Moving to the Siberia of Mexico Preview: The Workman and Temple Families and their Journeys to California

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Tomorrow afternoon at 2:00 p.m. will be the first in a series of presentations about the history of the Workman and Temple families and this inaugural talk concerns the first generation of family members to come to what has been called the “Siberia of México,” the far-flung department of Alta California in the far northwest of the country.

The discussion looks at the long migrations of three individuals born just a few years apart at the end of the 18th century from England and New England to California by way of other remote places, such as Missouri, northern New Mexico and the Sandwich Islands, better known to us as Hawai’i.

One of the main points is that most people on the planet never traveled very far from their birthplaces, so the moves over vast distances traveled by Jonathan Temple and the Workman brothers, David and William was very rare.  Additionally, their living in the frontier areas mentioned above reflect significant changes in these places, involving economics and politics, as well as their own individual transformations.

Jonathan Temple (1796-1866) came from English ancestry and his family settled in the Massachusetts Bay colony as early as 1636, less than three decades after the first Puritans landed in America and engaged in a long struggle against the native peoples.  Within several decades, the Temples were established in Reading, just about a dozen miles north of Boston, and where family members continued to live well into the 20th century.

An 1821 rendering of Honolulu on the Hawaiian island of “Woaroo” or O’ahu.  It was about that time that Jonathan Temple settled there, working as a merchant with William G. Dana until they both migrated to California in July 1827.

Temple, by his mid-twenties, took to the sea and sailed all the way around the Horn of South America and landed in Hawai’i.  That remote island kingdom, further removed from any other settled area than any place on Earth, had recently been united by King Kamehameha I, but, upon his death in 1819, it was plunged into a radical remaking by his successors, including his widow Ka’ahumanu and the arrival of the first Congregationalist missionaries from Boston.

As is so often the case, these missionaries were quickly followed by merchants, one of these being Temple.  He must’ve made connections in Boston and then utilized these to get to the islands, as he became the partner of William G. Dana, whose cousin Richard Henry became author of the famous Two Years Before the Mast (1835).  Dana, who was a year younger than Temple, followed his uncle, William Heath Davis, a shipowner, to seafaring.  It is said he spent a couple of years in China and one in India as part of his commercial travels, which then led him to Hawai’i.

At that early date, information about Temple’s tenure in the islands is unfortunately extremely sparse.  In September 1823, he was among several foreigners whose property was stripped from them by the High Chief Boki, governor of O’ahu, the main island in the chain.  It is not known why this punitive action was taken, though it may have been because of smuggling and contraband, which were all-too-common there and throughout the world.

Still, Temple remained in Hawai’i for another four years, during which time his partner, Dana, became the master of the brig Waverly, which was acquired by Liholiho, generally known as King Kamehameha II, and then leased to Dana.  The ship was used in the rapidly expanding trade between Hawai’i and other Pacific Rim trading spots, including ports in California.

Jonathan Temple photo

At about the time, Temple settled in Hawai’i, the Mexican Revolution of ten years time finally ended in independence from Spain, which restricted contact with its remote possessions like California.  The new Mexican empire, quickly replaced by a republic, embarked on a more open policy, however, so trade with foreigners began almost immediately during the early 1820s.

Conditions were generally tense in Hawai’i as foreign influence grew, spiritually, commercially, politically, and socially, and natives grew increasingly wary of what was happening to their island kingdom, particularly as foreign diseases and alcohol began to take a dreadful toll on the indigenous population.

Details are lacking, but, in February 1827, Temple wrote to another New Englander with trading experience in the Pacific, Captain John Rogers Cooper, who’d settled in Monterey, the departmental capital of Alta California.  He informed Cooper that he was sailing on the Waverly in several weeks for California.  In fact, the brig landed in San Diego towards the end of July and not only did Temple decide to stay, but Dana did, as well, and both were quickly baptized into the Roman Catholic faith as an indication of their resolve to remain and establish roots.

While Dana soon relocated to Santa Barbara and later acquired the Rancho Nipomo, where his adobe house stands in the city of that name, Temple ventured north to Los Angeles and became only the second American or European to settle there.  This was in 1828, the year that William Workman was baptized a Roman Catholic in his adopted community of Taos, another outpost of the remote northern Mexican frontier department of New Mexico.

England map
In this detail of a map of England, the Workman family lived in Clifton, located within the boxed section above the county name of Westmorland (now Cumbria), and not far from the border with Scotland.

He was the younger brother of David Workman (1797-1855) and the two grew up in a frontier town of sorts, Clifton, located in the far north of England, just a few dozen miles south of the border with Scotland.  The Workman family can be traced back in that area to at least the 16th century, though the brothers’ father, Thomas, migrated to London as a young man to take up work as a glazier, probably specializing in stained glass installation.  While in that region, he married Lucy Cook, who hailed from Godalming in Surrey, southwest of London.

Thomas and Lucy returned to Clifton because he inherited property from a well-off and childless aunt and uncle and the Workmans lived in comfortable circumstances.  This included establishing funds for their two sons, which David, despite being the eldest son and heir, used first in 1817 when he took half his bequest and left for America.  At the time, the War of 1812 had only ended a couple of years before and travel and migration between England and the United States resumed briskly.

By 1819, David was in another frontier, settling in Franklin, a new town in Central Missouri, which was at the western edge of the country and joined the Union the following year through a bitterly fought compromise over the admission of states concerning whether slavery would be permitted.  This was the case in Missouri and David did own a few slaves during his thirty-five years of residence there.

David and William were trained as saddlers, making saddles, bridles and other equipage for horses, and the former established a short-lived partnership with John Nanson before running the establishment on his own.  In 1822, however, David made the long journey back to Clifton, where he cashed in on the rest of his bequest.  Even though William was the family heir after his brother left, he decided to join David in the United States.  The brothers left Liverpool and landed in Philadelphia in September and then made their way to Missouri.

Workman 1851-4
A close-up of William Workman from a daugerreotype purportedly taken in New York by Mathew Brady, who went on fame for his images of the Civil War, in 1851.

William’s stay with David was short and, in the spring of 1825, he decided to move further west.  As mentioned earlier, with Mexican independence came more openness to outside contact, including trade, with foreigners in places like New Mexico.  Three years prior, Franklin was established as the terminus for a new route, the Santa Fe Trail, that opened up migration and commerce between Missouri and New Mexico.  William joined a trade caravan the plied the route and he checked into the customs house at Santa Fe in July 1825 (that book happens to be in the holdings of the Huntington Library.)

So, the mid to late 1820s found Jonathan Temple and William Workman settling in their third countries of residence and moving to new frontiers, albeit opposite ends of the remotest regions of northern Mexico, was was in its infancy as a republic.  Naturally, the whole story can’t be told here, so, if you want to learn more about these individuals and their migrations and years in New Mexico and California, please join us tomorrow afternoon.

You can reserve a spot and get your log-in information for the Zoom-based talk here.

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