by John Sharpe
John Sharpe is a resident of Clifton, the northern English town where William Workman spent most of his early life and from which migrated to the United States in 1822, joining his older brother David in Missouri. John has done a great deal of valuable research on the Workman family in that area of what is now Cumbria County, but which was known as Westmorland County at the time William grew up there, and has contributed immensely to our understanding of William‘s origins and that of his family going back to the 1640s.
A native of Seascale on the west coast in Cumbria, John graduated in Classics from the University of Durham and, after early years as an academic, he spent most of his professional life in public service and “retired” in the 1990s with ambitions to travel and write. The many biographical projects that have engaged his attention include the spectacular story of two incomparably adventurous young men from the little green fields of an old English village who realised their destiny amid the vast plains and deserts of the early American West.
This is a three-part post [actually, there are more than three, so look for those!] providing a highly interesting and particularly informative introduction to the Workman family, the Westmorland area, and broader contexts in England and the United States. Look for additional posts in the coming weeks and enjoy this first entry and John’s fascinating explanation of the origins of William Workman and his family!
George III was King of England from from 1760 to 1820. The long reign that lost the American colonies spanned events leading up to an enterprise that was to take brothers David and William Workman from the little green fields of an old English village to the vast plains and deserts of an American West whose history they would help make.
Britain by the 1760s was pre-eminent among European powers with territorial interests in North America; but her possessions along the New World’s eastern seaboard were developing an identity and culture of their own, and becoming increasingly resentful of the old country’s efforts to control them and prevent further expansion into Indian territory to the west of the Appalachian Mountains.
The spiralling differences between the American colonists and their imperial masters in London led inexorably to violence and precipitated the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Years of bitter warfare between George Washington’s resolute settlers and British redcoats over three thousand miles from home ended when King George conceded defeat on terms that were ratified by the Treaty of Paris in 1783.
The transatlantic peace that followed came to an end in 1812 when the United States declared war on Britain in retaliation for perceived British interference with American shipping and, to a lesser degree, for alleged British complicity in Indian hostilities on the western frontier. While Britain with its dominant sea power probably had the advantage, the last casualties fell in a United States victory at New Orleans in 1815; the young nation had successfully defended its rights and among its citizens there was a renewed spirit of national unity and optimism.
Meanwhile, men like Daniel Boone had led restless Americans west to a new frontier at the Mississippi River. In 1803 the Louisiana Purchase from France of over eight hundred thousand square miles of little known territory between the Mississippi and the Rocky Mountains had almost doubled the size of the American Republic. Anxieties about the dangers and opportunities that lay among the Rockies and beyond had sent explorers Lewis and Clark on their monumental expedition to the Pacific coast from 1804 to 1806, while an enormous area in the west that would eventually fall into American hands and become states of the Union, including California and New Mexico, was still a part of the territory of Mexico, which itself was a colony of Spain until achieving independence in 1821.
The native hunter-gatherers of the future Los Angeles area of southern California saw their first European visitors in 1769. Spanish army captain Gaspar de Portola and his party of explorers and missionaries were impressed with this sunny land by the Pacific shore, and Spain soon began to colonize the region, building Mission San Gabriel Arcangel in 1771 and founding El Pueblo de Los Angeles ten years later.
Los Angeles had just over three hundred residents by the year 1800. An American vessel put in at nearby San Pedro in 1805 in defiance of a Spanish law prohibiting trade with foreigners, and the first English-speaking settler at Los Angeles was one Joseph (Jose) Chapman, who landed in 1818 and was briefly imprisoned as a pirate but released when his skills as a carpenter were recognized by the locals and put to good use in the construction of their church in the plaza. Legendary fur trapper Jedediah Smith reached Mission San Gabriel from far-off Missouri in 1826, and in 1829 a young Kit Carson visited the mission with trappers from New Mexico, finding it a “paradise on earth”, with its fields and vineyards tended by Native Americans who were watched over by a priest and a few soldiers.
Back in 1818, when Joseph Chapman arrived in the little settlement of Los Angeles, a similar-sized farming community six thousand miles away in the English county of Westmorland – the village of Clifton – was losing a young villager called David Workman to an adventure that would ultimately take him too to the City of the Angels.
Clifton already had a thousand-year history. The Romans and even earlier people knew the area well. The village’s old church stood opposite the peel tower that was a reminder of medieval Scottish raids; and the north-south turnpike road past David’s home had seen tumultuous events in 1745, when Crown forces clashed with Jacobite rebels under Prince Charles Edward Stuart to give Clifton the doubtful distinction of hosting the last military encounter on English soil.
This was the time of “mad” King George and the Regency, but affairs of state were three hundred miles away in London. The seat of power, as far as the villagers of Clifton were concerned, was just three miles down the road at Lowther, ancestral home of the aristocratic family of that name who had held the ancient manor of Clifton since the 17th century.
