by Paul R. Spitzzeri
If we want the latest news, many of us simply connect to a browser and check out the news feed showing often what has occurred throughout the world even just minutes ago. Before the advent of the Internet Age, we could rely on some quick reporting by television and radio stations. More distantly in time, telegraphic dispatches would send word of events, though these often then appeared in the evening or next day’s newspaper.
Tonight’s highlighted artifact from the Homestead’s collection, however, is a reminder that, before the Telegraph Age, what would be considered the latest news could take months to be transmitted long distance. The featured object is the New York Tribune, a major metropolitan newspaper in America’s largest city, and its 3 April 1847 edition.
The eight-page sheet, which cost two dollars a year for a subscription, was largely concerned with coverage of the American advance in Mexico in the war between the two republics, a conflict that can be viewed as the first imperial war in our nation’s history, though there are interesting items relating to lectures on astronomy; a short note on the London sojourn of fugitive slave Frederick Douglass, whose fame would grow in later years; the horrors of the Irish famine; and much else.
Several articles, some quite lengthy, described battles of the campaign led by General Zachary Taylor against his Mexican counterpart, Antonio López de Santa Anna, the commanding general and frequent president of that nation.
There was some other news relating to the theater of war in the far north and northwest of Mexico, specifically in New Mexico and California. With the former, a letter dated 13 January and from Santa Fe, detailed the bloodless taking of the town of El Paso”without firing a gun.” The writer then turned to a description of the region, stating that it was “far from being a barren waste” and that with irrigation, wheat, corn and onions could be profitably grown.
It was also accounted “one of the best sheep-raising countries on earth” with the potential for millions of the animals to be pastured there. It had to be added that, while the indigenous people kept the Mexicans from settling some fine valleys, “American back-woodsmen have no such fear,” and would, in time, establish themselves there. It was even asserted that gold was found and “the prospect is very flattering,” as the unnamed writer ended by proclaiming, “New Mexico will be a valuable addition to the United States, when American capital and industry are brought into it.”
Elsewhere, however, was more disturbing news forwarded by a St, Louis newspaper that, six days after the above intelligence, was confirmation of “the correctness of the news from Taos, of the insurrection and murder of Gov. [Charles] Bent, and other Americans then there.” This was four months after New Mexico was seized by an Army force led by General Stephen Watts Kearny and Bent appointed governor by the general, who headed west for California to assume command there.
Bent, who was born six days before William Workman, was a fur trapper with John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Company and established the famous Bent’s Fort in what became Colorado. He then headed south to work for the company in New Mexico and, from 1835, lived in San Fernando de Taos, south of the Indian pueblo and where Workman also resided as a merchant and distiller with John Rowland.
The dispatch went on to report that “Tirley’s distillery, or what may be termed the blockhouse, was defended for two days against the assaults of the enemy” before it was overwhelmed and seven of the eight men inside were killed, the survivor playing dead until he could escape, and among these was proprietor Simeon Turley, who settled in Taos in 1829, about four years after Workman.
When, in 1840, the Republic of Texas had designs on expanding its territory quite a distance west to the Rio Grande and named Workman and Rowland as agents of its government to prepare the way, the two quickly disassociated themselves from what became known as the Texas-Santa Fe Expedition and made plans to leave New Mexico. In a letter from 1841, Workman wrote that Turley’s competition in selling “Taos Lightning,” a potent whiskey, was a problem in he and Rowland disposing of their inventory to raise funds for their departure for California.
Given what happened to Turley and Bent, it is interesting to ponder what would have happened if Workman and Rowland stayed in New Mexico, rather than leave, though they were steadfast and determined in getting out when the situation with Texas heated up.
In any case, there were two items in the Tribune. One, published in the New Orleans Times some two weeks prior from news brought by ship, referred to an alleged Indian attack of some thirty American troops “enticed into the interior of that country by promises of friendship.” It was claimed the indigenous people tied the soldiers to trees and “cut the flesh from their bodies and forced it down their throats.”
Moreover there was an assertion “that the priests in California had poisoned the minds of the Indians and half breeds against the Americans,” but this turned out to be sheer rumor and no such massacre took place. In fact, it was the native population that suffered greatly from atrocities in the early American era, especially with the later onset of the Gold Rush.
The second piece, reprinted from the Washington Times of an unspecified date, was under the title of “Latest Intelligence from California,” but was from a letter of 25 November 1846, over four months prior, from an unnamed sailor from the Navy frigate Congress in San Diego. The content, however, is quite interesting.
