by Paul R. Spitzzeri
In summer 2018, I received a request for permission for the use of photos from the museum’s collection from Dr. Richard White, professor emeritus of history at Stanford University. Dr. White did not state what the project was for which the images might be used, but two days ago, a package was delivered to the Homestead that revealed what it was.
Dr. White’s new book, California Exposures: Envisioning Myth and History, published by W.W. Norton and Company, is a collaboration with his photographer son Jesse, and is available for sale on 17 March. The work is described as a project in which the Whites are “excavating the layers of legend built into California’s landscapes. Together they expose the bedrock of the past, and the history they uncover is astonishing.”
The approach of mining the rich soil of place through the stories of people is about as fertile and productive as any I can think of and is a method we at the Homestead use to evoke the stories of greater Los Angeles through the lives of the Workman and Temple families and their contemporaries in our interpretive era of 1830-1930.
So, it was with surprise and pleasure that, when I went to the back of the book to see the photo credit pages and learn which images Dr. White used and where, I found that, rather than see the photographs used as part of a general discussion of regional history, there is a chapter devoted to the Workman and Temple families.
Titled “Braided Rivers, Braided Lives,” Chapter 13 includes a beautiful photograph of a Latino rider on horseback in the Whittier Narrows, where the Río Hondo, the old San Gabriel River, and the current river flow through a gap between the Puente Hills and Montebello Hills. Dr. White wrote that “in the nineteenth century, Californios and Gabrieleños rode horses along this river” and noted the area included the original site of the Mission San Gabriel.
White, who lived in La Habra in his childhood, clearly feels a strong tie to our local area, including the Narrows, as part of his personal history. He observed that, though the image was taken at the Whittier Narrows Nature Center, “it [the center] does not preserve the original nature of the rivers.” Rather, “what is preserve in the enduring Mexican American presence is the Californio and Mexican American past of the region.”
Part of that history concerns the Workman and Temple families and White began his discussion of them with an observation of “intertwined destinies” between them and other local families like the Alvitres and Basyes. This includes an event that was part of our “Curious Cases” series of lectures on early Los Angeles criminal justice history: the attempted rape in September 1853 of Antonia Margarita Workman de Temple by Ysidro Alvitre, whose family was among the first Europeans to settle the Narrows and whose descendants still reside in the region.
There is also a significant discussion of what could be called the “Temple-Basye Feud” in this chapter, as well, and White’s work now provides the first published details in print form of this remarkable story (there are brief references to it in this blog and another I developed for the Misión Vieja/Old Mission area).
As Dr. White noted, in 1898, Charles P. Temple, youngest of the eleven children of Antonia Margarita Workman and F.P.F. Temple, married Rafaela Basye, who was related to Juan Matias Sánchez, co-owner with the Temples of Rancho La Merced. Rafaela, however, died very shortly afterward and her brothers accused Charles of having a hand in her passing.
James Basye, Rafaela’s brother, confronted Charles after both had been drinking. The two men pulled pistols and shots wildly fired without any serious injury, though Charles was hit in the foot. There was a trial that ended without a conviction for James and it was reported that the adversaries left the courtroom arm-in-arm in fellowship.
Whatever good feelings arose at the end of that bout, however, flared up again four years later. in summer 1902, when another of Rafaela’s brothers, Thomas, was imbibing heavily at Charles’ saloon, La Paloma, situated in one of the Temple family homes in the Narrows, at the southeast corner of today’s Rosemead Boulevard and Durfee Avenue, where the latter becomes San Gabriel Boulevard.
Charles, it was reported, sought to kick Thomas out of the establishment when the latter stuck a knife in the bar counter,” interpreted as an affront to Temple’s manhood or, possibly, that Temple’s second wife, Susana Castino, also from a local family, cheated on him. In any event, when Basye refused to clear out, Temple, claiming he was defending himself from an attack, pulled out a pistol and shot and killed his former brother-in-law.
A trial in early 1903 featured some in-depth coverage from Los Angeles newspapers, which, predictably, played up the ethnic element and family dynamics in a typically sensational style. Charles was acquitted of murder, but, as Dr. White noted, the following year, Susie Castino Temple briefly left him during one of his bouts of drinking and it was widely reported that he killed their young son, Charles, Jr.
