by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Benjamin Davis Wilson (1811-1878) was one of the most prominent residents of greater Los Angeles in the first quarter century after the American seizure of Mexican California. He came to the area with the Rowland and Workman Expedition of late 1841 and told an interviewer at the end of his life that his plan was to go immediately to China, but he literally missed the boat at Monterey and returned south.
Wilson acquired the Rancho Jurupa near modern Riverside, married Maria Ramona Yorba, daughter of the powerful ranchero Bernardo Yorba, who owned most of today’s northeastern Orange County and had two children by her, Maria, who married James deBarth Shorb, and Juan Bautista. Ramona Yorba died young and Wilson married widower Margaret Hereford, by which he had two more daughters.
A city council member, second mayor of Los Angeles, county supervisor and three-term state senator, Wilson was also a federal Indian agent and though his published views were advanced for the era, descendants of local natives view Wilson with suspicion because of the way he acquired his signature property, Lake Vineyard, from Victoria Reid, a well-regarded native with positions of great responsibility at Mission San Gabriel and among the Indians.
In about a quarter century, Wilson’s Lake Vineyard was a showpiece, because of the namesake fruit and the quality of the wine and brandy made there, as well as the orange groves and other farm products. Mount Wilson in the San Gabriel Mountain range above his ranch was named for him and he built a toll road that is still used as a hiking trail to the mountain. The Mount Wilson Observatory, opened in the first years of the 20th century, became a world-famous site of important astronomical discoveries.
Wilson was a close friend of William Workman and Workman’s son-in-law, F.P.F. Temple, dating back to his meeting the former in New Mexico and traveling with him to Los Angeles. The two men were part of a double marriage in February 1844, worked together to assist Pío Pico become governor by revolt the following year, and Workman was instrumental in getting Wilson and other Americans and Europeans released after they were captured at Chino by Californios during the Mexican-American War.
During greater Los Angeles’ first period of significant and sustained growth in the mid-1870s, Wilson created the Lake Vineyard subdivision and Temple was the treasurer of the development company for that project. The two had something else in common: they had sons born in the same year, 1846. Temple’s first child, Thomas Workman Temple, was born in late November and about a month after that, Wilson’s only son, Juan Bautista, arrived.
John, as he was commonly known, had all the privileges a child could have in mid 19th century greater Los Angeles. Wilson was a man of large property and significant wealth, as well as a political figure of prominence. Lake Vineyard was a particularly beautiful property and had all the markings of an idyllic place to grow up. John received a private education. It appears he was being groomed to assist his father in business, especially the management of ranch properties.
Sadly, the young man drifted, as many did at the time and especially in wine country with Los Angeles being a principal viticultural region in California, into alcoholism at a very young age. Not much is known of his struggles, though there is evidence that he had problems handling tasks given to him to establish a foundation in business.
On 25 March 1870, when he was just 22 years old, Wilson got into a very public conflict with Charles E. Beane, the editor of the Los Angeles News. Apparently, the two had been drinking and got into an argument about politics. Interestingly, Beane was born in the North, but fought for the Confederate Army during the Civil War, while Wilson’s father was from Tennessee, but young Wilson and Beane decided to settle their differences in one of the few recorded instances of a duel in Los Angeles.
After Wilson issued the challenge, the two men headed out to the Arroyo Seco, the creek running from the San Gabriels above Pasadena and emptying into the Los Angeles River. They ventured just beyond the city limits, which in those days was probably near modern Highland Park. The location specifically mentioned gardens, so it might have been Sycamore Grove, which is now a park on the banks of the arroyo.
As was part of the tradition, each man had a second and a doctor was present, as well. The incident was reported upon and then reprinted in newspapers throughout the country. The ground was measured off, the men were instructed to walk thirty paces, and then
Upon giving a certain order, each was to wheel and fire. With the first signal both turned, but Wilson raised his rifle the quickest and pulled the trigger; the cap snapped and Beane generously refused the advantage. The piece was reloaded, and again the signal was made, when both wheeled and fired. Wilson dropped his rifle, having been shot through the left arm—flesh wound. Beane was unhurt. The quarrel was made up on the field. No arrests.
Each men presumably could leave the dueling grounds with a sense of honor intact, but Beane’s magnanimity might also have galled Wilson, who was perhaps lucky to have walked away with his life. It bears noting that his father was serving in the state senate at the time. So, the publicity of the younger Wilson’s duel might have reflected badly on his father.
Whether or not the duel was a major factor, the alcoholism was almost certainly a major reason why Juan Bautista Wilson, just a few weeks from his 24th birthday, took a room at the Bella Union Hotel, the oldest hostelry in Los Angeles, and shot himself in the head. Perhaps because of the influence of his father, there was almost no mention in the press of the tragedy.
Tonight’s highlighted artifact from the Homestead’s collection is a carte de visite photograph of Wilson, taking probably about the time of the duel and suicide and which came with a donation of Workman and Temple family photographs and documents by Ruth Ann Michaelis, a great-grandaughter of F. P. F. Temple.
The photo, taken by early Los Angeles photographer Steve A. Rendall (perhaps best known for his panoramic, multi-shot view of Los Angeles in 1869), shows a bearded Wilson in a pose that almost looks like he was ready to duel. Wearing his long dark coat open and his right hand stuffed in his pocket while an enormous pipe is sticking out of his mouth, Wilson leans casually against an ornately ornamented rail, while part of a love seat and drapery are at the left to lend a touch of class to the studio set-up. In fact, the image is partly blurred as if the subject couldn’t stand still.
Presumably, Wilson sent the photo to his close friends in the Temple family, whether it was one of the children of F.P.F. Temple and Antonia Margarita Workman who were of his generation is not known. It survives as one of the few known images of this tragic figure who seemingly had all of the advantages life could bring, but brought about a terribly lonely death in a hotel room while just in his early twenties.