“To Save Yourself Any Further Trouble and Me and Mine from Almost Ruin”: Reading Between the Lines in a Letter from Peregrine Fitzhugh to William Workman, 16 August 1870

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

The first significant and sustained period of growth in greater Los Angeles came after the Civil War as immigrants to the region not only settled in the Angel City but in outlying areas, much of which were former Spanish and Mexican era ranchos that were subdivided for many reasons (inheritance among children of grantees or later owners who sold their portions, expenses from surveys and lawyers in pursuing patents in the abysmally slow land claims process, loss of land due to unpaid taxes, and more.)

For those fortunate few rancheros who held on to their properties through the trials and tribulations of the end of the Gold Rush and the decline of the cattle market, the Depression of 1857, the floods and droughts that ravaged the region in the first half of the Sixties, the large expenditures of the land claims process and so on, there was also the enticements of selling land as prices rose during this first boom.

William Workman could certainly see what was taking place and decided by 1868 that the time was ripe for selling some of his more than 24,000 acres of Rancho La Puente. It was also opportune because he and co-owner John Rowland, having received their patent from Washington, D.C. in April 1867 after some fifteen years of dealing with the land claims matter, could finally make for disposition of their property now that title was finally and fully settled.

Peregrine Fitzhugh and his family, along with partner Michael Ege, on lines 19-27 in the 1850 census at Cotoctin Furnace in northern Maryland. A separate schedule showed that Fitzhugh owned eight slaves, as well.

The 28 April 1868 edition of the Los Angeles News briefly observed that “we understand that Mr. William Workman of Puente, a large owner of Monte lands, is in favor of selling the same to actual settlers.” Now, while this short note specifically talked about holdings near El Monte on the ranchos Potrero Grande and Potrero de Felipe Lugo, some of which was taken by squatters, who were then taken to court by Workman, his son-in-law F.P.F. Temple, and their compadre Juan Matias Sánchez, he soon made a deal with some of his La Puente property.

This was with one of the hordes of people who came west after the Civil War seeking new opportunities in the Golden State and, specifically, in greater Los Angeles. Peregrine (the Latin means “one from abroad,” so this seems especially apt for him) Fitzhugh (1814-1899), was born in northern Maryland, northwest of Washington, D.C., and was from descended from British colonists.

His great-uncle and namesake, Colonel Peregrine Fitzhugh (1759-1811) was an aide-de-camp to George Washington during the Revolutionary War, while his grandfather also served in the conflict that led to the creation of the United States. He was born to William (1783-1829) and Sophia Clagett (1792-1884) and, with his father’s death when he was a teen, Fitzhugh married at 19 and opened a store in Hagerstown, near the Pennsylvania border.

Los Angeles Semi-Weekly News, 28 April 1868.

Later, however, he was the beneficiary of a bequest from a great-aunt (not unlike Workman’s father and his inheritance from an aunt and uncle in northern England) that provided him substantial property. Fitzhugh also became, in 1843, proprietor of the Catoctin Furnace, an iron works, which he ran in partnership with Michael Ege and then alone and ruins of which are a historic site today. In 1850, he also owned eight slaves, who may either have worked at the Furnace or on the large acreage he owned and likely farmed.

While it was said in published histories that a Democratic Party tariff established in 1846 was oppressive to his business (Fitzhugh was a Whig, the precursor party to the Republicans), Fitzhugh wound up in financial distress. One account states that he sold the enterprise and 7,000 acres for more than $50,000, a handsome sum, in 1854, while another recorded that he took on Jacob Kunkel as a partner to keep the iron works going.

In 1858, two disasters befell Fitzhugh. First, in January, there was a gas explosion at the Furnace that left him badly burned. Then, came insolvency (again, it is possible the Depression of 1857 mentioned earlier had its effects, as well.) Kunkel ended up suing Fitzhugh, so there was likely some kind of loan or other indebtedness incurred by the latter from the former, and the case dragged on until the end of the Civil War.

Another indication of available Rancho La Puente land for sale by William Workman, Los Angeles Star, 20 December 1871.

