“Be Watchful of Your Morals and Health for on These Depend Your Usefulness and Success in Life”: Reading Between the Lines in a Letter from Abraham Temple to Pliny F. Temple, 10 September 1843

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

When Pliny Fisk (later known as F.P.F. when he adopted “Francisco” as his baptismal name when converting from being a Congregationalist to a Catholic) Temple left his native Reading, Massachusetts, located northwest of Boston, for Mexican Alta California and the pueblo of Los Angeles in January 1841, he was just shy of his 19th birthday. Presumably, he had not long before completed his education, perhaps high school, and was seeking ways to make his adult way in the world.

Whether he intended to visit for a short time or stay permanently, his journey, which took him by sailing ship around the horn of South America on a voyage lasting close to half a year by the time he got to the Angel City around the first of July, may be somewhat akin to a college freshman leaving home to go to a school across the country. Of course, a flight now takes a mere several hours and young Pliny was not extending his formal schooling, though, perhaps, he was embarked on the next stage of his education at the university of life! His earliest coursework in Los Angeles was working in the store, the first in town, owned by his much older half-brother Jonathan (1796-1866.)

In any case, surviving letters written to him by family members during his first few years in Los Angeles are definitely couched in terms of concern and anxiety about how the young man would fare so far from home. How much of this was Pliny being in a foreign country is not known, though there may also have been the factor of his being the youngest of a large family of eleven children, as sometimes these last-born wind up being watched over very carefully, even to the point of being smothered by siblings.

Note that the letter was not received until almost eight months after it was written.

One of these early missives, and others will be shared in future posts, to Pliny was from his brother Abraham (1814-1851) in late January 1842, in which the latter seemed to express some regret for encouraging, by his own enthusiasm for California, the former to fly the coop and head out to Los Angeles. In his correspondence, Abraham also made a brief allusion to Pliny “to shun all appearances of evil,” though this was a general admonition from a deeply religious New Englander or a veiled reference to something the younger Pliny might have done, though this seems unlikely, is not known.

In any case, the highlighted object from the Homestead’s holdings for this post is another letter from Abraham, dated 10 September 1843, and which goes even further into advice on how Pliny should conduct himself, even though he’d been in Los Angeles for over two years and was well into his twenty-second year. The missive began by acknowledging the receipt of two letters from Pliny, dating to May and December of the prior year, delivered on the ship Alert, a three-mast vessel built in Boston in 1828 and used for California travel under the leadership of Captain William D. Phelps from 1840 to 1842 (his diary and observations were published in 1983) before it was sold the following year for use in whaling in the Pacific. The ship was captured by a Confederate steamer in 1862 during the Civil War and burned.

Abraham wrote that in the May 1842 letter Pliny complained of not hearing from his family since he left Massachusetts, but was told “we have written every opportunity that has presented and we shall avail ourselves of every opportunity of writing you that comes to our knowledge.” It was added, though, that “you will do us the same kindness, you doubtless have better facilities of sending home then [sic] we have of sending out as any letters sent to the U.SA. will find ready conveyance from any Port and I trust you will avail yourself of every chance.”

The Alert also brought letters from Jonathan which included “the pleasing intelligence of his contemplated visit to his friends,” but Abraham also felt it necessary to warn Pliny that, if such a trip took place and he was to be alone in Los Angeles, “I trust you will be on your guard in giving any just cause of dissatisfaction in his absence.” Moreover, Abraham added that he would ask questions in this missive except that he was looking forward to Jonathan’s visit, so one wonders what was said in the elder Temple’s letters. Whatever the situation, the commentary continued,

I wish you to be watchful of your morals and health for on these depend your usefulness and success in life; be honest, be virtuous, avoid the cups [that is, don’t drink alcohol]; in fine, avoid all vices that tend to degrade.

From here, the missive turned to family news and it was virtually universal for correspondents to mention health as communicable diseases were particularly prevalent before we had better sanitation, vaccines and treatments and other ways to improve our health outcomes. One of the sisters of Abraham and Pliny was Lydia Bancroft and is reported that she “is very sick, [and] her health has been feeble for the last year and a half,” though not so dire until the last several weeks, as “she has kept about” before then. Abraham noted that “she has failed to such a degree [that] I fear she has not long for this world,” seeming to be like their father, Jonathan, Sr., when he died in 1835, as “I think her difficulties are the same.”

