The Workman Brothers in Missouri, Part Three

by John Sharpe

This concluding third part of this post on the brothers David and William Workman in Missouri looks at a trio of letters sent to them by their sister Mary and their father Thomas in 1829, 1834, and 1835. The first was addressed to David, but had a specific request concerning William. The second was also sent to David and concerned him and his family, though Mary lamented a lengthy silence from William and their sister Agnes Vickers, a resident Baltimore. The last included missives from Mary and Thomas and both were addressed to David and William, with Mary reproaching William for his “supposition of our not writing” and which “grates not a little upon our ears,” then reminding him him that “we have been so excessively dutiful in writig every year.” The great distance separating the family and the passing of years between contact was obviously very difficult for everyone. The Homestead thanks John for writing these remarakble posts which helps give us a good grounding on the Workman family history prior to the settling of William in California in 1841, followed nearly fifteen years later by that of his brother and his family. As we end the series, we can share the news that we are talking to John now about his giving a virtual presentation on the Workman family in England and we’ll share further details on our website ( as we finalize details.

David and William’s mother, Lucy, died at Clifton in 1830, not long after David’s marriage; news of each event, however, would take an age to cross the Atlantic.  Letter writing was not David’s strong point, while delivery at such a distance was always dependent on the vagaries of an unreliable postal service, and it was a miracle that any mail at all got through between the northern English village and the little settlement on the Missouri river.  Touching family letters from Clifton that somehow survived the horny hands of all those stagecoach men, Atlantic sailors and riverboat crews to reach America’s Midwest were treasured by David, like the fond memories of his old home in England that he passed on to his children (with surprising results) many years later.

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In 1827, a flooding of the Missouri River destroyed most of Franklin, where David and William had lived, and a New Franklin was established further removed from the watercourse. This ad discusses the newly established town and David Workman listed as one of nine founding trustees. Missouri Intelligencer and Boon’s Lick Advertiser, 8 August 1828.

On New Year’s Day 1829 twenty-year-old Mary Workman begged David to forward her letter to William, who moved to Taos, New Mexico in spring 1825, so that he would “know by an English pen the state of your Mother’s health, and her great wish to see you all once more.”    In the autumn of 1834 she made another eloquent appeal for news from her brother, so sadly missed.   How astonishing it is to think that this educated young lady was wielding her quill at Clifton while the long-gone sibling was thousands of miles away at New Franklin, a place in its infancy that had not long given up its perilous frontier status.   David kept Mary’s letters, even when he crossed the plains at the head of a wagon train to California twenty years later, and eventually they came into the possession of a great-grandson.                  

Envelope addressed:   Mr David Workman


                                    Howard County                By the way of New York

                                    Misoura State                    Post Paid

                                    North America

                                                                      Clifton, September 12th, 1834

My dear Brother David,

             We have received this day, fortnight past, a portrait of yourself, wife and child [Thomas Harrison Workman, born September 27th 1832], but not a word of intelligence how they came to England; not a word or line concerning either yourself, brother or sister!  How we have groped that tin case[the Penrith mail drop] and newspapers, and one after the other giving up the fruitless search – only the date of the year in which you were drawn to be found (small as it is); it silently says that at some time in the year of 1834 you were in being, more, in glowing health and good circumstance and had your likeness taken together with your wife and child.  An admirable one indeed.  Lucy instantly recognized you, the rest of us had to recal our wandering sences of what you were, but she without thought said it is our David; do you not see my Mother’s forehead, her eyes, her mouth and her chin?  Not one of us had those features but him.  Oh, do you not then remember his little noze?  Why, Moll, it is the very twin snout to your own.  These addresses were more than sufficient to bring your image full to our minds.  You are a right handsome fellow; with your wife we are perfectly at home; here is a young woman living in the neighbourhood her accurate likeness, and several who are like her in one or other of her features; she has been much admired for her beauty and affectionated motherly aspect.  The little cherub of a child, we all longed to caress it for your sakes, even my father said he could do with that little fellow.  As soon as the news arrived at Penrith, your old Master and Mistress came to see you and were highly gratified, drank your health and rejoiced over you as if you had been their own child.  He noted down in his old pocket book the day, the month and the year in which he had the extreme pleasure of seeing the portraits of his favourite apprentice, David Workman, together with that of his wife and child, observing that you did not drive many nails now.  It is my intention to return your favour and draw his picture with that of my father and send them the first opportunity.

Brother, it is now 4 years since either we have ever heard from you, William or Agnes.  It is extremely strange.  If you do not write, you will see some of us soon.  We are all in the enjoyment of good health.

