by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Letters to and from Mexican Alta California and the pueblo of Los Angeles from before the late 1840s are very rare and the Homestead is fortunate enough to have been given a few Temple family letters from that era with the donation of the estate of the late Josette Temple, whose grandfather Walter P. Temple owned the Homestead from 1917 to 1932.
In summer 1926, the Temples traveled to the family’s ancestral hometown of Reading, Massachusetts while enrolling Josette’s father, Walter, Jr., and her uncles Edgar and Thomas in their respective schools of the Dummer Academy and Harvard Law School. While there, they met Walter, Sr.’s cousin, Ellen Temple Bancroft (1841-1928) and her children Edith and Edward—with this newly introduced family becoming close to the three Temple sons during their three years in New England.
Ellen’s father Abraham (1814-1851) was the older brother of Walter, Sr.’s father Francis Pliny Fisk (1822-1880) and the featured object from the recent donation of the estate is a 24 January 1842 letter from the former to the latter. It is remarkable, not just for being an early missive relating to our area in the late Mexican period, but for its expressions of family feeling concerning F.P.F.’s recent arrival in Los Angeles.
Abraham was then living in South Gardner, some 55 miles west of Reading, when he wrote his letter, though he spoke of returning to Reading if he could not make his situation work where he was at the time. In any case, after acknowledging receipt of Pliny’s letter of October 1841, he began by reminding his younger sibling that:
Another year has flown since we last met and is now numbered with those that have been enjoyed by us in harmony together and notwithstanding the wilderness may moan between us, and old ocean lashes its foaming sides, still the chord of affection is not broken, ay it is staying thereat, and I trust no time or distance, or any unforeseen circumstance will ever lessen & diminish the affections that bind us together as brothers.
Known from birth as Pliny (the baptismal name “Francisco” or “Francis” came in 1845 just moments prior to his marriage to Antonia Margarita Workman), the youngest child of the Temple family left Boston on 18 January 1841 for a nearly six-month voyage around the Horn of South America to California. So, Abraham’s letter was penned almost exactly a year to the day of the departure.
Moreover, it appears that Abraham took some responsibility for his brother’s flying from the nest as he continued that, “my feelings are such at this time it is unpleasant for me to write you fearing lest my influence has led you to stake a step which ere this you may have requited, but having an opportunity of sending, I feel bound to improve it lest another might now present itself.” Later, Abraham made reference to thoughts he and his wife Cassandana Bickford once entertained about such a journey, as he told Pliny, “C has got over her fever for the coast and mine is somewhat abated.”
In any case, the letter continued that Pliny, by then, would have know whether “your high hopes are realized [and] whether your sanguine expectations are fulfilled,” but the folks back home were ignorant of any of this. Still, Abraham continued that, “all we can do is to rejoice in your prosperity and sympathise in your adversity” because “you will know the feeling which we all cherish towards you.”
In addition, the young Temple’s move west meant that “we deeply and sensibly realise the void that your absence has created in our circle,” though the family cherished hopes for the possibility that they would “have the unspeakable happiness of soon greeting you home again to join us in the pursuit of happiness, at the fireside, and in all the pleasing walks of life.”
A marginal note on the first page implored Pliny that, “if you are desirous of returning home and have not the means, come and [I] will defray the expense now or at any time.” Otherwise, Abraham went on, “if you should not find it possible to leave the coast soon you will do me a great kindness by making known your precise situation in all respects if consistent, the prospect of accumulating property, and under what circumstances, whether you think there is a good opportunity of investing money in that section and that you may deem interesting to us on all subjects that may come under your observation that you can touch upon with safety to yourself.” In a later missive, Abraham would ask Pliny if it was realistic to consider building a mill at Los Angeles, so this initial query about whether there was any prospects of financial investment is interesting.
After this, the missive turns to family, including the death of Abraham’s mother-in-law just after Pliny’s departure, while the proud father informed his brother that “we have a daughter five months old quite healthy, who we call Ellen Maria.” While Cassandana was pronounced to be in fine health, Abraham told his brother that, while his own was “quite good most of the time,” it was “not so robust as formerly.” In just under a decade later, he died of splenomegaly, or the enlargement of his spleen, at age 37.
Pliny was also informed that their mother, Lucinda Parker Temple, “is very anxious about your welfare as we all are, and I sincerely believe that it would greatly relieve her mind could she but believe that you were on your way home.” While Abraham then told his brother that he was ready to close his epistle, he added, “permit me as a brother affectionately to write a few lines for your benefit and consideration.”
Namely, Pliny had likely become familiar with his future business prospects and “can estimate with some accuracy whether you have erred in judgment in taking the step that you have,” but Abraham added
I now wish you as a man, and as a brother to take into consideration your present situation with all its connexions (and you know better then I can) their bearing any influences, with those you have been familiar with from boyhood, such as the social relations that we sustain to each other as members of the same household, the state of society, the means of education, which we all in New England enjoy.
Abraham continued, “I implore you to shun all appearances of evil . . . [and] to cherish the instructions that you have received from a beloved and affectionate Mother and of a departed Father whose memory I trust we all cherish with veneration.” Not knowing the details of the environment at Los Angeles, advice could not be given about who to shun or who to associate with, but the missive ended with Abraham writing that he was “hoping that your duty is indelibly impressed on your mind, and that you may have [the] fortitude to go forward in their performance.
After adding postscripts that his wife sent her love to Pliny and to Jonathan, the eldest half-sibling of the brothers, Abraham added, “I wish you to lose no opportunity in writing us, as you know we are all very desirous of hearing from [you] and, in a marginal note, apologized as “in my haste I have omitted many words, [so] please make up all deficiencies.”
Just over six weeks later, Pliny’s fortunes in Los Angeles, where he’d taken up a position as clerk in Jonathan’s store, the first opened in the Angel City, were significantly boosted when gold was discovered at Placerita Canyon, north of the pueblo near today’s Santa Clarita. Very shortly thereafter, Pliny shipped gold dust to Abraham and asked him to exchange it at the national mint in Philadelphia.
Subsequent letters between the brothers are of great interest concerning the use by Pliny of gold dust for Abraham to buy articles to ship back to Los Angeles, the impending Mexican-American War, the conclusion of that conflict and the remarkable discovery of gold in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of northern California that launched the fabled Gold Rush, and more.
In 1870, Pliny, long known as F.P.F., finally did make it back for his only return trip home after nearly thirty years. Shortly afterward, his sons Francis, William and John were sent there to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard Law School, and Reading High School (followed by the Bryant and Stratton Commercial School). As noted above, Walter Temple followed his father in having his sons go to schools in Massachusetts and finally met his first cousin, 84 years after she was mentioned in this letter!