Having lost his business and large holdings, Fitzhugh briefly operated, in 1863, a produce and commission house in Baltimore and then left his home state to try out his luck in Texas, leaving his wife, Sarah, and their several children behind in Maryland. Then came an opportunity, which, again, many from the southern states sought—making the move to California and joining what was referred to as a Maryland colony in the San Francisco Bay area.

This appears to have been done in 1865 as, early the next year, Fitzhugh was secretary of a project to build a railroad line from Oakland to Goat Island, better known to us as Yerba Buena, in the bay off San Francisco. At the time, the transcontinental railroad was in progress with Oakland the western terminus, so the scheme may have been an effort to improve access to San Francisco before the line across the country was completed (that was in spring 1869.) In any case, the idea was thwarted as the federal government owned, as it does today, the island.

In 1866, Fitzhugh was a resident of San Francisco, but he also got involved in land purchases in the vicinity of Santa Cruz, the coastal town west of San Jose. At the end of 1867, he was one of a trio who acquired part of Rancho Laguna and the sellers included the brothers William T. and Andrew Glassell, who, like Fitzhugh, were recent arrivals in California from the south, where both fought for the Confederacy. While Fitzhugh and his partners sold part of what they acquired back to William Glassell, this latter and Andrew soon decamped to Los Angeles.

Fitzhugh’s voter registration listing, dated 21 August 1869, about nine months after he purchased his land at La Puente from Workman.

There, Andrew Glassell, a lawyer by training, entered into a partnership with Alfred B. Chapman (a Southerner who served in the U.S. Army and was briefly stationed at Fort Tejon in the late 1850s before settling in Los Angeles after he resigned with the outbreak of the Civil War) and George H. Smith. Smith happened to be a cousin of George Smith Patton, with whom he attended the Virginia Military Institute, and both served in the Confederate Army, as well. To add to the intertwined connections, Patton was married to Glassell’s sister Susan, but he was killed on the battlefield in 1864 and Smith married her six years later.

Glassell, Chapman and Smith developed a thriving practice based largely on real estate, including ranchos that were being partitioned and subdivided, while they were also the attorneys for F.P.F. Temple and William Workman. Another client was the Yorba family and when they could not pay their legal fees pertaining to the Rancho Santiago de Santa Ana, the lawyers, as was common practice, accepted land instead. On the tract they acquired, the men founded the town of Orange, which became part of Orange County in 1889, and William T. Glassell was the surveyor for the new tract.

So, it seems pretty likely that Fitzhugh heard about Los Angeles through the Glassell brothers and he came down in 1868 just as Workman was open to selling some of his land, though not under financial duress as with the Yorbas and many others, Latinos and, on occasion, Americans and Europeans. On 2 December 1868, Fitzhugh arranged with Workman to acquire a tract of at least 1,900 acres of mostly steep slopes in the San José Hills at the northeastern portion of Rancho La Puente in modern Walnut, West Covina and, perhaps, the western fringe of Pomona.

The document from 15 February 1871 extending Fitzhugh’s promissory note for the land purchase by a year, to 2 December 1872.

For this deal, however, Fitzhugh took out a promissory note for the purchase price of $10632.60 and which was due three years from the date of acquisition with, of course, any accrued interest added to the principal. With the cattle industry all but devastated by the dual destruction of flood and drought during the first half of the 1860s, there was a growing sheep raising industry in the region. As just one example, F.P.F. Temple raised the animals, with Norwegian native Andrew Kittilson (later an early rancher in Menifee in Riverside County—more on him and Temple in another post) on his father-in-law’s ranch in what is now the Avocado Heights area west of the Homestead.

Fitzhugh quickly stocked his new holdings on La Puente with sheep, who did well on those hills near today’s Mt. San Antonio College and Cal Poly Pomona. In April 1870, he took out an advertisement in the News to sell 900 animals, a third of them three years of age, from the “Puente Rancho” and listed Augustus C. Chauvin, a Gold Rush 49er from St. Louis (and of a long-standing French family from that city) who came to Los Angeles in 1868 and opened a store on Main Street across from F.P.F. Temple’s Temple Block, as an agent.

