Reading Between the Lines: A Letter from México City by William W. Temple, 14 January 1889

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

This Sunday the 16th at 2 p.m. will be the sixth in a series of presentations on the history of the Workman and Temple families and we’ve been moving decade-by-decade with this one delving into what went on during the 1880s. In the aftermath of the calamitous collapse of the Temple and Workman bank, the widows and children of William Workman and F.P.F. Temple dealt with some very challenging and trying times because of the loss of almost all of the substantial wealth the two had amassed before their institution failed.

One of those put into a tough spot was William Workman Temple (1851-1917,) the third child of F.P.F. Temple and Antonia Margarita Workman, because, after having earned his juris doctorate degree from the prestigious Harvard Law School in 1874 and then spending a year in post-graduate study at the Inns of Court in London, the young lawyer was abruptly called back to Los Angeles to help his father and grandfather deal with the stricken institution as well as their individual estates.

The strain was understandably too much and also, after both Workman and F.P.F. Temple died, engendered problems within the family, leading William to abruptly leave Los Angeles and join the Army. After serving several years and mustering out at Newport, Rhode Island with the rank of sergeant, William spent some time at Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he lived when his older brother Francis died in August 1888. Within several months, however, William migrated to México City, where he lived when he wrote tonight’s featured object from the Homestead’s collection, a letter dated 14 January 1889 and addressed to a brother.

An 1872 map of the Workman Mill Tract deeded by William Workman to his daughter Antonia Margarita Workman de Temple four years earlier. Not that the San Gabriel River is adjacent to the north and west, while San Jose Creek runs along the base of the Puente Hills at the south, with the mill at the far right in Lot #9.  The mill was destroyed by fire about the time of William Temple’s letter. The map is in the collection of the Huntington Library.

Almost certainly, the missive was written to his brother Walter, because there were only a few other siblings, but the eldest Temple child, Thomas, is ruled out for reasons discussed below with regard to the Workman Mill property, as is the fourth surviving son, John, because he is mentioned by name in the letter. The only other possibility was the youngest child, Charles, who was 16 and not likely to have been involved in matters discussed in the document. Walter was 19, still young, but he also had a particular interest in the topic of the first two pages of the letter.

William began by acknowledging receipt of a letter from just over a week prior and then goes into some detail about what he called the “Mill property.” This was a roughly 600-acre parcel at the southwest corner of the Rancho La Puente, where William Workman built a grist mill in the last half of the 1860s, near where the San José Creek emptied into the New San Gabriel River, a channel opened up by flooding so that the old course, the Río Hondo, was a bit to the west.

William Workman, in 1868, shortly after completing his mill, deeded the property to his daughter, Antonia Margarita Workman de Temple, so that this land was excluded as security or collateral for the Baldwin loan and remained in her hands. Not long after the bank’s collapse, however, she deeded sections of the Workman Mill tract to several of her children. Her eldest, Thomas, however, was not one of those.

By early 1889, however, it was evident that Walter was pondering selling his share based on at least a couple of pressing issues. The first was water rights, presumably from the creek or the river, as William wrote,

in my opinion, which I consider to be the law of the case, unless you had some agreement with Baldwin, you cannot use the waters which run through your place for no other purposes than those of irrigation.  You have no absolute property in the water which as a matter of fact belongs to Baldwin, but you have the right only of its use for the purpose of irrigating your lands.  You have a mere usufruct as lawyers call it in the water for certain purposes, while the ownership is in Baldwin.  Another question might also be raised by the riparian proprietors below you who have had the use of the water for a great many years, and they might justly contend that after you had used the water for the purposes of irrigation, you had no right to divert is from its old and accustomed channel, and apply it to other uses to their detriment. 

Beyond this question of both absolute and riparian rights, Walter was looking at the problem of flood damage, as there were some heavy rain years during that period, including 1883-1884, when 38 inches fell causing widespread flooding. Two years later, another 22 inches dropped from the sky, while the current winter of 1888-1889 brought nearly 20—the following season, though, unleashed 35 inches.

The point is that the Mill property, being along a creek with year-round flow, but also quite close to the San Gabriel, which experienced enormous onrushes of water descending from the steep and rocky mountains to the north, was definitely vulnerable to flooding. William continued that “with the question of a sale of the property by reason of the washing out of the [irrigation] ditch, etc., you and brother John are in a better position to pass on this,” but he did advise that Walter consider, with permission already given by “Baldwin’s agent,” perhaps his estate manager and nephew Hiram A. Unruh, building temporary “breakwaters” constructed of brush to limit the flow of water on his tract. 

If this was done, William felt, and ” if you could get a good figure for your property it might be advisable to sell and put your money at interest with good security, or else invest in some enterprise that may be profitable.” Without the remedy he proposed, “buyers will bid low for the reason that the property is liable to be destroyed.” The next part of the letter dealt with another part of the Rancho La Puente—namely, the 75-acre La Puente, or Workman, Homestead.

This parcel comprised the Workman House, El Campo Santo Cemetery, outbuildings, and vineyards and orchards along San José Creek. Francis W. Temple, after returning from study at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, became William Workman’s winemaker. He had the terrible duty of informing his mother of Workman’s May 1876 suicide and then stayed on to run the ranch for three years until Baldwin foreclosed on the bank loan (he waited that long so that the interest would accumulate to the point that no one would think of trying to pay off the loan and assume the property.)

In 1880, Baldwin sold Francis the Homestead for $5,000 and the industrious young man appears to have done rather well with his wine-making enterprise over the next eight years. A bout with consumption, or tuberculosis, for which Francis increasingly sought relief with long trips to Arizona and its drier climate, ended with his death in early August 1888, just three days before his 40th birthday, in the same room of the Workman House in which he was born.

