A Friend Indeed: A Conveyance of “Mission Tract” Land at El Monte from Volney E. Howard to William Workman, 20 April 1863, Part One

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

As something of a follow-up to the recent post on this blog featuring, from the recent treasure trove that is the donation of artifacts from the Josette Temple Estate, a trio of letters written between 1854 and 1861 to William Workman from attorney and future judge Volney E. Howard, tonight’s post highlights a conveyance from Howard to Workman from 20 April 1863 and involving land formerly part of the Mission San Gabriel that was part of the broader El Monte community.

Howard, as the previous post noted, took on a half-interest in a claim by Workman and Aaron Pollard, who assumed the part-ownership of the late Hugo Reid, grantee in 1846 by a decree from Governor Pío Pico with Workman of the mission lands. In spring 1863, that claim had been confirmed by both a land claims commission, for whom Howard once was legal adviser, and a federal district court in Los Angeles, but the United States government automatically appealed rulings that went in favor of claimants and the federal Supreme Court would take up the matter in a year. If the high court decided to uphold the confirmation, the government was to issue a patent to the property to Howard, Pollard and Workman.

Los Angeles News, 2 July 1867.

The document, handwritten by Howard, in part reads:

Know all men by these presents, that whereas, William Workman has this day signed a deed for my benefit to Fielding W. Gibson for about seventy acres of land situate in the Montee [sic] so called, part of the Mission tract, and part of the present enclosure of said Gibson and also, a deed for about sixty acres in the Montee, adjoining the enclosure of said Gibson, the same being a conveyance to Mr. [Asa] Ellis, and embracing a part of his enclosure, now therefore, in consideration of said conveyances, I agree to convey or cause to be conveyed to said Workman in the Montee, out of said Mission claim, as soon as the grant is finally confirmed, an amount of land equal to that, which he has this day conveyed to said Ellis and Gibson . . . which land shall be equal in quality to that which said Workman has conveyed as above stated.

This transaction involved figures, Gibson and Ellis, who were long-time El Monte-area residents of some prominence and this two-part post provides some background on them. This first part focuses on Ellis, who was, by far, the better-known of the pair.

News, 18 January 1869.

He was born in St. Louis in 1817 and followed his father Benjamin’s occupation as a lumberman, including in Texas County, Missouri in the southern part of the state and its Ozark Mountain region. Married in 1835 to Mary Wimberly, with whom he had several children, Ellis served as a county sheriff and tax assessor in his native state and was a curator, or trustee, of the University of Missouri for a few years, as well.

Ellis migrated with his family to California in 1853 and continued his work in the lumber business, including work in Yuba County at Camptonville and Marysville and the operation of a sawmill, processing redwood, near Santa Cruz. As was the case with so many who came to greater Los Angeles, especially in the later 19th century, Ellis migrated south for health reasons and settled in El Monte in August 1861 and took up farming. It may be that the property referred to in Howard’s conveyance to Workman was among Ellis’ earliest acquisitions in the area.

Ellis and his family in the “Bennettville” community of the El Monte Township in the 1870 federal census.

An article on El Monte in the Los Angeles News of 18 January 1869 (one of its owners happened to be lawyer, judge and El Monte native Andrew Jackson King) noted that the township was “celebrated for its large crops of corn, ‘big’ pumpkins, pretty girls, and Democrats,” of which Ellis quickly became one of the most dominant in a region almost completely controlled by the party. The hamlet of Lexington (El Monte was largely populated by Southerners, almost all of whom were avid supporters of the Confederacy in the recent Civil War) featured the store of Jacob Weil, the only Jew among the early settlers of the area.

A mile west was Bennettsville, a newly established village named for Silas Bennett and which was, the paper claimed, was “destined in the future to be a place of some importance.” Included in the infant community were “some of the best farms in the county” with “neat cottages and substantial barns, betokening thrift and industry.” It was noted that “conspicuous in the vicinity of Bennettsville is the private residence of Hon. Asa Ellis,” with the two-story brick dwelling still in construction and its impressive gardens still being planted, so that “when completed [it] will be one of the most beautiful private residences of the State.”

Los Angeles Star, 19 February 1872.

In 1864, Ellis won election to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors and served a single two-year term, but his political acumen led him to immediately launch a successful bid for a seat in the California Assembly, in which he served three terms from 1867-1869, 1871-1873 and 1877-1879. In his first campaign, he gave a speech at a mass meeting for the Democratic Party at Los Nietos, south of El Monte, and among the other speakers were Howard and his son Charles, who was the witness for the aforementioned conveyance.

During his third term, perhaps the most important issue confronting the legislature was the contentious matter of the creation of California’s second and current constitution, though he also worked to establish a poor farm for indigent people—eventually one was opened in Norwalk and later became the Rancho Los Amigos facility. Ellis was also known for his bill concerning animal trespassing on farmland that was considered essential in the transition from ranching to farming and his bill on curbing the fee system for local officials was also well-known. In 1872, he helped pass a bill that revoked Anaheim’s briefly held charter as an incorporated city and the following year lobbied for state investment in “taming” the San Gabriel River, which during floods wreaked havoc on the El Monte area along its western banks.

Los Angeles Herald, 15 March 1874.

As he finished his second term in the Assembly, Ellis ran for the California Senate, though he lost that contest. In its promotion of his candidacy, the Democratic Los Angeles Star lavished praise on him:

Mr. Ellis is one of the truest friends that Los Angeles ever had in the legislature. No charge of demogoguism [sic] or unfairness can be made against him. He is a thorough man of the people—and especially so with the farmers and working people generally. He is honest and industrious and can be trusted under any and all circumstances . . . Our county could commit no greater folly than to defeat him.

