Reading Between the Lines in a Letter from Martha Alexander to William Workman, 23 June 1852

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Among a group of artifacts recently donated by the estate of the late David A. Workman, great-grand nephew of Homestead founders William Workman and Nicolasa Urioste, a long-time attorney and Los Angeles County Superior Court judge, and avid family historian, is a letter written on 23 June 1852 to William Workman by Martha Alexander. She was the niece of David W. Alexander, a close friend of Workman who traveled with him from Los Angeles to the United Kingdom in 1851 and 1852.

That trip, made as the two men had the funds, derived from the boon of the California Gold Rush for greater Los Angeles ranchers, to make the trip, which included Alexander’s return to his native Ireland and Workman’s reunion with his brother and sister at his hometown of Clifton in northern England. The travelers also made an extended stop in New York City, where they had a photograph taken by Mathew Brady, later famed for his graphic battlefield images during the Civil War.

The daguerreotype portrait, said to be by Mathew Brady, of William Workman and David W. Alexander, taken in 1851 or 1852. The black fingerless glove on Workman’s hand may have been in mourning for his sister, Lucy, who died at the end of 1850.

This missive is a document of that stay with Martha writing from Brooklyn, which was an independent city until it merged with New York City near the end of the 19th century. It took some digging, however, to determine the exact connection with her “Uncle David,” of whom little has been known about his life prior to coming to Los Angeles in late 1842 with the second expedition led by John Rowland, Workman’s long-time business partner and close friend, from New Mexico.

As detailed on an earlier post from this blog on Alexander, he was born in 1810 (some sources have 1811 or 1812, though obituaries from his death in 1886 gave his age as 76) in County Donegal in what became Northern Ireland. Henry D. Barrows, in an 1897 Historical Society of Southern California article about Alexander, related that his subject told him in 1863 that he was born in 1812 and added that he came to America with a brother, George (who long resided in New York) in 1832. After a few years in Philadelphia and a short stay in Missouri, Alexander went to Santa Fé, New Mexico, where he was a merchant for about five years until he came to California. Alexander told Barrows that the Rowland party arrived in this area on 12 December 1841, but it is known with certainty that he came in 1842, not with the Rowland and Workman of the prior year.

David Alexander was likely the member of the arrangements committee listed here for a meeting of California residents then in the eastern states concerning grievances of the Golden State and the Pacific Coast broadly, New York Herald, 28 January 1852.

In any case, Alexander was associated in business with Francis Mellus, Phineas Banning and with F.P.F. Temple and William Workman, helping these latter manage their extensive herds of cattle, including some years at Rancho San Emgidio near the Grapevine in the southwestern corner of Kern County. A two-time sheriff of Los Angeles County and a county supervisor as well as a Los Angeles Common (City) Council member, Alexander was apparently highly regarded and well-liked, at least as stated in the obituaries published upon his decease.

Alexander married, in 1864, Adelaida Johnson, a half Latina, half British native of Los Angeles who was the widow of his former partner Mellus. In addition to her children with the latter, the couple had five of their own, including daughters Martha, Elizabeth and Agnes and sons Joseph and Samuel. Three of these names wound up being significant for establishing the tie between Martha Alexander and her uncle David, not to mention that the middle names of the sons are Workman and Temple, respectively.


So, as noted above, David Alexander and William Workman, close friends and fellow travelers, stopped off in New York after their return from the United Kingdom to visit with the former’s family. Martha opened by stating that “the time has at length arrived for Uncle David to leave us, and return to California” and while, she added “deeply do we regret it,” Alexander “tries to persuade us it is all for the best and has faithfully promised to return in the course of two years.” Moreover, Martha continued, “as he will see you soon after he lands in California, we thought now was the best time to send a letter, knowing you would be sure to receive it, and let you see we had by no means forgotten our promise to write to you, even though we have allowed so many months to pass without our doing so.”

Clearly, Workman, whose surviving photos show him to be a stern-looking fellow, though the fact that subjects didn’t smile because of the likelihood of blurring their faces during the long process of getting the image taken, had no small amount of charm and amiability, as Martha added, “frequently have we talked of you and the pleasant days we spent while you were with us, and lonely enough did we feel for a long time after you left.” 