With its feudal undertones, the manorial system of land tenure had a lot of potential for dissatisfaction among tenants. One of the last, and most notorious, of the exponents of the feudal system that for centuries had bound the landowner and his tenants in the English countryside would still have been fresh in the memory of David Workman’s father, Thomas. This was Sir James Lowther, later to be first Earl of Lonsdale (1736-1802), who was only fourteen years of age on succeeding to the vast family estates in Westmorland, and who just four years afterwards inherited the great wealth of his namesake, Sir James Lowther of Whitehaven in the neighbouring county of Cumberland. The Lowther wealth was founded on coal and iron and on the family’s development of the town of Whitehaven into one of the foremost seaports in the north of England. It is said that before he was twenty, Sir James Lowther was one of the richest individuals in England.
Whitehaven, incidentally, had long had trading links with American ports and many of the town’s ships were lost during the War of Independence. Lowther’s natural interest in the course of the war would have been heightened by the attack on Whitehaven’s harbour by John Paul Jones, “the father of the US Navy”, on the night of April 22nd 1778. Scots-born Jones, who had begun his naval career at Whitehaven before settling across the ocean in Virginia, and winning one of the first commands in the infant Congressional navy, was using his local knowledge of England to strike a spectacular blow for the United States.
In politics Sir James was unmatched. Having got himself into Parliament as member for Cumberland when he was barely twenty-one, he eventually controlled a total of nine parliamentary seats and married the daughter of the Marquis of Bute, a former Prime Minister of England. While the marriage itself was a failure, the arrangement did his social status no end of good, without curtailing his amorous adventures. His master-stroke came in 1781, when he nominated a twenty-one-year-old London barrister for the Appleby in Westmorland seat, and the young man (who had never seen Appleby) soon became even better known than Sir James himself, as William Pitt the Younger, Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1782 and Prime Minister in December the following year at the age of twenty-four. Sir James’s elevation to the peerage as the first Earl of Lonsdale followed within weeks.
The noble earl’s legendary adroitness in the political sphere was matched by his capacity for extreme parsimony, most notably towards his own staff. John Wordsworth (the poet William’s father) was nearly ruined by the earl’s constant objection to paying for his services as a law agent, and Lowther carpet factory manager Daniel Bloom suffered thirty years of inescapable penury for the same reason.
The next Earl of Lonsdale was a much more benevolent individual, who paid off with interest the long-standing debt owing to the Wordsworth family; but the same old power structure and essentially feudal system of land tenure were still in place in Westmorland in the early 19th century, when Thomas Workman occupied real estate under Lowther manorial influence. There was no place at Clifton for the concept of equality so eloquently expressed in the American Declaration of Independence.
That said, the Workman family was long established in north Westmorland and had fared well by the standards of the time, as owners of a farm called Brownhow with a sizeable spread of land at the south end of the parish of Clifton. A Christopher Workman (Christopher, incidentally, was a favourite Lowther family name in the 17th century) farmed there in the 1640s, and a descendant called Thomas Workman who was born at Brownhow in the year 1694 inherited the estate on the death of his father in 1727. In 1728 thirty-four-year-old Thomas married Anne Bateman from the neighbouring parish of Lowther, and their offspring began a tendency among members of this enterprising Brownhow family to travel far from home for their betterment.
Thomas and Anne Workman would have three sons and three daughters. By the time their eldest son Thomas inherited Brownhow in 1763, second son Miles was already living in distant London, and the youngest, William, left home soon afterwards for bustling Newcastle-upon-Tyne, where he married a young lady with family connections in the church and took holy orders in 1768. William was just nineteen years of age when he took a £30 bequest from his father’s will and deserted his ancestral homelands in rural Westmorland for the teeming streets of the fast-growing port of Newcastle. This eighty-mile move to the other side of the country must have been the talk of the neighbourhood in 1763. While William’s early elevation to the priesthood showed he was no ordinary son of the land, his departure from Clifton would surely have been tinged with regret. That he never forgot the village of his birth was made plain when a grandson born in Northumberland in 1838 was given the Christian names Thomas Clifton – and Clifton was preserved as a Christian name among Canadian descendants right down to the 1940s.
At Clifton, meanwhile, what was to prove a truly momentous event in Workman family fortunes had taken place at the ancient village church on May 19th 1762, when twenty-nine-year-old Thomas of Brownhow married Agnes Harrison, a member of a local family of landowners and lawyers, whose elder brother David was their father John’s heir to a substantial amount of real estate in the village. Thomas and Agnes Harrison Workman’s first child was Thomas, born in December 1763 and destined to be the father of the two US emigrants David and William. Daughter Agnes, who came on the scene in 1767, was followed in 1772 by little John Harrison, who only lived a few days, and the last-born was Rachael in March 1776.