In running for his third term, Ellis garnered more unstinting support from the Star, which gushed that “he is one of the most faithful and honorable, as well as one of the most careful and energetic men any county ever sent to the Legislature.” Noting that electing him to another stint meant that Ellis would be confirmed as “a perfectly safe and reliable legislator,” the paper quoted extensively from the Anaheim Review, still grateful for his “disincorporation” work five years prior and very approving of his record in the Assembly.

Star, 7 August 1877.

The Star also printed a letter from “Republican” in Azusa, who averred that “unquestionably Los Angeles county never sent a more useful man to the Legislature” and called him a statesman for his work on the trespass act. It expressed great confidence in Ellis’ ability to take on the challenging issue of water rights and the letter ended that “it is infinitely safer for all, even Republicans, to vote for him.” As he was now in his sixties, Ellis began to be endearingly called “Uncle Asa.”

While completing his third term in the Assembly, Ellis spent a good deal of time in the mining boom town of Bodie in eastern California and, in summer 1879, sent a lengthy dispatch, published in the Los Angeles Herald, of what is now a ghost town and a state park. He noted its population of 6,000 persons, save Indians, and told the folks back home that “I consider it a good place for a steady, industrious man to come to” though he warned, “time is precious” for those who were giving the idea of trying their luck there some consideration.

Los Angeles Express, 15 February 1881.

After leaving the legislature, Ellis joined a finance committee in Los Angeles for a proposed creation of the state of “South California.” This was hardly a novel idea, as a bill by State Senator Andrés Pico in 1859 to develop the state of “Colorado” was passed by the legislature and sent to Congress, though the Civil War stopped the idea cold in its tracks. There were may prominent regional figures involved in this effort, including future mayor William H. Workman, nephew of Homestead founders William and Nicolasa Workman; banker Isaias W. Hellman; capitalists John E. Hollenbeck and Jonathan S. Slauson; politician Reginaldo F. del Valle; lawyers Andrew Glassell, Henry T. Hazard, Robert M. Widney (a former judge), and Cameron Thom (also a district attorney and future mayor.)

In 1882, Ellis was elected county tax collector, but the rise of the new Republican paper, the Times, led to a new use of “Uncle Asa” as a pejorative, as the sheet hammered the official for such actions as securing an assistant as a means to extend the funds made available to his office, even as the paper claimed this was hypocritical given Ellis’ leadership in curbing fees in office by local officials.

Los Angeles Times, 23 May 1885.

The Times expressed shock and then outrage when Ellis was appointed the First District federal tax collector at San Francisco by newly installed President Grover Cleveland, opining that he was not qualified and that he secured his position because of the influence of his real estate partner and former Supreme Court Chief Justice William T. Wallace. Whatever the situation, Ellis served as tax collector from 1885 to 1889 and, even when he retired, he was able to keep his salary and retired to a Fresno County ranch.

In addition to his political career, Ellis was a leader in the local Methodist Church conference and was a founding trustee of Wilson College in Wilmington (a precursor to the University of Southern California,) established on land donated by Benjamin D. Wilson, whose Lake Vineyard ranch was not far from Ellis’ property. He was also a trustee of the Old Mission School District, which embraced parts of the El Monte Township, but was north of the Old Mission or Misión Vieja community at Whittier Narrows where the Temple family long resided.

Herald, 21 August 1890.

From the mid-Seventies, Ellis was owner of a large property at Duarte and was credited with planting the first orange groves in that community, while he and Gibson also established the town of Savannah, though that enterprise floundered as the regional economy cratered following a statewide downturn and the failure of the Temple and Workman bank. In 1882, he sold part of his Duarte holdings, but, five years later, as the great Boom of the Eighties was in full flower and real estate prices skyrocketed, Ellis cashed in, selling some 320 acres to C.N. Wilson for $145,000 and another small tract with Wallace for another $10,000.

He did not long enjoy his retirement from his federal patronage job and enjoyment of his ranch near Fresno, as Ellis died at that property in August 1890 at age 73. The news was delivered to his son-in-law, Guy Barham, later publisher and president, with his brother Frank (namesake of Barham Boulevard in the Hollywood Hills) of the Herald, and that paper stated:

Mr. Ellis’ death will be deeply lamented by a large number of people in all parts of this state, and particularly so in Los Angeles county . . . He served his fellow citizens in many offices of public trust . . . He introduced into the legislature and passed many good laws . . .

Ellis’ body was brought back to the San Gabriel Valley and interred in the Savannah Cemetery, which remains (!) in existence today. While there is an Ellis Lane, which briefly runs in a corner of El Monte adjacent to Temple City and which appears to be named for him, Asa Ellis, prominent as he was for over a quarter century in our area, is largely forgotten. His grandson, Arthur M. Ellis, was a lawyer and history buff who served as president of the Historical Society in Southern California during the 1920s.

An 1878 book published in San Francisco and about notable people in Sacramento observed that Ellis had, “a genial disposition, and a voice as musical as the rippling of the silvery brook.” He was lionized for his “dignified and respectful” presence in the Assembly and, beyond the Capitol, “is the essence of wit and dry humor, and a social companion, and a gentleman in the full acceptation of the term.” Ellis was deemed to be “respected by Democrats and Republicans, as, in matters of general interest to his constituents, he knows no party or clique, but claims to be a representative of the whole people.” 

The concluding second part of this post tomorrow concerns the other El Monte-area figure mentioned in the Howard conveyance to Workman: Fielding W. Gibson. So, please come back and check that out.

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