by Paul R. Spitzzeri
In the community of Misión Vieja, or Old Mission, nestled in the Whittier Narrows where the Río Hondo (Old San Gabriel River) and the San Gabriel River flow through the gap between the Montebello and Puente hill ranges, the European-era history of greater Los Angeles began with the establishment on 8 September 1771 of the Mission San Gabriel. This was two years after the Portolá Expedition, the first land-based group of Europeans to go through California, arrived at the spot and Father Juan Crespí decided that it would be an ideal location for a mission.
This was because of the obvious abundance of water, animal and plant resources, but also because there were a substantial number of indigenous people living there and using these resources for their subsistence from time immemorial. We tend to think history only began with the written word from those like Crespí, but, of course, the natives of California were living in our region for untold generations prior to 1769, when the rapidly decaying Spanish empire inaugurated its settlement plan of missions, pueblos and presidios, which, in turn, had enormous deleterious effects on the indigenous populations.
The mission lasted only a few years in its original location, as flooding from the river undoubtedly led to its removal to higher, drier ground at the current locale by early 1775. Yet, the name Misión Vieja was what was bestowed on this area, which long included ranchos utilized the mission fathers, including Potrero Chico (about 90 acres), Potrero Grande (some 4,400 acres), Potrero de Felipe Lugo (a little over 2,000 acres), and La Merced (not quite 2,400 acres.)
When the missions were secularized (essentially closed with those having extant churches becoming parish churches) by the Mexican government in the 1830s, these ranchos were soon made available for private settlement and there were some early settlers in Misión Vieja by the time a Los Angeles district census was taken in 1836. Chief among these were the Alvitres, descendants of Spanish soldier Sebastián Alvitre and his wife María Rufina Hernández, with the Valenzuela, Bermudez, Lobo, Morrillo, Manzanares, Romero and many other families following in successive years.
In 1844, Casilda Soto de Lobo, a widower, received the grant to Rancho La Merced (unlike in the United States at the time, women in Mexican California could receive land grants, though these were few) and built an adobe house on a bluff on the west bank of the Río Hondo (Old San Gabriel River) in what is now Montebello. After several years, she borrowed money from William Workman of the nearby Rancho La Puente and, being unable to pay back the loan, she was foreclosed upon by him in 1850.
Workman immediately turned La Merced over to his daughter and son-in-law, Antonia Margarita and F.P.F. Temple, and to his foreman at La Puente, Juan Matias Sánchez. While the Temples, in 1851, built an adobe house on the east side of the river, Sánchez took possession of the Soto house and added a wing to it (the Soto-Sánchez Adobe is a City of Montebello historic landmark now.)
These families (Sánchez, Temple and Workman) became compadres, which can translate as friends, but really signifies more than that, often bonds established through standing as sponsors (godparents) at baptisms, so that the relationship was deeper than solely a friendship. A previous post here discussed the ties between the Workman and Temple families and Don Pío Pico, the last governor of Mexican California, as being one in which they were compadres because of the deep connections between them. Someday, we’ll post here on the Sánchez, Temple and Workman relationship, culminating in the heart-rending tragedy involving the Temple and Workman bank in the mid-1870s.
For this post, however, we’re looking at the family of one of Sánchez’s nephews, the son of his sister María Josefa, who was married to Martin H. Davis in Taos, New Mexico, where the Workmans resided prior to coming to California. In fact, when the Rowland and Workman Expedition traveled the Old Spanish Trail from Santa Fe to Los Angeles in late 1841, there was a large group of New Mexicans who came with them and, in subsequent years, more came and settled on La Puente, in the Riverside area, and at Misión Vieja, as well.
It is not clear when, but Jose Agustín Davis (1834-1875), nephew of Sánchez, was one of those migrants, likely following not long after his uncle came to California. When the 1850 federal census was taken in California, it was actually early the following year because of the late admission of the state and, on 12 February 1851, the household of William Workman and Nicolasa Urioste at La Puente included Juan “María” Sánchez as “overseer,” Juan Sánchez as a laborer, and “Juan A.” Davis, age 18, as a laborer. Although the latter’s birthplace was given as Texas, his middle initial and age are suggestive that this was actually José or Joseph.