The story proved to be false and the couple reunited (perhaps because of these difficulties, Charles sold his half of the Temple Homestead to his brother, Walter, and moved to Arizona, living with his sister, Lucinda and her husband Manuel Zuñiga for some years before returning by 1910 to the area, though he settled in Santa Monica, far from Misión Vieja.)
Dr. White turned next in the chapter to Walter P. Temple and wrote of another connection to the tightly-knit community of Old Mission, through Temple’s marriage to Laura Gonzalez, who grew up near Walter. He also relates the astounding circumstances of the discovery of oil by their eldest child, Thomas, on the land the family moved to after Walter sold the Temple Homestead in 1912 and acquired property just to the west from the estate of Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin—the irony being that Baldwin took over almost all of Rancho La Merced from the Temples and Sánchez by foreclosure of a mortgage on his 1876 loan to the doomed Temple and Workman bank.
As the chapter observed, Walter parlayed his small fortune from oil royalties into real estate, including the creation of the Town of Temple, renamed Temple City in 1928. Yet, the new town, like most areas of the region, had racially restrictive covenants limiting ownership to “caucasians” and Dr. White noted that “the usual interpretation of these covenants would have excluded his mother and brother [much less himself].”
Yet, Dr. White added that, while “it would be easy to think of the town of Temple as a rich man’s attempt to whiten himself and his family at a time when Anglos consigned people of Mexican descent to an inferior status,” Walter also made much publicly and, especially, privately, to commemorate his Latino heritage.
The example in the chapter was the building of La Casa Nueva with its romantically exuberant evocations of the California past and also mentioned was his significant contribution to the building of the Mission Playhouse at San Gabriel, which still stands and hosts live performances, but at that time hosted the very paternalistic Mission Play, celebrating the European and Catholic history of early California.
Dr. White also briefly discussed another “Workman/Temple family member to construct a bifurcated version of the family past,” this being Walter’s cousin Josephine Workman. Daughter of Joseph, son of Homestead founders William and Nicolasa, Josephine achieved some nationwide fame as silent film star Princess Mona Darkfeather, whose Indian roles were said, in many sources, to be from her personal background as a descendant of native Americans, while others openly stated she was from “an aristocratic Spanish family.” In this telling, Josephine “expropriated an Indian identity” for the purposes of entertainment.
The efforts of Walter Temple and Josephine Workman were “to make a successful transition to a new Los Angeles by playing at living in an old one,” a remarkable way of describing their lives in the first decades of the twentieth century. While Temple experienced a dramatic and devastating decline by the Great Depression, White writes that Josephine “had the softer landing” as she receded from the public eye and lived quietly until her death in 1977, when she was in her mid-nineties.
The chapter ends with the note that the family’s intersection with the California past continued on with Thomas W. Temple II, the oil discoverer who became the historian of the Mission San Gabriel [and the City of San Gabriel, having forsaken the legal profession for which he prepared by getting a degree from the prestigious Harvard Law School.] Specifically, Dr. White noted that Temple wrote a version of the life of Toypurina, an indigenous woman cast as a “a valiant one who resisted noble Spaniards before becoming reconciled to them through conversion and marriage.”
With this ending, Dr. White summarized by stating “taken as a whole, the family’s history provided a simulacrum of the development of Southern California.” In the ways he described in his remarkable chapter and in many others which the Homestead interprets through its programs and publications, print and digital, that sentence captures the essence of why the Workman and Temple families are an interesting and important case study for the history of greater Los Angeles.
California Exposures analyzes a rich variety of such examples throughout the Golden State and in ways which provide different lenses in which to read the history of California. Having the Workman and Temple families play a part in the narrative is an exciting one for us at the Homestead and we hope that the book garners wide attention and interest when it goes on sale next month.
Dr. White, who has published many books is the last forty years. He is a MacArthur Foundation fellow and past-president of the Organization of American Historians, and has won many awards for his work, including four major prizes for his 1991 book, The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815. He is also a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist for The Middle Ground and for Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America, published in 2011 and the winner of a Los Angeles Times Book Prize.
To learn more about California Exposures, click here.