by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Native of England William Workman commemorated his arrival in California from New Mexico by having a glass plaque made and mounted at the Workman House which stated that the date of landfall in this region was the British national holiday called Guy Fawkes’ Day (commemorating a failed attempt in 1605 to commit a domestic terror bombing of Parliament’s House of Lords)—the date being 5 November 1841.
There were several accounts of the journey from Santa Fé to Los Angeles along the Old Spanish Trail that took a little more than two months and several posts on this blog mention or go into some detail about some of them. This post adds to the roster by looking at accounts given by Dr. Jonathan Huntington Lyman (1816-1890), whose reminiscences were provided to Thomas J. Farnham and which appeared in an 1849 book called Life, Adventures and Travels in California, published after Farnham’s death.
Lyman, generally known by his middle name, came from an old Massachusetts family and hailed from Northampton in the west-central part of the Bay State and perhaps best known as the home of Smith College. His grandfather, Joseph Lyman, was a well-known Congregationalist minister and one of the organizers of the church’s American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (one of its most famous missionaries was Pliny Fisk, whose name was bestowed on [Francis] Pliny Fisk, or F.P.F., Temple, son-in-law of William Workman and Nicolasa Urioste, Homestead founders.)
He was the seventh of thirteen children born to Jonathan H. Lyman, Sr., a lawyer who served in the Massachusetts House of Representatives and Senate, and Sophia Hinckley and was educated at the University of Pennsylvania and earned his medical degree there. Among his many siblings was a deaf sister who taught at the Pennsylvania state school for the hearing impaired and who married a great-grandson of Thomas Jefferson.
Yet, he decided, for reasons not yet known, to make the extraordinary journey across the continent and wound up in New Mexico in 1841 as John Rowland, William Workman, Benjamin D. Wilson and other Americans and Europeans were preparing to leave for southern California. For Rowland, Workman and Wilson, the reason was political amid turmoil involving the plans of the Republic of Texas to seize much of New Mexico. For Lyman, the reason to press on to the Pacific Coast may have been adventure, education, or both.
In any case, Wilson, in his 1877 interview with a representative of Hubert H. Bancroft, whose library is at the University of California at Berkeley, briefly mentioned Lyman, stating that “he stayed in California about eighteen months, returned home and married” and adding, notably, “I saw him some three months since; he now resides in San Francisco. He brought with him his family, one member of which I saw, who is also a physician [this was son John].” Wilson, however, also provided the only amusing anecdote of the expedition that is known to us:
On the River Sevier, in Utah Territory, Dr. Lyman and myself had stopped behind the train to fish; it was in the evening, the Doctor being with his hook and line in the water, the fish biting very well. He spoke to me that a very large fish had bit at his hook and go off. Just as he was talking a ball from an Indian gun struck the ground near him; he remarked very coolly, “That fellow can’t hit me, so therefore I will stay and get this fish before I leave,” and he did so.
Isaac L. Given, one of a trio of men who hoped to catch the first wagon train to California, which took a northern route from Missouri and arrived at its destination a day before the Rowland and Workman Expedition ended its journey, and ended up taking the Santa Fe Trail to New Mexico and then joining the other party, remembered, also in 1877, that Lyman was from Boston.
He added was that, when the expedition reached Los Angeles, he, Albert Toomes, Wade Hampton, William Gambel, Wilson, and Lyman were so exhausted by the tribulations of the trip that they spent months recovering at an Angel city dwelling, though Given added that Lyman returned to Massachusetts in 1843, which comports broadly with Wilson’s recollection. In 1895, wrote to the Historical Society of Southern California to state that the first California gold discovery, which took place in March 1842, was actually preceded by an earlier one in June 1841, a date asserted by long-time Los Angeles resident Jonathan Trumbull (Juan José) Warner.
Given wrote that “shortly after our arrival [with the Rowland and Workman Expedition], Dr. Lyman, a member of that party, and myself, were invited to dine with Don Abel [Stearns] . . . [and] he showed us a quart bottle of gold dust containing about 80 ounces” from near the same place where the 1842 find occurred. When Given and Lyman suggested further mining, Stearns replied that “the gold could not be found in paying quantities.”
Lyman’s marriage in July 1847 was to Julia Dwight, the daughter of a prominent merchant and philanthropist in New Haven, where Yale University is located, and whose father and nephew, also called Timothy, were presidents of Yale, while her mother’s father was a Massachusetts governor, United States Senator from the state, and a delegate to the Constitutional Convention of 1787.
The couple had three sons, the first dying as a child and the younger passing away at age 18 while in studying natural history in Brazil, leaving middle son John C., a Harvard University medical school graduate, to be the only survivor to adulthood—this was the one mentioned by Wilson and who was, like his father, a doctor. After Julia’s death from the very common disease of tuberculosis in 1853, not long after giving birth to her youngest child, Lyman wedded her sister Mary and they were together until his death 35 years later.
Farnham’s account recorded that Lyman was in Buffalo, though there is no other documentation to that effect and the three sons were born in New Haven. Regardless, the writer noted that his friend “travelled from Santa Fe, in New Mexico, by way of the Colorado of the West, to Upper California, in the year 1841” and “has kindly furnished me with some of his observations, as well on that stream as the adjacent territories and the Indians inhabiting them.”
