“It Was Not Safe For Us to Remain Longer in New Mexico”: Benjamin D. Wilson’s 1877 Account of the Rowland and Workman Expedition of 1841

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Today marks the 180th anniversary of the arrival on 5 November 1841 in the greater Los Angeles area of approximately sixty-five Americans, Europeans and New Mexicans comprising the Rowland and Workman expedition, which traveled from Santa Fé on the misnamed Old Spanish Trail. This was the first time that the route, which was actually opened just a dozen years earlier during the Mexican period, was utilized primarily by settlers, though the group consisted of many persons who did not intend to stay in Alta California.

There are a few first-hand accounts of the journey, with one of those being from Benjamin D. Wilson (1811-1878), who became one of this area’s most prominent residents, including service as an early mayor of Los Angeles and a state senator, as well as a federal Indian agent and prominent viticulturist at his Lake Vineyard property in what is now San Marino and Alhambra. Wilson, like F.P.F. Temple and other local residents, sat down for an interview on 6 December 1877 collected for Hubert H. Bancroft, whose namesake library became part of the University of California, Berkeley campus. In 1929, the manuscript was published for the first time in Robert Glass Cleland’s book Pathfinders, issued by Powell Publishing Company of Los Angeles.

Los Angeles Star, 4 August 1855.

These interviews were collected by Bancroft to discuss events that transpired before the Gold Rush and they remain valuable sources of information for a period that would otherwise have been much poorly documented. Whether it was not the intention of Bancroft and his interviewer Thomas Savage to obtain much material about the expedition to California or if it was Wilson’s decision to discuss it the way he did, his observations about it are less detailed than some of us would want. Still, without it, we would lack some information about the group that we would not otherwise have known.

Wilson began the interview by telling Savage that he was a native of Nashville, Tennessee and grew up poor after the loss by his father of money in an unstated speculation and then his death when Wilson was eight. After some help by his grandfather in getting some schooling, the teenager opened a small store at Yazoo City, Mississippi, where he said he did business with the Choctaw and Chickasaw tribes.

Because of poor health and told by doctors that he would die if he remained there, Wilson headed to Fort Smith, Arkansas, on the border with Texas and where he was supposed to join a company, though he neglected to say where it was intended to go, but the Arkansas River did not rise sufficiently. Wilson then traveled to Misouri and “join the Rocky Mountain Company” of fur trappers “and crossed the plains with them . . . until we reached Santa Fé, in the fal of 1833.”

Wilson engaged in trapping, including an expedition along the Gila River in 1835, the same general route taken by a party eight years earlier that included William Workman, who’d settled in New Mexico in 1825. A lengthy exposition about this trip followed and Wilson mentioned a guide and interpreter he came across named William Knight, later a member of the Rowland and Workman Expedition. An ambush by Anglos of an Indian chief led to Wilson’s capture by Apaches, though he was freed by another chief before he was to be killed (other Anglos were also killed by the enraged natives who’d largely been friendly to Americans and Europeans) in revenge and, only wearing a little buffalo hide robe, walked some hundred miles over four days towards Santa Fé before he ran into a group hastening to bury the dead

Los Angeles News, 11 October 1864.

After that odyssey, Wilson worked for several years for Dr. Josiah Gregg, a prominent extranjero (foreigner) in Santa Fe. While explaining to Savage some of the areas he saw on his Gila trapping expedition, Wilson suddenly stated “I deem it proper to ecord, now that I remember it, some additional names of the paries that crossed from New Mexico with us, which were omitted in speaking of our journey to California.” Strangely, the manuscript, as reproduced, did not previously include any reference to the Rowland and Workman expedition.

In any case, Wilson started by Dr. John H. Lyman, a native of Northhampton, Massachusetts, who Wilson saw just a few months prior to the interview and who resided then in San Francisco, though he’d left California shortly after the 1841 arrival to return east. In his recollection, Wilson stated:

On the River Sevier, in Utah Territory, Dr. Lyman and myself had stopped behind the train to fish; it was in the evening, the Doctor being with his hook and line in the water, the fish biting very well. He spoke to me that a very large fish had bit at his hook and got off. Just as he was talking a ball from an Indian gun struck the ground near him; he remarked very coolly, “That fellow can’t hit me, so therefore I will stay and get this fish before I leave,” and he did so.

Wilson also mentioned Dr. James D. Mead, who was stated as being a native of Virginia and having “been a practicing physician in the West India Islands” and then a Protestant bishop. Mead did not stay long in California as “after a sojourn of several months, he succeeded in obtaining a passage to China . . . on a man of war.” Then there was “Doctor Campbell,” who Wilson said was an ornithologist and “a very young man at that time, but made himself, by his collection on that trip and in California, quite an enviable reputation.” The naturalist was actually William Gambel, whose story has been covered on this blog.

After briefly alluding to John Behn, who, however, did not come to Los Angeles until 1848, as a member of the expedition, Wilson stated that his neighbor Michael White, who came to California in 1829, then went to New Mexico for several years, including employment at William Workman’s Taos store, before joining the expedition, “was a man of roving disposition.” White’s adobe house still stands on the grounds of San Marino High School.

