Reading Between the Lines in a Letter from John H. Bancroft to F.P.F. Temple, 2 August 1856

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

We’ve been fortunate at the Homestead to be the beneficiary of donations to the Museum’s collection of Workman and Temple family artifacts, including furniture, photographs, letters and documents and more, on many occasions during more than four decades of our existence. The earliest of these gifts go back to 1980, just before we opened to the public, and the most recent is just now being finalized.

What these do, of course, is help us better understand the family and its history, often in ways that really serve to humanize them, in multifaceted aspects that can involve successful endeavors, failed efforts, happy occasions and instances of tragedy. One of the core components of the Workman and Temple family story has to do with the dramatically fluctuating fortunes, the ups and downs, to put it one way, that they experienced and which is common to much of human experience.

Naturally, the vast majority of what the family produced in terms of documents, photographs and other material has long been lost, which is also broadly true in society generally. Those of us hunting around for the historical scraps often balefully noted, or openly lament, this simple fact that far more has vanished than been preserved. Sometimes this was intentional; after all, how many of us think the daily items we generate are worthwhile to posterity? Or, in some cases, people deliberately destroy personal items for a variety of reasons, including concern for how others might interpret them. In many cases, there could be accidents, such as fires that destroy houses or parts of them and the property contained within them.

So, it really is gratifying when some of these remnants surface (or resurface) and become part of the Museum’s collection, ready to be studied and discussed as part of our mission to share the history of greater Los Angeles from 1830 to 1930 so that, hopefully, we can create advocates who will go out and spread “the good word” about what they’ve learned. This is obviously best found if visitors find something relatable in the stories we tell and there are few artifacts that can do that with the immediacy of letters.

The 1855 Massachusetts state census lists the John H. and Clarinda Bancroft household, including her mother, Lucinda, and sister Cynthia, at Reading at the bottom of the left page. On the top of the right is the widow and children of Clarinda’s brother Abraham.

Of course, we really don’t produce much of the written document, such as letters, anymore and who knows how ephemeral our emails, texts and other forms of electronic communication will be to future historians? At the Homestead, we are always appreciative of having access to whatever has survived “the ravages of time,” but, predictably, are also hungry for more. When the Josette Temple Estate donation came to us in 2021, then, we were quite happy to receive materials like tonight’s featured artifact for this post which help us better understand the people that comprised the Workman and Temple family.

This document is a letter, dated 2 August 1856, to F.P.F. Temple from his brother-in-law, John Hart Bancroft, who resided in Temple’s hometown, Reading, Massachusetts, where, in fact, the Temples resided for close to two centuries by that time. The missive was almost certainly included with a letter to Temple from his sister Cynthia and which was shared here four years ago—it having come to us, however, from another family member’s donation (this often being the case as family heirlooms are parceled out, sometimes without any apparent or obvious rhyme or reason—and, depending on the state of organization, or lack of it, this can very much be understandable!)

As with much of America, which was still overwhelmingly rural in the mid-19th century, Reading was small enough (not unlike Los Angeles, for that matter) that there was plenty of intermarriage among families. The Temples were among those that had sisters marrying brothers of another family, or somewhat distant cousins wedding each other, or other combinations, such as the connections through second marriages when widows would remarry.

F.P.F. Temple, born Pliny Fisk Temple in February 1822, was the youngest of the seven children of Jonathan Temple, a Revolutionary War militia captain, and his second wife, Lucinda Parker. Jonathan was married first to Lydia Pratt and had three daughters and a son with her during the 1790s, including their only son, Jonathan, who settled in Los Angeles in 1828 having left Reading before his much younger half-brother’s birth. In some ways, Jonathan’s leaving his hometown was perhaps much like what motivated his contemporary William Workman (they were three years apart in age) to migrate from Clifton, England—seeking better opportunities in new places.

By 1860, Clarinda’s mother and sister had died, so she and John were living alone in their house, though her brother Seth resided next to them, though he was in their household a decade later.

F.P.F.’s siblings included two other brothers, Abraham and Seth, and seven sisters, including Clarinda, who was a decade older. In October 1840, she married John Bancroft, born in December 1811 (with Parker and Temple ancestors) and who was a shoe manufacturer. This occupation, in fact, was a common one in Reading, with the first license made to a shoemaker in that town being in 1643. For a time, Bancroft was in the shoe trade while also farming because the 1850 agricultural schedule for the national census showed he had 50 acres on which he had several animals and raised corn, potatoes, and hay.

Bancroft’s enterprise (shoemakers were often called cordwainers in that era) was typically a small-scale one. For example, in the 1860 census manufacturer’s schedule, he invested all of $800 in his business, which included six male workers and four female employees. The small business produced $2,450 worth of products made from the skins of cattle, goats, sheep, and ducks, with a total of not quite 4,700 pairs of men’s shoes and boots with a value of $5,700. Two decades later, when Bancroft was pushing 70 years of age, he was only open for business three months of the prior year, had 3 males and 1 female at any one time with eight total during that period. He invested $1,000 in capital and paid out $300 in wages, though nothing was said about production.

Given the modest scale of his business, Bancroft was not a particularly well-off person, but, then, most of his contemporaries in Reading weren’t either, though he appears to have increased his estate significantly nonetheless. In 1850, he self-declared his property at $2,000. Ten years later, it was $3,000, which was still a 50% increase for a decade, and, in 1870, he told the enumerator his personal property was at $1,000 and his real property at $4,500—this being more than 80% greater than ten years earlier.

