by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Continuing with a look at a 20 April 1863 conveyance of land from Volney E. Howard, lawyer and San Gabriel resident farmer, to William Workman and concerning a tract from the former holdings of the Mission San Gabriel, this second part of the post focuses on the other individual, aside from Asa Ellis, who was mentioned in the document.
This is Fielding Wesley Gibson (1809-1891), whose name is memorialized in Gibson Road, which runs north and south of Valley Boulevard, the historic main thoroughfare in the southern San Gabriel Valley. Gibson’s tract of some 250 acres of the Rancho San Francisquito was, like Ellis’ land, on the west side of the Río Hondo, the old channel of the San Gabriel River, while Eaton Wash runs to the west.
Gibson was born near Natchez, Mississippi, along the Mississippi River, and his parents, David, from South Carolina, and Frances McKinley, a native of Pennsylvania, were early settlers of that area after land was seized from the Choctaw Indians. Gibson followed the family occupation of farming and received a federal land grant in 1840 near where he was born and then another in 1847 across the border in Louisiana.
When news of the California Gold Rush was received, Gibson headed to New Orleans, took a ship across the Gulf of México to Matamoros, México and then crossed that country to Mazatlán on the Pacific coast, from which he traveled to San Francisco. He passed through Sacramento on his way to the teeming gold fields and reportedly made some $7,000 in seven months of prospecting.
Understanding that cattle fetched high prices, he took his money, headed south and acquired materials at San Gabriel, as well as hired hands, so he could go to Sonora, in northern México, and purchase 550 head with the idea of driving them to the gold country and reap a handsome profit. It was stated in a biographical sketch of Gibson published in 1889, however, the drovers employed by him stole all but a little more than 80 of the animals by the time the return was made to this area.
It was at this time that Gibson decided to settle in the San Gabriel Valley, where settlers from the Southern states established the El Monte community. His acquisition of land from Henry Dalton was soon followed by marriage to a widower in that area, Betsey Aldrich Welder, and the couple had several children. Gibson was also known in his early years for planting a large area of corn specifically for the manufacture of brooms, which were sold in such Los Angeles establishments as the store of future real estate kingpin and mayor Prudent Beaudry.
In addition to farming, which, by 1860, included Irish and sweet potatoes, oats and hay, Gibson had stock, such as cows and cattle, and also became interested in raising thoroughbred mules and horses. One of his partners by the mid-1860s in the latter was F.P.F. Temple, who imported a horse named Black Warrior from the famed horse-breeding region of Kentucky and who sired a horse for Gibson. In subsequent years, Gibson occasionally advertised for the sale of his animals, including via at least one raffle.
Temple and Gibson collaborated on real estate, another big interest of the latter, as they, in 1865, acquired the northern end of the Rancho San Pedro from the Dominguez family. With the end of the Gold Rush, the consequent lessening demand for regional cattle, the terrible floods of the winter of 1861-62 (an estimated 50 inches of rain fell that season), and then two years of devastating drought in 1863-64, but also the beginnings of the first growth boom in the region, lasting through the mid-Seventies, the large ranchos were increasingly being subdivided.
Ads were taken out by spring 1867 for forty-acre tracts, which these going as far east as the Río Hondo, still the San Gabriel River until the next winter when heavy rains and flooding led to the creation of a new channel just to the east. In fall, the Los Angeles News reported that
a train of several wagons and carriages, with some fine stock, reached this city . . . from San Joaquin county, and are we understand, the first installment of a colony of twenty-two families that are soon expected to arrive from the North and settle upon what is now known as the Temple and Gibson tract of land near this city.
The only regret, the paper concluded, was that there weren’t 2200 families coming to the area, as “we have land enough, and more, for them all.” By the following year, Temple and Gibson, who sold land through Temple’s new Hellman, Temple and Company bank (which included merchant Isaias W. Hellman, who also owned a large section of the tract, as manager and William Workman as silent partner) plotted out a townsite, roughly halfway between Los Angeles and the rudimentary harbor at Wilmington and San Pedro. Originally, the place was denoted on maps as Gibsonville, but, by early 1869, it was called Centreville. When, however, George D. Compton acquired large holdings there, it was decided, by the summer, to rename the community after him.