There was, however, a significant pair of problems for Fitzhugh and his endeavor on the Rancho La Puente. First, he was indebted to Workman and had to generate enough income from his sheep-raising enterprise to make good on his promissory note. Then, there was an issue raised in the highlighted artifact from the Museum’s collection (and a recent donation from the Josette Temple Estate), this being a 16 August 1870 letter from him to Workman.

The missive began with the plea that “I hope after mature deliberation you will accept the proposition made by Messrs Glassell, Chapman and Smith to settle the title to the disputed land sold me.” Specifically, there was a $2,000 payment the lawyers would accept to clear the matter, which is not elucidated in the correspondence, but may have involved boundaries with John Rowland and his son-in-law, John Reed, as noted below.

In any case, Fitzhugh offered to pay a third of that amount, though he added that “this morning I offered to settle only 1/4 ($500).” He went on to state that the attorneys would accept promissory notes for a year at 12% for that term, but, while he pondered that others might see no issue with such an arrangement, “I think differently, and therefore, poor as I am, will willingly pay $666 2/3.”

Fitzhugh asked Workman to cover the remaining $1333.33, suggesting that a “suit will be very expensive to yourself” and, added,

Besides this you may be harassed for years, indeed all your life.  Should it go against you, how many thousands you will lose.  It will take too the best of the land as to quality and water, and even at $2 pr. Acre, amount to near $4000 on 1900 acres. Besides this I know you, with your strict ideas of right and wrong, would not expect me to take $2 pr. Acre for the choice of my Rancho.  Mr Glassell assures me that he makes this offer in consequence of his advising me to purchase, thinking your land was not included in the disputed tract.  From the great kindness you have always shown me I know you feel, as Mr. Glassell does, for my family, consisting of an old mother, wife and children.  Without this title is settled I can neither sell to advantage or get any one to join me to improve disputed land.  By settling this matter you save me from almost ruin and from years of anxiety.  You save yourself the chance of loosing [sic] thousands of Dollars, and years of trouble; yes perhaps all your life. 

This language certainly carries all the impressions of a desperate man seeking a way out of a major financial problem, which, of course, was not the first time Fitzhugh was involved in such distress.

He went on to tell Workman that he would hurt no one by comprising on the legal issue “as yours and Messrs Rowland and Reed are different.” This seems to indicate that there was a dispute between Workman and Rowland, friends of close to a half-century, about the land divided amongst them two years before and involving what was sold to Fitzhugh. In this case, Fitzhugh added, “you never sold any land to them, but you did to me, fully believing the title was good.”

Workman, however, could rectify the problem at less money than it would take to deal with the matter in court and Fitzhugh thought it a good strategy to note, “who ought to on reflection want you in your old days to be troubled and harassed for years with a troublesome and costly suit, and the chances of loosing [sic] thousands of Dollars.” Playing the emotional card about his own travails, Fitzhugh rhetorically asked “what have I done, for any one to wish this suit to go on which may be the cause of throwing my family on the cold world? 

Los Angeles News, 13 April 1870.

Another figure brought into the matter was Volney E. Howard, a prominent figure who has been discussed in this blog previously, specifically with Howard’s involvement, as an attorney specializing in land cases, with Workman’s claim to the property of the Mission San Gabriel. Fitzhugh wrote, “it was not [in] General Howard’s interest to advise you or come to your place yesterday to advise you to pay $2500.  He said he did not wish to see you bothered in your old days and although the chances for gaining this case was more than for loosing [sic] it, still he thought it advisable to settle on terms proposed.”

Querying “what else could have had come out for?” Fitzhugh thought that any case could go in the favor of him and Workman, but wondered, “if we loose [sic] what then?” Even if they prevailed, there would be “much expense and how many years of anxiety and trouble no one can tell.” Calling Workman, “my friend, (for such you have always been),” Fitzhugh implored him “to save yourself any further trouble and me and mine from almost ruin” by going to Los Angeles and talking to Howard and, if needed, Glassell.

