The Workman Brothers in Missouri, Part One

by John Sharpe

A new series of posts by John Sharpe, a Workman family biographer from Clifton, England, where William and his older brother David lived in their youth, continues the amazing story of the siblings as they left their home and migrated to America. David came first, followed several years later by his younger brother, and settled on the western edge of the country in Missouri, which became a state in 1821. This first part discusses the September 1822 voyage from Liverpool to Philadelphia; William’s apparent sojourn with their sister Agnes in Baltimore; his spring 1823 trip to Franklin, the central Missouri town David had resided in for at least four years; and background on that river town where William spent two years before making his way to a new home in northern Mexico, specifically New Mexico.

Philadelphia (Brotherly Love): the name seems apt.    David and William Workman got on well enough, though their patience with each other must have been sorely tried by their long weeks of close confinement in the desperate conditions of that little wooden ship.    The brothers’ ample supply of ready cash would have won them better shipboard quarters than most of their travelling companions had to endure, but even so, the Atlantic crossing under sail was a mind-numbing test of faith and resolve that cost the life of many a hopeful emigrant from Liverpool long before the promised land of America filled the western horizon.

Born and bred in the timeless tranquillity of rural England, and used to better home comforts than most of his contemporaries at the village he had left so far behind, William probably had his first real taste of teeming city life as he waited for their ship to cast off from the Liverpool quayside; but he would still have been impressed with bustling Philadelphia, its inhabitants now numbering well over 100,000 and only three years earlier overtaken by New York as America’s biggest city.    Still, three months after leaving Clifton, his great adventure had hardly started: summer was turning to autumn and there was a long way to go yet.

Somewhere between Philadelphia and Missouri the Workman brothers went their separate ways.    Maybe the strong-willed pair really did need a break from each other after their Atlantic crossing.    More likely, the answer lay with their sister Agnes.    It was over two years since Agnes had left home at Clifton for a new life in Baltimore (Editor’s note: Agnes married John Vickers, a native of England and a Baltimore resident, at Franklin, where her brothers resided, in June 1824—see the newspaper listing here] and it is reasonable to think that one or both brothers would want to take a one-hundred-mile detour in the middle of a five-thousand-mile journey to call on their remarkably adventurous older sister, whom they might never see again.    Perhaps there was work to be done at Agnes’s American home, an early use for that box of carpenter’s tools the versatile brothers had brought across the Atlantic.

It’s tough to read this photocopy, obtained by former Homestead staff member Max van Balgooy at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., but the fourth line down on the passenger list of the packet “Liverpool” which arrived at Philadelphia on 5 September 1822 includes “David Workman & Willm Workman / Saddlers / 2 [in family] / [carrying] 1 Trunk, 1 Box of wearing apparel, one case of carpenter’s tools, bed & bedding.”

Whatever the reason for their divergence on American soil, David was back at Franklin by December of 1822, a full three months before the arrival of William, who perhaps could afford to linger because he did not have a neglected business to worry about, besides having the advantage of £100 more cash in his possession than his older brother.   If William did indeed stay on at his sister’s in Baltimore, then it would have been around the end of February when he said his farewells and set off to the far side of the young nation that would now be his homeland.   Though not long past his twenty-third birthday, one somehow suspects that William was undaunted by the prospect of that marathon into the unknown.

While he left us no account of his route from America’s east coast to distant Franklin, most likely he would have been told to make for busy Pittsburgh, where the riverboats would take him down the Ohio to the Mississippi.   Indeed, he next comes into focus as a cabin passenger on the “beautiful new steam-boat Pittsburgh & St Louis Packet” in St Louis, Missouri, one Sunday near the end of March 1823.   The ingenious river craft that so captivated the Press of the day had taken ten days to chug its way nearly a thousand miles down the meandering Ohio River from Pittsburgh, plus another hundred and fifty or so miles up the Mississippi River, against the current, to St Louis.   After laying up there for a couple of days, the little vessel was now ready for the last leg of its westward voyage, winding upriver on the Missouri to Franklin.

Having been on the move for so long, William would have watched Captain Scott’s preparations for departure from St Louis with mounting excitement.   However, as the packet battled gamely against the current at an average of three miles an hour for the next six days, its westward progress punctuated by overnight stops on the riverbank, the young adventurer had plenty of time to take in the Missouri air before he finally cleared his cabin at Franklin and contemplated a place that could scarcely have been more different from his old haunts in a far-off corner of England.