She added that, as was the case with her uncle, “we have the same promise from you . . . to be back in a year or two at furthest and make us a long visit,” though she also wrote, “I am afraid you are so delighted to get home again to your family, that you will forget you have any friends in this part of the world.” As further evidence of the close ties forged by Workman with his friend’s family, Martha continued,

We have sent to your daughter [Antonia Margarita Workman de Temple] by Uncle David a pair of earrings, and Cornelia has sent a little silver ornament for your wife [Nicolasa Urioste de Workman], will they please accept them with our love.  Libby and I are both studying Spanish so as to be ready in case any good fellow should ask us to go to California with him, at any rate, we will, I hope, be able to converse with your wife when she comes on with you, and you know you promised to bring her with you, when you come. 

After telling Workman that he needed to learn from Alexander the details of a trip Martha and her family took with him and “all particulars you would like to have respecting ourselves,” Martha ended her missive by telling Workman that “Mother, Father and Libby join me in sending our very best love to yourself and family & hoping soon to hear from you.”


Despite the fact that Martha mentioned “Libby,” who was undoubtedly her sister, and added the name of “Cornelia,” it was a bit of a challenge trying to track down David’s brother and his family. For one thing, it was assumed that David must have been in close proximity of age to his sibling, but that turned out not to be the case at all. Even when names matched up nearly, there was still that need to make a direct tie between the Alexanders of New York and their far-flung relation in Los Angeles and it came about rather indirectly.

The 1850 census, the first American enumeration to list all the members of a household, not just the head of it, showed that, in New York City, there was merchant Joseph Alexander, a native of Ireland, but of the age of 60, which made him over two decades older than David. This is not unheard-of to have siblings with such a wide gap, especially if, for example, they shared a father, but had different mothers; after all, the half-brothers Jonathan and F.P.F. Temple were 26 years apart. What is not known is whether Joseph preceded his younger brothers George and David to the United States or not.


The count also listed Joseph’s wife, Sarah and two daughters, Martha and Elizabeth, so the fact that there were just two daughters and “Libby” was a common nickname for “Elizabeth,” it seemed highly likely this was the same family. Moreover, the Alexanders resided with another family, the Wasons and some poking around found that Rebecca Wason was the older sister of Sarah Alexander, the sisters having the maiden name of Thompson.

In 1855, however, the Alexanders moved north to the town of Salem, located near the border with Vermont, where the Alexander girls were born, and their father continued his mercantile trade in that community. Two years later, Joseph died, and his widow and daughters remained there and were living in a hotel when they were enumerated in the federal census of 1860. From that point, it became a little problematic tracking the remainder of the family, though a Find-a-Grave listing was located for Joseph and Sarah, who died in 1873.

The enumeration in the 1850 census of the family of Joseph Alexander and Sarah Thompson, including daughters Martha and Elizabeth (Libby), in the household of Sarah’s sister Rebecca and her husband William Wason in New York City.

The listing, however, only gave information for the couple, not their children, though there were photos posted of the tombstone and, once these were saved and then expanded, the names of Martha and Elizabeth could barely be made out, even though they were not included in the listing. Elizabeth, it was found, died in 1862, probably around the age of 30 and was listed as Alexander, indicating, of course, that she never married.

As for Martha, the hard-to-read carving on the stone matched what was found in the 1870 census, when Sarah was shown as living in Salem with a “Martha Cruikshank, age 35. That age didn’t quite comport with the ages of Martha Alexander in the 1850, 1855 and 1860 census listings and it seemed possible that the Martha Cruikshank listed under Sarah Alexander was unrelated as there was noting in the 1870 listing that said the two were related. But, the headstone, tough as it was to make it out, does show Martha as Cruikshank and gave her death year as 1892—when she was about 63 years old.

By 1855, when a New York state census was taken, the Alexanders were residing at Salem, near the Vermont border.

Yet, even though Martha was found in 1880 still residing in Salem and as a boarder in a house run by a grocer and his family, there was no indication of a husband—as was the case a decade before. That certainly seemed strange and, with no 1890 census (that having been lost in a fire) to check, the only recourse was to go to the Cruikshank family and see what could be turned up. It had been noted, for example, that another sister of Sarah Thompson Alexander, Martha’s mother, was Emily Cruikshank, who, it turned out, had a daughter named Cornelia—quite likely the woman who bought the silver ornament for Nicolasa Urioste de Workman, as Martha reported in her letter. In addition, it was later found that Cornelia Cruikshank’s husband, Essek Bussey was an appraiser of Martha’s estate after her death.

