’s sister, Ellen, and her husband, William H. Harvey, who was enlisted in 1860 by Frémont, Downey and F.P.F. Temple to pursue a claim for Alcatraz to the federal government on their behalf, Harvey being a registrar for the United States Land Office in Los Angeles at the time. While the elder Harvey died soon after, in August 1861, his son, John D., wound up being, with his mother, the heir of Downey, who died childless.
Consequently, Jenkins wrote Harvey, who was living in San Francisco, to say that “I have endeavored many times to get something done in the matter of Alcatraz or Birds’ Island. Now I am anxious to do something in the next Congress.” He went to claim that he owned 7/12 of the island, while Harvey, by virtue of his inheritance, had a 3/12 stake.
Jenkins asked, “what do you propose to do in the matter, or what will you consent for me to do as to your interest?” He observed that “you like many other may think there is nothing in it,” because “no one could produce the original grant” nor could anyone satisfactorily claim the remaining 2/12 interest.
Harvey, it seems, did not respond to Jenkins, so a new tack was taken in the first years of the new 20th century. That’s where we’ll pick up the next part of the story tomorrow!