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An early reference to David Workman in Franklin, listed here with saddlery partner John Nanson for their payment of a license to conduct their business, [Franklin] Missouri Intelligencer, 10 June 1820.

Young saddler William was probably not very well acquainted with the history of his new home or the Indians who had always had two-and-a- half thousand miles of the Missouri River to themselves.   He would not have known that the first Europeans in the area had been French explorers who appeared on the Mississippi in the 17th century and claimed for France the vast area between the river and the Rocky Mountains, loyally naming it Louisiana.   Nor would he have known that in 1735 a few Frenchmen started to settle the land to the west of the Mississippi, later known as Missouri.

The future of this crossroads of America lay with people from the British colonies of the continent’s eastern seaboard, land-hungry settlers who pushed their frontier westwards against often-fierce Indian opposition and in defiance of British government policy.    The relentless movement that gave Daniel Boone (1734-1820) his place in the mythology of the West by reaching the Mississippi soon started to spread up the Missouri River; Boone himself settled a few miles up the river in 1799.

With the momentous Louisiana Purchase of 1803, legendary explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark were soon on their way up the Missouri from St Louis, and the year 1806 saw Zebulon Pike off on his monumental journey of discovery to the far south-west.   In Missouri, exploration was already starting to give way to commercial enterprise; the St Louis Missouri Fur Company, for instance, was established in 1809.   Missouri progressed to the status of a territory just three years later.

A solitary log cabin by the Missouri River was Franklin’s first manifestation of an optimistic newcomer’s conviction that the land there was his for the taking.    This was built in around the year 1810, and the place soon began to attract settlers pushing west from Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee.

With the dissolving of the partnership with Nanson, David went on his own and the following year headed back to England to retrieve both his remaining settlement money from his parents and his younger brother William, [Franklin] Missouri Intelligencer, 18 June 1821.

One hopeful migrant party that straggled into rough little Franklin early in 1811 included the Carson family from Madison County, Kentucky.    A former soldier of the Revolutionary War, widower Lindsay Carson had married his second wife, Rebecca, in 1797, and they were to have eight children by the time Lindsay was crushed to death by a falling tree branch in 1818.    Christopher, third of their four boys, was born on December 24 1809, and the hardy infant who somehow survived that long trek from the far side of Kentucky was just one year old when the family arrived in Franklin.   Kit Carson was destined to become America’s ultimate frontiersman and scout, with a military career that took him to the rank of brigadier general in the United States Army and a status in frontier folklore at least equal to that of Daniel Boone.    As the man who “led the way to the Pacific coast,” he was to give his name to Carson City, capital of the state of Nevada, and many other places in the West that would loom large in the annals of America’s inexorable 19th century expansion.

Franklin’s first tentative steps toward community life were soon interrupted when the area was much harassed by marauding Indians during the war of 1812-1815.    Many years later a much-travelled Kit Carson would recall the stories he had heard from his parents about his childhood days at Franklin when the early settlers “forted” for mutual protection in barricaded log houses and armed men had to be stationed at the ends of fields for the safety of those working in them.

The danger passed, though, and Franklin survived to be laid out on a permanent basis in 1816, and the following year saw it chosen as the seat of Howard County.    Baptist preacher John Mason Peck visited Franklin in 1818 and found a village of seventy families that he thought gave better promise of rapid growth than any other settlement on the Missouri.    By this time it was so firmly established that the first land office north of the river was located there, selling more than half a million acres in its first year at an average of about $4 an acre.

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The wedding notice for Agnes Workman, David and William’s older sister, and John Vickers, which took place on 29 June 1824 at Franklin, [Franklin] Missouri Intelligencer, 3 July 1824.