                                       Remaining your affectionate sister,

                                                           M. Workman                           

Mary and the rest of her anxious family would have “groped that tin case and newspapers” for many more months before they were rewarded with a response from David’s wife, Nancy.   That her heartfelt plea for news bore fruit is apparent from her elderly father’s almost equally affecting letter of late in the following year:

David & William,

It gives us joy to hear of your good health after so many years & trouble to us in not hearing of you, although letters have been sent yearly by Mail and as many more by such as Mr Noble’s son of High How [A farm near Clifton from which two young men emigrated to the US not long after the Workman brothers].   I look upon it the Postmaster Packet the ………as we once proved.   You need not think you are forgotten for you are daily prayed for & as David is a bad scribe, Mrs Workman [Nancy] is a good one.   Tell my daughter in law to send an account what men D. keeps and other matters that their friends may ……….    Mrs W. is an acute shrewd lady and one for this world & a happy one hereafter.   We received two Likenesses in a tidy fine Sh … p Bag without a letter or who brought them, which I thought very strange.   Your cousin John Chester is in Maryland & wrote to Agnes twice without an answer, although we know she got his.   I have a quite different opinion of Vickers [John Vickers, Agnes’s husband].   I take him to be a gloomy, sulky hound.   I have no notion of your going to the Falklands Isles* where there is nothing but a few ………… and Sandle wood to trade with.   It’s like going round the world to come home & by Cape Horn to.   You would have been a welcome guest this winter without staying at Franklin & I would have returned with you not doubting I would have made it pay.  ………… is Numbers of our Neighbours with large Property & others settled in the Ohio & all doing well within three years.   We only recd one Letter since your good Mother’s death.   Hoping that you write at all opportunities & give us some News of the Country & how far the Settlements up the Missoury extend is the wish

Of Your Sincere Father & well wishes,

Thos Workman

[Postscript] John Chester is a man that will get on I guess

Perhaps there was some confusion between the Falklands/South Sandwich Islands and the Hawaiian (formerly Sandwich) Islands. American interest in Hawaii was increasing in the 1830s [editor’s note: Jonathan Temple was there the prior decade, just after Americans arrived there, and then relocated to California in 1827] and enterprising settlers were going into business there.

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Three years after the death in childbirth (the infant was lost, as well) of his first wife, Mary Hook, David married her sister Nancy. The couple went on to have three sons and she survived him by more than thirty years, dying in Los Angeles in 1887 at age 80.  Missouri Intelligencer and Boon’s Lick Advertiser, 18 December 1829.

It was December 21st 1835, the time of year when days are at their shortest and memories of absent friends are likely to be keenest.   Mary had been just fourteen years of age when her two big brothers packed their bags and flew the nest in 1822, but hardly a day could have passed when she did not think of them.   Once again it fell to Mary, the youngest Workman and the most accomplished with a pen, to express the grievous sense of loss that still afflicted a family so long separated by an ocean and half a continent:

For the future let me entreat of you not to write such a distance to friends without tenderness.   Come William my bonny boy, you have lived in the world a little longer than I have (though you may not explore the minds of men so much as the outside of the globe), yet you cannot be without the experience that tenderness begets tenderness …. Give us the trial another time and you will find the difference. 

Wondering why William was prepared to visit David at Franklin but not to see his family at Clifton, Mary’s exasperation surfaced as she protested, “Business, not brotherly love, leads you undoubtedly to David,” and added, “If brotherly love alone will not bring you to England, let business attend ….”

Perhaps, like her father, confusing the Hawaiian Islands in the Pacific with the Falklands off South America (for 1830s North Americans would hardly have had any interest in the windswept southern archipelago now known as the Falkland Islands), Mary went on in her own inimitable way to query a trip that William, like David, seemingly was contemplating:   “Is it dangerous to ask, Mister, what motive carries you to the Sandwich Islands in Anarctic Seas?   Is it love, riches, or curiosity?   Oh! Give us the preference.” 

This list of letters by the New Franklin postmaster included three missives awaiting pickup from David Workman. Given that William left New Mexico about five week prior maybe one or more was from him and/or there may have been letters from England. Boon’s Lick Times, 9 October 1841.

Mary’s remarkable facility with the English language is all the more extraordinary in light of the fact that she was writing at a time when little importance was attached to the education of young women, even in families that could afford the necessary tuition fees.   The inspiration for Mary’s literary virtuosity can only be a matter of conjecture, although there was an early 19th century school at Appleby that catered to daughters of the better-off.   Incidentally, the purpose of William’s trip over the Santa Fe Trail to Franklin, presumably in 1835, might possibly have been to take his two-year-old son Joseph Manuel to David and Nancy, to be brought up in the relative security of American Missouri – although again this can be no more than conjecture.   In any event, Mary could hardly have been expected to know that her doughty brothers were busy pushing America’s frontier westward, or to appreciate that men of action who could readily brandish a gun or a whip on the prairie might not be happy with a pen at a desk.

What amazing people these progeny of Thomas Workman!   While the opening scenes of the family saga were firmly rooted in England’s green and pleasant land, the unfolding drama this far-sighted septuagenarian had set in motion would need a far bigger stage than the old country could ever provide.

Bring me men to match my mountains,

Bring me men to match my plains,

Men with empires in their purpose

And new eras in their brains.

Sam Foss

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