Los Angeles Star, 3 April 1872.

More buttering up ensued, as it was noted, “they both speak of you in the highest terms & say that you always want to what is right between man and man.” Highlighting his anxiety, Fitzhugh stated that

poor as I am, [I] will willingly pay the promised sum $666 2/3 rather than risk this lawsuit.  I will pay this amount within the year and hope to settle with you in full before that time, particularly if my title is made good for the land.  I will only add, and I call my maker to witness my sincerity when I state, if you were my Father or Brother. I would advise you to settle this case as soon as convenient.  If you come in yourself you and General Howard can get (I believe) even longer time than one year to pay this $1333 and before it becomes due I can take it up myself. 

It may be that a resolution was found as another document from the donation was generated between the two men on 15 February 1871. It specified that, as long as any accrued interest was paid through the 2 December date that marked the end of the three years from Fitzhugh’s purchase of the land, Workman agreed to “hereby extend the time of payment of said note to December 2, 1872,” though it was added that the accumulated interest through 2 December 1870 was $400.

Baker’s transfer of land at Santa Monica, near modern Playa del Rey, and the “Fitzhugh tract” at La Puente to his wife, Arcadia Bandini Stearns, Los Angeles Express, 5 February 1879.

The agreement also stipulated that “it is also understood that should the said Fitzhugh sell a part or the whole of the land, which I sold to him and for which said note was given, on or before December [2,] 1872, that whatever money he shall receive for the same it is to be paid to the said Wm Workman on account of the said promissory note of $10632 60/100.”

In fact, a deal was struck to sell the property to Edward F. Beale, the well-known federal Indian agent and owner of the massive Rancho El Tejon between Los Angeles and Bakersfield, and Robert S. Baker, a co-founder with United States Senator from Nevada John P. Jones and builder of the Baker Block (the site of Abel Stearns’ El Palacio adobe residence) where U.S. 101 runs under Main Street near the Plaza in Los Angeles.) The property, described as the Fitzhugh Tract when Baker transferred it and other property to his wife, Arcadia Bandini Stearns in early 1879, was one of the several land holdings, mainly in Santa Monica, exempted from the collateral put up for the loan made a little more than three years earlier by Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin for the Temple and Workman bank. Baldwin’s foreclosure on the loan was finalized just after the Baker transfer.

Another failed Fitzhugh endeavor with the California Iron Works, [Rocklin] Placer Herald, 29 May 1880.

Just after that, in 1880, Fitzhugh, who’d returned to San Francisco after selling out at La Puente, got back into the iron works business, this time near Auburn, northeast of Sacramento, in Placer County, one of the Gold Rush mainstays. News coverage noted his past experience in the industry in Maryland and he was praised for his initiative in developing what became known as the California Iron Works.

Alas, this venture, too, collapsed in financial failure, as an 1884 sheriff’s sale was held to try to pay off some of the $114,000 in debt that was amassed by the business. Though Fitzhugh was then about 70 years old, he kept working and voter registration listings through the eighties and into the nineties showed him working in real estate and as a clerk and bookkeeper. He died in San Francisco in 1899 just before his 85th birthday, with his widow dying the following year.

Fitzhugh selling real estate while in his early 80s, San Francisco Call, 14 April 1895.

Their only son, William, became a surveyor and then a prominent mining engineer, who worked on projects around the world, while living in Paris and London before returning to San Francisco, where he built an office building next to Union Square, though it was demolished. A daughter, Catherine, was married to William Hammond Hall, who was from the same area, Hagerstown, Maryland, as Fitzhugh, and who achieved prominence as the California state engineer whose work on irrigation was covered in a multi-part post here.

The Fitzhugh letter to Workman is another great recent addition to the Museum’s collection and was written at a pivotal time as the Workman House was remodeled and William Workman wrote his will with thoughts of the future after him, so the sale of the Fitzhugh tract is part of the milieu of that era. For some great info on Fitzhugh, check out this blog post.

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