The circuit court started to sit at Franklin, and by the time David Workman first arrived in 1819 the little town could boast some wide streets and a two acre public square.    The Missouri Intelligencer, the first newspaper to get into print west of St Louis, started publication at Franklin in April 1819, and a Masonic Lodge was founded there not long afterwards.    David had already been introduced to freemasonry back in England, and was not slow to recognize the advantages of transatlantic membership.   The Who’s Who of Franklin Union Lodge at Old Franklin, Missouri, 1822-1832, has the following entry:

  WORKMAN, DAVID: Was listed as a fellow craft when visiting the lodge in December 1822; member of an English lodge; an Englishman and a Santa Fe trader; was the first witness in the Ranney case in 1825; Senior Deacon, 1825; petition to withdraw, 1826; was one of the incorporators of New Franklin, 1833; Kit Carson was apprenticed to him as a saddler.”  (Courtesy of the Masonic Service Association of Missouri)

Visiting Franklin in 1819, Western traveller and writer Edwin James found a town “increasing more rapidly than any other on the Missouri,” with about 120 single-storey log houses, several dwellings of two storeys, thirteen shops, four taverns, two smiths, a courthouse and log prison, a post office and a weekly newspaper; but the town’s big event of the year was the arrival of “the elegant steamboat Independence…..being the first steamboat that ever attempted ascending the Missouri,” according to the Missouri Intelligencer.

David had reached Franklin at a promising time, perhaps even as a passenger on that very first steamboat.   He was also just in time to see the catastrophic bank crash of 1819, America’s first experience of “boom and bust” as massive borrowing against the country’s limitless future produced dubious banks with a virtual licence to print money, fuelling a credit expansion that was bound to collapse.    Many Americans lost their livelihoods and new immigrants faced starvation, but David luckily had that source of cash back in England.

When Missouri became a state of the union in 1821, its tradesmen were still reeling from the financial panic, but with a population around 1,700 Franklin had reached its best days by the time William arrived in 1823.    Later that year the county seat moved north to Fayette, which was nearer the geographical centre of Howard County.    This took away some of Franklin’s leading citizens, but the majority continued to stand by the “old” town until the spring of 1828, when the Missouri River burst its banks in a terrible flood and most of the town was swept away.   After the flood, Old Franklin was abandoned and New Franklin was founded about two miles away.    Two years later steamboat navigation would push another hundred miles upriver to a new terminus at Independence, eventually to be the jumping-off place for California and Oregon.

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An early reference to the membership of David Workman in a masonic lodge. William was later a member of two lodges, one in Los Angeles and the other in El Monte, from the mid-1850s onward. [Franklin] Missouri Intelligencer, 18 June 1825.

The Spanish Empire’s policy of barring its colonies from trade with foreigners had long obstructed commerce between Mexico and the United States, although this had not stopped a few of Missouri’s enterprising citizens from succumbing to the lure of profit from distant New Mexico.   The unlucky ones who had been caught in the act had found themselves languishing in squalid Mexican jails, so it was with alarm that a party of American traders moving quietly into New Mexico early in 1821 sighted a patrol of Mexican soldiers.  Their fears, however, proved groundless, for this time, to their surprise, they were welcomed.   After three centuries of Spanish rule, Mexico had declared its independence shortly before, in February, and would become a republic a few months later. 

Trade between Franklin and exotic New Mexico, newly independent of Spain, began in earnest, and the local newspaper could soon get excited about preparations for a regular mule caravan over the Great Plains to Santa Fe:

The town of Franklin presents a busy, bustling and commercial scene, in buying, selling and packing goods, practising mules, etc, etc, all preparatory to the starting of the great spring caravan to Santa Fe.   A great number of our fellow citizens are getting ready to start, and will be off in the course of a week on a trading expedition.   We have not the means of knowing how many persons will start in the first company but think it probable the number will exceed 150.   They generally purchase their outfits from the merchants here at from 20 to 30 per cent advance on the Philadelphia prices, and calculate to make from 40 to 100 per cent upon their purchases.   They will generally return in the fall.

We wish them a safe and profitable trip, a speedy return to their families and homes in health, and they may long live to enjoy the profits of their long and fatiguing journey of nearly one thousand miles, through prairies inhabited only by savages and wild beasts.

Thus, the Franklin that William found when he got off that riverboat in 1823 was the classic American boomtown.   David’s trip back to England for the rest of his share of the £800 had taken him away from his business for months on end, but forgotten at Franklin he was not.    He now had the energetic William to help him keep the order book moving, and in 1824 he took on a fourteen-year-old apprentice as well.    Raised on the crude Missouri frontier and with no education worth the name, the boy had suffered the tragic loss of his father before he was ten and was a bit on the small side for his age, but he did have a spark that appealed to the discerning Workman eye.    The lad was Kit Carson.

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