The missive began with the statement, “we are still contending with the insurgents in this quarter,” referring to the initial seizure of Alta California by American forces led by Navy Commodore Robert F. Stockton and Americans living in the region, but followed by a revolt by the Californios. There were “many obstacles [which] have prevented our usual movements” since the outbreak of resistance in mid-September.
The writer continued,
At present we are preparing for a second march to the interior, and intend once more making our way into the City of the Angels, distant from this place one hundred and twenty miles. We shall of course have to encounter some difficulties and exposure in this undertaking, as the rainy season is approaching; but nothing is too great to accomplish when undertaken with such zeal as our officers and men evince. The number of our enemies has increased since I last wrote you . . . but whether they have really sufficient courage to give us fair fight in the field, is yet to be ascertained. Should their bravery prove equal to their treachery, we should have fearful foes to contend with. A want of proper management has defeated some of the Commodore’s well-digested plans for securing this territory to the United States . . . [if only] had the Commodore received the prompt cooperation of those who were entrusted with his orders.
In fact, Kearny and his men arrived in San Diego after a punishing march from New Mexico and then, on 6 December, took a terrible defensive position against Californios at nearby San Pascual, where a heavy rain allowed the defenders to use their superior horsemanship and use of the lance to utterly defeat the Americans.
The letter continued its discussion of events, reporting that “the Californians, since I last wrote you, have placed themselves under the command of Gen. [José María] Flores, a Mexican officer” who Stockton took prisoner and then paroled under promise of good behavior. Flores and his men, however, “by their atrocious conduct have again taken the field,” thought nothing was said, for example, about the high-handed behavior of Lt. Archibald Gillespie, who Stockton left to command the garrison at Los Angeles and whose curfews and other restrictions alienated the locals.
The rise of the rebellious Californios meant that “the result has been to give us much trouble and annoyance, with the loss of a few of our brave seamen, who were killed in an action recently between the enemy and a detachment from the Savannah.” This incident occurred south of Los Angeles on 8 October and the writer admitted that “the expedition from the frigate Savannah was very unfortunately planned” and “the advantages were all on the enemy’s side—they being mounted on fine horses, with some artillery, while the Americans faced them on foot with small arms only.”
The writer added, “it is strange how the party from the Savannah could ever think of getting into such a snare,” but it seems like, as at San Pasqual, the Americans greatly underestimated the skills of the defending Californios. The account went on:
They met the Californians on a plain near Domingo’s [that is, Manuel Dominguez] rancho [San Pedro], about half way from San Pedro to the City of the Angels—distant about fifteen miles from the ship; and how they were expected to overtake their foes, who were on horses, with artillery, and they on foot, with small arms, remains to be divined. This act has strengthened the courage of our enemies, and deprived us of important resources we formerly had. They [the Californios] well understand the impossibility of our pursuing them to advantage without horses or cattle, and have driven them all far into the interior, so that they have it in their power to anny and taunt us at pleasure . . .
It should be added that the neighbor to the east of Dominguez was Jonathan Temple of Rancho Los Cerritos and, while the Massachusetts native sold supplies to the Americans, his wife Rafaela Cota made sure provisions were given to the Californios engaged with the Americans in this Battle of Dominguez Rancho, as it has been commonly called.
The writer talked of the killing of one of his shipmates, William R. Manchester, at the ranch of longtime Los Angeles resident Jonathan Trumbull (Juan José) Warner, southeast of Temecula (this ranch being discussed recently here in the context of conflicts with native peoples in the region in 1851-52). He then concluded by stating, “we are going on mounting our own men . . . and that we shall all be on our march to Ciudad des los Angelos [sic], where he [Stockton] is resolved, if is life is spared, again to hoist the American flag.”
In early January at San Juan Capistrano, Stockton met with William Workman and others, who arranged an amnesty for the Californios preparing to defend Los Angeles. Several days later, after engagements at the San Gabriel River (today’s Rio Hondo) and La Mesa on a plain near Los Angeles in present Vernon, the Americans entered Los Angeles where they were met with a white flag of truce by Workman and two other men. The Mexican-American War then ended in California on 10 January.
Having objects like this issue of the New York Tribune in the Homestead’s collection allows us to have tangible and contemporary material to better interpret the story of the Workman and Temple families, in this case in the signal and vital context of regional actions during the pivotal Mexican-American War, in which family members had important parts to play.