The next year, 1852, the one and only California state census, taken to try to correct the deficiencies in the county of the federal enumeration, recorded “Joseph Davis” just below Nicolasa Workman (William had not yet returned, evidently, from his sole trip home to England), the Temples, and Sánchez. Davis, listed as a farmer who was born and last lived in New Mexico, was also noted as being age 20, which very closely aligns with the “Juan A.” of the federal count.
In the 1860 census, the enumerator arrived on 19 July at the Sánchez house at La Merced and recorded “Juan A. Orethus,” a 30-year old day laborer hailing from México and, again, it seems clear that this was José. Moreover, above him, but not immediately adjacent, were a half-dozen persons denoted as Indians, including 25-year old “Vanancio,” 8-year old “Hula Ann,” 5-year old “Massemon,” and 4-year old “Alvino.”
The young woman was Venancia, often given the last name of Peña, who was a native of the Mission San Luis Rey in what is now Oceanside and was born to the “neophytes,” in other words Christianized Indians, Geronimo and María. The family story is that Venancia was brought north by Pío Pico, who was the administrator at San Luis Rey between 1835 and 1840, and essentially “given” to William and Nicolasa Workman as a servant.
Venancia was born just about the time that Pico took over the management of the secularized mission and the Workmans migrated to this area and settled at La Puente within a couple of years after his tenure at San Luis Rey ended. The 1850 and 1852 censuses don’t show a Venancia in the Workman or Sánchez household, though that doesn’t necessarily mean that she wasn’t in either.
Notably, despite the separation on the 1860 census sheet, Joseph Davis and Venancia, who had no last name in the record book, a clear indication that she was an Indian, were married on 31 January, nearly a half year earlier than the census, at Mission San Gabriel. The witnesses for Davis were his uncle Juan Matias Sánchez and Francis W. Temple, the second son of Antonia Margarita Workman and F.P.F. Temple and who was said in the mission record to be 10 years old, though he was actually 11 and 1/2. Venancia’s witnesses were Margarita Workman, who, as many Latinas did, went by her middle name, and María Bartola Parra.
It is also notable that Joseph and Venancia had at least a few children before their marriage, though this was hardly uncommon as there were many common-law marriages or couple who lived together and had children out of wedlock. “Hula Ann,” the eldest was Julia, born in 1851 or 1852, while the listing of Maximo (whose formal first name was José) on the 1860 census is accompanied by remarks in the 14th column, headed with “Whether deaf and dumb, blind, insane, idiotic, pauper, or convict” and which reads, “Blind at 8 days old caused by applying a mud [poultice] by an Indian woman.”
By 1870, it was clear that 35-year old Joseph Davis was an employee for the Temples, as he and his family were listed immediately undernearth the latter when that year’s census taker showed up on 27 July. He was listed as a native of México, though so was Margarita Temple and they were both from Taos, New Mexico, and Joseph had $500 in personal property and no real estate, a far cry from F.P.F. Temple’s over $280,000 in declared assets (a substantial fortune, by the way), though Davis was $200 richer than Temple’s horse trainer Samuel A. Jackson and $25 better off than laborer Matthews Burke.
“Benancia” Davis, listed as 28 years old, but seven years off from her 1860 age listing, was followed by Julia (16), Maximo (15), daughter Carmel (9), Peter (5) and Francisco (2), though all five were listed as males and the eldest looks to have been identified as “Julian.” By now, it has become clear that censuses can have plenty of errors, including enumerators who didn’t speak Spanish, citizens who lied about their age, and other issues.
In any case, although she was counted at her parents’ home, Julia was, by this time, already closely tied to the Temple household. We know this because there are several photographs, of which some examples are shown here, where she is posed with members of the family, including large groups and smaller portraits, including with Margarita. While a couple of the groups, especially outside the Temple residence, show what appear to be household workers, other photos, particularly the one with Mrs. Temple and another with the larger family, indicate pretty obviously, that Julia was not just an employee, but a member of the family.