A Find-a-Grave comment was also located that stated that Martha Alexander’s husband was James Thompson Cruikshank, whose middle name, of course, is notable. The comment added that he was from Troy, New York, where the Cruikshanks were long resident and that he went to California during the Gold Rush, that he was an attorney in the Golden State and that he died in New Mexico and was buried in an unmarked grave. Noting the remark made by Martha in her letter about she and her sister learning Spanish “in case any good fellow should ask us to go to California,” this lead was followed up.

The 1860 federal census counted the sisters Martha and Elizabeth Alexander at Salem, but some time after Martha married James Thompson Cruikshank, who was in northern California from at least 1856 and apparently returned to his home state of New York and married Martha, though she was in the Empire State in succeeding censuses while he remained in the Golden State.

The 1852 California state census, the only such conducted, does show a Cruikshank living in Mariposa County and working as a miner, but showed his last residence as the “Sandwich Islands,” or Hawai’i, while giving his age as 26. Moreover, only the initial “P” is visible on the sheet as the left margin was damaged and the problem is that we can’t, therefore, link this directly to James T. Cruikshank.

It was found that, in 1856, Cruikshank was a founding member of the committee that established Fresno County at the town of Millerton and he went on to serve as the county’s second district attorney from 1858 to 1861. In 1859, he and a partner discovered the Black Diamond coal mine in northeastern Contra Costa County near the town of Antioch—today there is a Black Diamond Mines Regional Preserve and the mine location can be visited. By the late Sixties, Cruikshank, who’d briefly launched an oil company as part of his holdings, was registered to vote as Somersville, the town named for his partner Fred Somers, while he was listed as an attorney in the 1870 and 1880 censuses in that region while one of his brothers headed the household in which he lived in the former enumeration.

Sarah Alexander and Martha Cruikshank lived in a Salem hotel when the 1870 census was conducted, but her husband, James, was in northern California at the time.

In late May 1879, as reported a short time later in a San Francisco newspaper, Cruikshank was found in his law office with a gunshot wound just below his heart and he purportedly stated that the incident was an accident. While it was suggested he was dying, Cruikshank obviously recovered long enough to be counted in the following year’s census. After that, however, the trail goes completely cold. The reference above to his dying in New Mexico and being buried in an unmarked grave could not be substantiated—though if someone out there sees this and has some info, please leave a comment!

The obvious question is: what happened between Martha Alexander and James T. Cruikshank? Perhaps he went to California to seek his Gold Rush fortune and then, years later (after 1860) returned to marry her. Maybe he headed back west and either promised to return or send for her and did neither—this is, for now, a mystery. What we do know is that she kept his name until she died in 1892. When her estate went to probate, a witness was Robert Cruikshank, obviously related to James in some way, while Essek Bussey, Cornelia’s husband was one of the appraisers, as noted above.

The first part of Martha Alexander Cruikshank’s will from August 1891, with bequests to her California cousins, including, in this section, Martha, named for her by her late uncle David Alexander, who died five years prior.

The direct tie to David Alexander, however, was found in Martha Cruikshank’s will, made out in August 1891, and in which she left $1,000 and jewelry to each of David and Adelaida Alexander’s three daughters (Martha, Elizabeth and Agnes) add $1,000 each to the two sons (Joseph and Samuel.) Obviously, David remembered his New York kin when naming three of his children after his brother and two nieces, while Martha remembered her cousins with bequests from her not insubstantial estate, which included about $11,000 of other bequests to family members.

In any case, this letter is a remarkable one as a rare missive to William Workman from outside his family, for its connection to his long-time friend David W. Alexander, and for its tie between the Alexanders of New York and their new-found friend who had just arrived at his Rancho La Puente after his only trip back home to England. Workman, in fact, did not return to New York to see the Alexanders, nor did Martha and Elizabeth get to try out their Spanish on Nicolasa Urioste de Workman!

The section of Martha Cruikshank’s will with provisions for her other Alexander cousins, residing at Wilmington, and including one named for Martha’s late sister, Elizabeth, and another whose namesake was her father Joseph.

We will be sure to share more of the artifacts donated by the David A. Workman Estate to the Homestead in future posts, so be sure to be on the lookout for those.

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