By contrast, however, F.P.F. Temple was at $18,000 in 1860, this during a period of economic decline locally, but, a decade later, he was at a remarkable $220,575 and was at the very top of the financial echelon in greater Los Angeles—though that was all but completely swept away when his Temple and Workman bank failed in 1876.

The letter is, actually, reflective of Temple’s growing affluence. After working as the clerk for his brother Jonathan’s Angel City store, the first to open in the pueblo back in the late 1820s, he was able, with other cattle ranchers in the region, to enjoy the boon of the burgeoning beef trade during the Gold Rush and amass a handsome fortune for the place and time. This included significant investments in property in the Tuolumne County mining region around Sonora and Columbia, where he had grazing land, slaughterhouses and butcher shops.

In fact, his expanding enterprise there led him to send for a nephew, Thornton Sanborn, the son of F.P.F.’s eldest full sister, Lucinda. There was probably another important reason for Thornton to come out to balmy California in that he was afflicted, as so many Americans in the eastern states were, with consumption—a term for tuberculosis and which literally defined how the body was consumed by the bacterial disease that ravaged the lungs.

In fact, the Temple family seemed to have quite a few members with the disorder and who knows whether Jonathan and F.P.F. were at least partially inspired to leave Massachusetts to seek a better climate for their health. We do know that their father Jonathan died of consumption in 1835, that their sister Cynthia succumbed to it in 1857, and that F.P.F.’s son, Francis, also passed away from the malady in 1888. Thornton Sanborn, too, was taken by the affliction four years after that.

So, with some of this context, we turn to John Bancroft’s missive to his brother-in-law, in which he began by stating that he’d received Thornton Sanborn’s letter of 9 October 1855 and then quoted directly from it:

At Pliny’s [note how the family called F.P.F. by his given name, which was that of a Congregationalist missionary renowned for his work in Palestine] request I want you to send him a box about one foot square, with the best Peach, Plum and Cherry stones [seeds], you can find in the market, all kinds of garden seeds, the best, all kinds of flour seeds[,] also [the] Hovey & Co. [a Boston department store] catalogue of trees and the Book called the rich Men of Mass [written by Abner Forbes and published in 1851].

The Sanborn letter, referred briefly to in a previous post here, noted that F.P.F. would pay the bill and then asked that “the box [is] to be water tight and direct[ed] to Pliny F. Temple care of John Temple, Esq. by Wells Forgo [Fargo] & Co express.” This was to be sent by a steamer leaving New York on 5 December 1855. Bancroft informed Temple that he send the box as requested on that date but added, “as I have not heard from you or Thornton, with regard to [the] box, will you write me on receipt of this, and inform me wheather [sic] you received it or not [?]”

Bancroft continued that he presumed that the box did not arrive because he would have expected some communication about it, but then stated, “with regard to paying the bill as Thornton speaks of, if you have received the box, you will please accept it from me” as a gift. Moreover, he wrote “I hope the seeds proved to be good and satisfactery [sic.]” Perhaps typical of correspondence between men, the only personal reference was Bancroft’s passing along that “Clarinda sends he kind regards to you and your family” along with his own “best wishes for your welfare.”

If the seeds and other items arrived, we can be very sure that Temple, who was an avid experimenter with crops of all kinds on his portion of Rancho La Merced in the Whittier Narrows several miles west of his in-laws’ place (where the Homestead is now) on Rancho La Puente, tried out his various seeds. In 1856, he was still very much reliant on the cattle industry for his livelihood, but, within a decade, floods and droughts and an increasing lack of demand for beef cattle as the Gold Rush dissipated, led him and other ranchers who survived the tough times of the early to mid 1860s to turn primarily to agriculture. A visit by the California State Agricultural Society in 1858, for example, indicated the extent of his growing farming work at La Merced.

It is also notable that Bancroft offered to cover the costs of shipping the items to California, given that his financial bottom line was not at the level of his brother-in-law. In fact, F.P.F. Temple soon sent $500 back home to pay for a handsome tombstone for the family at Laurel Hill Cemetery in Reading (descendant Jason Temple was just there recently with his family and posted photos on Facebook of tombstones from the burial ground.) This came after his mother died in 1856, followed shortly after by Cynthia’s death.

As for his sister and brother-in-law, who had no children of their own but cared for Lucinda, Cynthia and another Temple son, Seth, they both survived F.P.F., who died of a stroke in April 1880 after having a series of them following the bank failure disaster. Clarinda died at age 74 in 1886 of “paralysis,” likely from a stroke, while her John followed five years later at 79 of heart disease.

We again are always appreciative of having letters like this to provide more information about the Workman and Temple family and give us a “flesh and blood” perspective to their lives. We’ll definitely continue to share more of such documents to better connect the Homestead’s visitors to the history we cover, so be on the lookout for upcoming “Reading Between the Lines” and other posts on this blog.

2 thoughts

  1. I receive these via email and I read nearly all of them! They are all wonderfully written and incredibly interesting. Thanks so much for taking the considerable time to research and write them for our unending interest!

  2. Thanks, Dana, for your continued interest in and support of the blog; its affirming to know that you and others are enjoying the sharing of artifacts from the Homestead’s collection and the history of the Workman and Temple family and greater Los Angeles.

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