In 1880, moreover, she was counted on 18-19 July, in the Temple household, though she was listed as Julia Montigue, age 26 and married, though there is no husband with her. Below the Temples was “María” Venancia Davis, age 50, and listed as a farmer, and her children Carrie (Carmel), age 19, Peter (16), Francis (13) and Thomas (7). Notably, both Peter and Francis were listed in the column denoted as “Idiotic” and on a supplemental sheet with the heading of “Idiots,” though there was no explanation as to why they were considered that way.
Venancia was listed as a widow, as were Margarita Temple and her mother Nicolasa Workman, who resided with her, as tragedy struck the three families in the last half of the 1870s. With the failure of the Temple and Workman bank early in 1876, William Workman, shattered by the collapse of his once-substantial fortune, committed suicide that May. While taking office at that time as Los Angeles County Treasurer, the stress of the bank’s collapse ruined F.P.F. Temple’s health and he had a series of strokes in succeeding years, with one taking his life in late April 1880.
Finally, Joseph Davis passed away suddenly in 1875, which was briefly alluded to in a letter from Lucinda Temple, one of Margarita Workman and F.P.F. Temple’s children, who wrote that Davis was found dead in the road near the homes of the two families. Nothing, however, was said about the cause, but Davis was buried at El Campo Santo Cemetery at the Workman Homestead and he lies there still with a headstone placed by Walter P. Temple about 1920 replacing the original marker.
Joseph’s death appears to have led F.P.F. Temple to give Venancia six acres across from the Temple Homestead on the Rancho Potrero Chico, which he acquired on a quit claim from Micaela Alvitre, she being unable to repay a loan to him, and Venancia remained on that property until her death, aged 61 years, in 1896. This was four years after Margarita Temple and Nicolasa Workman died, along with Margarita’s oldest child, Thomas, within a few weeks of each other during a flu epidemic in early 1892.
Meanwhile, Julia, whose marriage to the mysterious Montigue somehow ended, later married Carlos Luis Cruz, a native of México, who came to Los Angeles when a child in 1846 just before the American seizure of California. Cruz was a long-time member of local law enforcement, including as a constable of police officer in Los Angeles and the Ballona Township west of the city, as a federal deputy marshal during the mid-1880s and as a deputy county sheriff in the late 1880s and in the early 1890s, though he was also a carpenter and occasional farmer, as well as a popular orator in Spanish for Democratic Party rallies in the region..
The marriage looks to have lasted perhaps five years or so and Julia and Carlos lived in East Los Angeles, now Lincoln Heights, before Cruz died in April 1895 at the age of 49. Julia then returned home to Misión Vieja, probably immediately after her mother’s death and managed the 6-acre farm. In 1900, she lived there with her brothers Peter and Thomas working the fields and their nieces Leonora and Lucinda Zuñiga.
The young women were the children of Carmel Davis, who died when they were young and Manuel M. Zuñiga, who married Lucinda Temple (mentioned above) and ran a store, saloon and billiard parlor at the nearby Basye adobe house. To further confuse everyone, this was later the residence of Walter P. Temple when he and family were suddenly the beneficiaries of an enormous discovery of oil on 60 acres surrounding the house and on the adjoining northeastern tip of the Montebello Hills.
In fact, the Davis property, as with virtually every other tract of land in Old Mission, was quickly leased to an oil company for petroleum prospecting. Before Julia could realize any revenue from the wells that were actually producers, however, she died in early July 1918 at age 66. Walter P. Temple became the trustee for her surviving siblings and distributed the modest royalties that accrued from the wells drilled by General Petroleum. Moreover, Peter Davis lived for a time in the Workman House and was involved in construction at Temple’s La Casa Nueva.
In a very short obituary in the 6 July 1918 edition of the Los Angeles Express, it was noted that “Senora Julia Davis Cruz . . . nursed Walter P. Temple, the [son of the] builder of Temple block, as an infant.” While it is undoubtedly true that Julia assisted Margarita Temple with the younger Temple children, including Walter’s older sister Margarita and younger brother Charles, it is also clear that she was far more than a nurse, but, rather, was a close member of an extended Temple family, as evidenced in photos and in what descendants have related.
As what was so often the case, families in small, tight-knit communities like Old Mission (which no longer exists as oil development and flood control projects, among other factors, led to its depopulation) had such close relationships that being compadres was a very familial way of life for them.