While Gibson was nowhere near as ambitious and active in politics as his neighbor Ellis, he did serve one term, from 1861 to 1863, on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, and also was a trustee, as Ellis was, of the Old Mission School District. Notably, in 1860, he supported the wing of the Democratic Party that sought to keep the country united in the face of growing secessionist agitation in Gibson’s native South, whereas most Democrats in the region, especially in El Monte, came to support the Confederates in the Civil War.
One of his major acts of public service came in 1872 as county leaders prepared to negotiate with the Southern Pacific Railroad concerning its main line to be built to Los Angeles from the north and then eastward through the San Gabriel Valley (including Gibson’s land), as well as local branches.
Along with Temple and many other prominent figures, such as ex-Governor John G. Downey; Dalton; Francisco Palomares; Louis Phillips; David W. Alexander; Antonio Franco Coronel; Harris Newmark; Leonard J. Rose; James De Barth Shorb; Compton; and Tomás Sánchez, he was a member of the Committee of Thirty, which worked on a strategy for dealing with the powerful railroad company.
Even though the collapse of the California economy after a bubble of silver mine stock for companies working in Virginia City, Nevada and trading shares in San Francisco took place in summer 1875 and the Temple and Workman bank had just reopened with money borrowed from “Lucky” Baldwin after several months of closure, Ellis and Gibson launched their new town of Savannah “laid out in the center of the homesteads” of its founders. An article in the 30 December edition of the Herald stated:
It is surrounded by churches, schools and flourishing settlements; has a store, telegraph office and [Southern Pacific] depot; the railroad company runs its trains to accommodate all desiring this station for [access to] a country residence; and its price puts it within the reach of all . . . It is the section for a poor man [with prices from $50-150 per lot comparable to the new San Bernardino town of Colton], as it is very fertile, and any family can raise all the necessities of life on a small tract. An investment in Savannah is sure to double itself in a year, for in that time there will be a large and thrifty settlement of enterprising people.
Within two weeks, the Temple and Workman bank failed and the economic situation continued to deteriorate rapidly. The town quickly faded away with the name preserved through the Savannah Cemetery, established where Dalton found two graves in the 1840s and which is also the final resting place of Ellis, Gibson and many other early American and European residents of the area. While the developers were credited with naming the settlement, it is to be remembered that the native Indian village of Sibag-na long preceded it and the similarity of the names is notable.
As late as 1878, Gibson identified himself as a resident of Savannah and he remained at his large property for the rest of his life, continuing to farm and raise stock, including sheep, which replaced cattle as the mainstay of anima husbandry in the region. The 1889 county history biography recorded that “his long business experience, keen foresight and practical knowledge rendered him uniformly successful in his operations, and secured him a fair competency.”
The sketch added “Mr. Gibson is at this writing in his eightieth year, with all his faculties seemingly unimpaired; but desirous of relieving himself of the cares and labors of agricultural pursuits,” he decided to turn over 50 acres to each of the five surviving children he had with Betsey.
On 8 November 1891, Gibson died at 82 years of age, though the Herald wrote he was 93 and had little to say other than that he was a forty-year resident of the area, was the father of newly elected Los Angeles County Sheriff Edward D. Gibson, and “was highly respected.” The Los Angeles Express was even briefer, echoing that he was “generally respected,” though it stated he was 64 years old.
As if to make up for the lack of details, much less accuracy, a friend submitted an obituary to the Herald, which, however, gave the deceased’s name as “T.W. Gibson” in headline. In any case, the unnamed eulogist gave some of Gibson’s history and lionized him as
more well known for his uprightness and strict integrity than for politics, being a universal favorite of all who knew him. In his death his children have lost a loving and devoted parent, and his friends can never forget the true friendship and loving kindness he always extended to them.
This document is interesting and instructive because of its associations with William Workman as well as Volney Howard, a major figure in Los Angeles’ legal fraternity (as well as in San Francisco, Texas and Gibson’s home state of Mississippi), Ellis and Gibson, along with the history of El Monte and the San Gabriel Valley at large. Fortunately, F.P.F. Temple’s son, John Harrison, preserved it and much else.
We look forward to sharing more treasures from the Josette Temple Estate, along with other Workman and Temple family donations, so that we can tell their stories and those of the region in which they played a long and notable role.