Francis left the Homestead to William and John, but the former, as noted above, was living in New Mexico, while the latter had a 130-acre ranch on the Rancho Potrero de Felipe Lugo along the west bank of the San Gabriel River adwhich was also granted by William Workman to his daughter and then she gave John his parcel. The site is now the Whittier Narrows Nature Center in South El Monte.

With respect to his situation, William wrote,

I trust the old folks will not be alarmed about the matter of maintenance for more than two weeks ago I wrote to brother John to make a favorable disposition of my interest in the Puente Homestead, and to deposit for the old folks at Francis’ bank the sum of 2000 dols, which with John’s share which he can pay from time to time will amount to 4000 dols, which at the rate of 50 dols per mo. will last them for over 6 yrs, and by that time we will be in a condition to do better by them.  I am sorry to be compelled to sell my property but it is the only alternative which I have as it will be the best for the old folks, for John & for myself.  The Homestead pays per yr not enough to pay ordinary expenses, and if I have to look after the old folks, I am compelled to sell to see that they be promptly paid.  Besides I never can live in Los Angeles and after looking after the old folks, and paying my debts & winding up the estate, I have instructed brother John to send me the balance here, where I can put it to some use.  Before you say anything to the folks on this, you had better talk with John.  I have written to him fully about this matter, and he will explain to you.

William’s statement about never being able to live in Los Angeles may refer to the bitterness he still harbored concerning the aftermath of the bank failure and the “old folks” to which he refers looks to be his mother, Antonia Margarita Workman de Temple, and grandmother, Nicolasa Workman.

His terms included the sale of his half-interes to John for $3,000, of which he only required $1,000 to be sent to México City, while the remaining $2,000 along with a matching amount provided John, and payable in installments, was to be provide for the sustenance of his mother and grandmother. It is notable that William felt that the Homestead could not generate enough revenue to cover expenses, so, in the interest of having “to look after the old folks,” selling his share was the only option to benefit them, as well as himself and John.

After assuring that their sister Margarita (Maggie) did not have tuberculosis, as Francis did, and urging that “she must take good wholesome exercise, be of cheerful mind, not think of such things as consumption as she will be all right,” William continued that, “I expect to live in Mexico for some time, and believe will do well.  I have many good chances here, I have met a number of old friends here, among them being Judge Sepulveda, George [?] Howard, and Pastor [de] Celis.”

De Célis was the son of Eulogio de Célis, who, in the mid-1840s, acquired the enormous Rancho ex-Mission San Fernando and, after selling half to Andrés Pico in 1854, moved the family to Spain. After Eulogio died in 1869, his widow and children returned to Los Angeles and five years later, the northern half of the ranch was sold to parties who built the town of San Fernando. For a time, Pastor was the proprietor of La Crónica, the Angel City’s Spanish-language newspaper and which Thomas W. Temple, William’s brother, ran for several years in the late 80s and early 90s.

Ygnacio Sepúlveda (1842-1916) was from one of the early prominent Californio families of Los Angeles and, after being educated on the East Coast, a rarity among locals of his time, he was admitted to the bar at the Angel City at just age 21. Later, Sepúlveda rose to be county judge, following with a long stint as a Superior Court judge. and was one of the very few Californios in public service. In the early 1880s, however, he moved to México City to practice law but also became an important confidant of dictator Porfirio Díaz.

William also wrote that,

I called Saturday on Don Antonio de Ajuria, our cousin who is in charge of the Mint here.  I have an engagement with him next Wednesday.  Uncle John Temple was his grandfather, he being a son of Doña Francisca, Aunt Rafaela’s daughter.  He is a fine looking fellow, about 31 years of age, expects to leave for Paris shortly and goes to get married.  Doña Francisca is well & living in Paris.  There are now only 2 boys and one girl in the family.

Jonathan Temple, the much older half-brother of William’s father, F.P.F., married Rafaela Cota of Santa Barbara in 1830, two years after he settled in Los Angeles and opened the pueblo’s first store. Their only child Francisca, born in 1831, married Spaniard Gregorio de Ajuria, a merchant with extensive connections in México, which helped him, in 1856, arrange for Jonathan Temple to secure the lease of the nation’s mint.

With the frequent turnover of governments in México, de Ajuria was forced to leave and decamped with his family to Paris, where died in the early 1860s. After Jonathan Temple’s death in 1866, the lease to the mint remained in the hands of his widow, Rafaela, until her death about two decades later, and then passed to Francisca, with her son Antonio, as noted, managing the institution until it was nationalized by Díaz in 1893

As the letter neared completion, William noted, “I have a good opening here, and as soon as brother John can arrange my affairs, I shall . . . probably go in with Judge Sepulveda in the law business and in mining, land & other projects.  I saw the Judge the other day, and he is willing to enter into the arrangement.” He added, “I like Mexico & the people.  In April or May, I expect to go to Durango with a mining expert to look over some mining properties.  There is much of interest here on which I will write you in my next.” 

Unfortunately, that next letter and any others that may have been sent for the next twenty years have not survived. We don’t know if William and Sepúlveda did work together, but it does appear that William remained in México for about twenty years, returning to Los Angeles about 1910 as the Díaz regime was beginning to crumble. He lived mostly in hospitals for an unidentified illness before his death in May 1917 (Sepúlveda left three years later and died in 1916), just a month or so before Walter’s first oil well at his lease near Montebello was brought into production and ushering him into a level of wealth far beyond anything he could have imagined in 1889.


Leave a Reply