Lydia, who was married to Bradley Bancroft of Reading, died at the end of 1843, and staying with them were the two’s respective siblings, Lydia’s sister Clarinda and Bradley’s brother John (there were plenty of intermarriages among Reading families and in most rural places that are sparsely populated), who were tired from caring for Lydia. Another Temple sibling, Seth, was mentioned as being “at home as usual,” though why the last word was underlined went unexplained, though it may be that he was not necessarily welcomed there! It turned out that Seth died just five days before Pliny in April 1880.

A sister, Cynthia, was also mentioned as being ill “with a bilious fever,” this usually being a condition of excess bile in the blood and tissues leading to jaundice and generally manifested in nausea and vomiting. Abraham wrote that it was not considered “dangerous at present” and that she passed along her regards to Pliny as well as it being noted that Cynthia taught school in adjacent Lynnfield for the past two years.

Cynthia also appears to have had a chronic lung condition, likely tuberculosis, and such ailments proved to be found, as was so often the case in American families in the 19th century, with other Temple family members, notably Pliny’s son Francis, who succumbed to it in 1888. One of her letters to her brother, from 1856 after their mother died, mentioned it as well as her appreciation to him for his kind acts including the erection of a Temple family tombstone at Laurel Hill Cemetery in Reading. A touching missive from their sister Lucinda Bancroft to Pliny early the following year went into some detail about Cynthia’s suffering before she died just after the dawning of 1857.

With respect to Lucinda Parker Temple, the mother of Abraham and Pliny, it was mentioned that she “although last here is first in our affections” and “is growing more feeble and infirm although she keeps about,” even as it took more effort to do so than previously. Not surprisingly, it was emphasized that “she manifests much anxiety about you, lest you should yield to temptation and disappoint her high hopes’ and Abraham continued “be watchfull [sic] over your conduct, [and] remember her good instruction and profit thereby.” Mrs. Temple died in April 1856, leading Pliny to send the money for the tombstone mentioned above.

Having updated his brother on the rest of their siblings and other family, Abraham then wrote,

I wish you to write respecting your mode of living, who does your cooking, how you like the ladies that way, and whether you think I had better sell out and come out. I wish you to write all that you think interesting to your friends here, and when you think of returning.

Apparently, any reply of Pliny to these personal matters has not survived and it would be particularly interesting to know what he might of said regarding the young women of the Angel City as, just over two years later, he married 15-year old Antonia Margarita Workman, daughter of Nicolasa Urioste and William Workman, owners of the Homestead on Rancho La Puente.

As for the comment about Abraham selling out (he was listed as a farmer in the 1850 federal census) and moving to California, he’d mentioned this to Pliny in his 1842 missive, although he’d claimed that he and his wife, Cassandana Bickford, had recovered from their “California fever.” The only family member known to have migrated to the Golden State after Jonathan and Pliny ventured out during the Mexican period was their nephew Thornton Sanborn, who also had tuberculosis, and he worked for Pliny for about twenty years at the latter’s Rancho La Merced in the Whittier Narrows as well as in the Tuolumne County town of Springfield, where Pliny had extensive Gold Rush-era cattle interests.

Abraham also mentioned Reuben Nichols, who may have been a nephew as a son of their half-sister Betsey or an older man of that name who was a longtime Reading shoemaker, though then working in a store at Medway, southwest of Boston, who “talks much of your country, [and] regrets not knowing that you were going as he would liked to have gone with you.” It was added that, if Jonathan did visit at Reading, “he may perhaps have an opportunity of paying his fare out if he wishes his assistance.

After noting the deaths of several relatives and friends, Abraham note, despite holes and the remnants of a wax seal, that “the prospect for business is improving . . . [and] their [sic] seems to be an increasing demand for goods for [all] kinds and an increase of prices, to the gratification of all classes of [the] community after a depression of two years.” In fact, after a national banking crisis broke out in 1837, the United States experienced economic issues for the next half-dozen years.

The letter concluded with a note that the aforementioned half-sister Betsey Temple Nichols had a young child, Roswell, born in March 1842 and that “this is the only increase of nephews or nieces for the last two years and no better prospects” on the horizon. Abraham then asked Pliny “please write often and lengthy and acquaint us [on] how you prosper.” There was a brief postscript that “all your friends send much love to you wishing you prosperity.”

We consider ourselves fortunate at the Homestead to have these letters in the collection so that we can learn as much as time and circumstance allow (think about how much has not survived the ravages of the years) about the Workman and Temple family. To quote Abraham Temple, “we shall avail ourselves of every opportunity” of sharing on this blog as many of these letters and other family documents, so be sure to be on the Alert for those in future posts.

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