There were brief references to Daniel Sexton, who lived at San Gabriel and the Colton area; “Loomes,” who was actually Albert Toomes, who lived near Sacramento for many years; and John Reed, son-in-law of Rowland, though Reed did not come on the 1841 expedition, apparently traveling with the Rowland family on a subsequent journey the following year. With this, Wilson remarked “there were others whose names I don’t remember. They scattered over the country and never made any mark.”

News, 22 May 1870.

These purportedly forgettable individuals included Manuel Vaca, for whom Vacaville in northern California was named; Jacob Frankfort, the first Jew to live in Los Angeles; Isaac Given, who also went north; William Gordon, an early settler of Yolo County near Sacramento; Knight, of Knight’s Ferry in the gold country and Knight’s Landing near Sacramento; and Lorenzo Trujillo, who settled with New Mexicans at Agua Mansa and La Politana near Riverside.

After discussing the 1837 revolt against the departmental government by Spanish-speaking residents of Taos and the crushing counter-revolt by Manuel Armijo, Wilson told Savage that he ran Gregg’s Santa Fé store for two years before purchasing the remaining stock and staying in the capital city until fall 1841. He then stated:

Mr. John Rowland and William Workman, who were old residents of that country at Taos, and had been in correspondence with prominent parties in Texas, learned that a party or expedition was being fitted out to come and take New Mexico as a part of Texas. They were convinced that the plan might succeed, but, in the meantime, prominent foreigners [Anglos] in New Mexico would probably be sacrificed to the fury of the Mexicans. As it was, Armijo had information that the Texans were coming. This was in the summer of 1841.

It was even whispered that we were in correspondence with the Texans.

Wilson then stated that, as Armijo “was haranging his rabble” to get ready to face off against what became the Texas-Santa Fe Expedition, “an American French Creole from near St. Louis, who was a bold gambler, named Tiboux, made some insulting remarks in a stentorious voice.” He continued that “this came very near being the destruction of all of us, for the whole wave of the rabble moved toward us” before Armijo ordered his supporters to back off, saying he’d punish Tiboux, who, however, “came out to California with us in the fall.”

The narrative continued that “under the circumstances, Rowland, Workman and myself, together with about twenty other Americans, including William Gordon, and William Knight, concluded it was not safe for us to remain longer in New Mexico.” Wilson went on to tell Savage,

We formed a party and were joined by a large number of New Mexicans. In the first week in September, 1841, we started from our rendezvous in the most western part of New Mexico, a place called “Abiqui,” [Abiquiu] for California, we met with no accidents on the journey, drove sheep with us, which served us as good, and arrived in Los Angeles early in November of the same year.

Given, perhaps, the trials undergone by Wilson during that affair with the Apaches and his long march to safety several years before, it appears that the two-month long 1,200 mile trip through mountains and deserts was a comparative walk in the park, especially as other accounts mentioned the hardships the expedition’s members suffered in the form of thirst and hunger.

Los Angeles Express, 15 December 1875.

As to the dispersal of the group, Wilson stated that “as far as I am able to judge, Rowland, Workman, Gordon and Knight, and most of the foreigners [New Mexicans?} of our party came here with the intention of settling.” He, however, had other ideas and traveled three times to Yerba Buena, later San Fancisco, so that he could take a ship to China, but his plan was thwarted.

He subsequently told Savage, “after many unsuccessful efforts to leave California, and receiving so much kindness from the native Californians, I arrived at the conclusion that there was no place in the world where I could enjoy more true happiness, and true friendship, than among them.” Wilson went on to say that “the people were honest and hospitalble, and their word was as good as their bond.” While he elected not to seek citizenship, as Rowland, Workman and others had done, Wilson bought the Rancho Jurupa near today’s Riverside and married María Ramona Yorba, in February 1844, in a double ceremony with Workman and his common-law wife, Nicolasa Urioste.

Wilson also related how he accompanied Rowland to Monterey in spring 1842 as the latter sought a land grant to Rancho La Puente, though he told Savage that the priests at Mission San Gabriel had no problem with the grant. This was decidely not the case as opposition was voiced vociferously about the petition, though Governor Juan Bautista Alvarado approved the request. Wilson also related that the grant was issued as Rowland was married to a Mexican wife and “having made application for Mexican citizenship.” Rowland and Workman were, in fact, naturalized in New Mexico long before.

Wilson’s narrative contained much more about the several years after the arrival in California, including the internecine conflict between the Californios in early 1845 that led to Pío Pico becoming governor—a topic we’ll post about in mid-February; the Battle of Chino discussed here not quite a month ago; and the aftermath as the Mexican-American War came to a close in California and which we’ll cover in a post here in early January.

Los Angeles Herald, 12 March 1878.

Just a few months after completing his interview, Wilson passed away at age 66 from heart failure at his Lake Vineyard estate and obituaries in the three major daily newspapers in the Angel City, the Express, the Herald, and the Star, all paid glowing tribute to him for his many contributions to the region. His Bancroft interview is also a notable addition to our understanding of the Rowland and Workman Expedition as well as key events in late Mexican-era Los Angeles.

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