While the Old Spanish Trail crossed the Colorado and went north of it into what became Utah, it may be that Lyman explored that river on a separate occasion, as Helen Hunt Jackson, author of the famed romantic novel Ramona, wrote in her A Century of Dishonor, a work published in 1885 about the terrible treatment of America’s indigenous people, that Lyman, in a letter published in a federal Indian report from 1871, stated he’d traveled among the Apaches in 1840 and 1841 and related an account of an American massacre of the natives in the Mexican state of Sonora.
What Farnham added was that “the Doctor’s route lay northwesterly, up the head waters of the Rio Bravo del Norte [Rio Grande] . . . and northwardly across these to the Rio Colorado of the West—down the northerly bank of this river to the Californian Mountains—and through these to El Pueblo de los Angelos, near the coast of the Pacific.” Again, the trail veered quite a bit further north of the Colorado, so whether Lyman misrepresented his route or Farnham misunderstood it is not clear.
The author continued that Lyman’s excursion was
An eventful journey—through an unexplored country of untamed savages, which the Doctor’s scientific attainments and interesting style amply qualify him to detail to his countrymen in a manner that would for ever connect his name with the border literature of America. But to this task, I fear he can never be persuaded.
Among the quoted sections from Lyman is that “the traveller journeying northward, after leaving Santa Fe (Lat 26 degrees N), passes, for the space of 300 miles, alternate ranges of mountains, separated by valleys of greater or less width, some exceedingly fertile, and other very barren.” In places, there was plenty of grass and water for animals, but, in other locales, “so desolate and parched is the land, that he has to make long days’ journeys with scarcely a blade of good or a drop of water for their sustenance.”
For about half that distance, the doctor went on, up to the San Juan River, the main watercourse in the Four Corners region where New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona and Utah meet and which empties into the Colorado, the situation was good, but beyond that, “the country becomes generally sterile . . . opposing [posing?] almost insurmountable obstacles to the traveller’s progress; compelling him to search many days before he can find a feasible passage across.”
While Farnham cited a passage that purportedly “describes the travelling down to banks of the Colorado,” the quote from Lyman is that “the water in nearly every instance after leaving the crossing of the Colorado [in eastern Utah near modern Moab] . . . down to the Californian Mountains, a distance of seven or eight hundred miles, is either very brackish and slimy, or so excessively saline, as to have in many instances a fatal effect on animals and men.” The account continued that “in some few instances, indeed, good waters are found . . . [and] sometimes, too, the traveller crossed vast barren plains utterly destitute of water, and upon which vegetation is so scarce that there will hardly be a bade of grass to a square mile of surface!”
Lyman went on to note that “there are a few spots in this forsaken region where nature has attempted to chequer its desolation with greenness,” but, even then, some of this consisted of poor grasses and squash that, “when green, furnishes a poor apology for good to the starving emaciated wanderer.” He noted that Paiute Indians ate the latter when not ripe, saying that he saw large amounts of shells around deserted fires.
It may be that Lyman’s reference to the Colorado was more specific to the eastern Utah region, as he mentioned that “the wayfarer descends from the mouth of Green River,” which meets the Colorado in what became Canyonlands National Park, southwest of Moab, and followed where “the banks rise, and the river is buried in deep and roaring chasms.” After reaching what he called Salt Mountain, the doctor was quoted as observing that the traveler,
thence descends to another place of encampment called las Vegas, where there are about one hundred acres of salt grass [a Rowland and Workman Expedition account mentioned a spring that made the locale an excellent spot for an encampment amid the forbidding landscape]. There a desolate plain commences, which extends about one hundred miles, partially covered with loose sand, puled into ridges curiously waved over the general surface, and in the ravines, whirled by the winds into a great variety of fantastic forms . . . on all this plain there is no vegetation except a little salt grass on the margins of a few stagnant pools of brackish and sulphurous [sic] waters.
Farnham continued that, as his friend navigated this desert area, “the sands were drifting hideously” and his only guide were “the carcasses of horses which had perished in previous attempts to pass it.” It was added that the dryness was such that the corpses were “dried like the mummies of Egypt!”
From there to the “Californian Mountains,” meaning the San Gabriel and San Bernardino ranges, the soil was hard enough that no tracks were left behind and the water was also unpalatable, leading Farnham to suggest that “this valley of the Colorado of the West has no equal on this continent for barrenness” and was “a great burial-place of former fertility that can never return.”
As proof of a purported ancient civilized past, Lyman told his friend of “ruins which he discovered about four hundred miles up the river, and a short distance from its northern bank.” He went into great detail about decayed structures, built of rock with a cement mortar, and forming a city stretching east to west and about a mile by three-quarters of a mile long, with entrances on the centers of each of the four sides. Farnham wrote that “this little city was probably overwhelmed by the action of those volcanic fires which have melted, shaken, and transformed the whole Pacific coast of the continent” and “that it was a place for the habitations of men appears clear.”
Lyman told the author that he located burned clay, vessels with a glazed exterior and “with raised black images of birds, and of bears, birds and other animals with human heads” on them. These purported ruins were said to be thirty miles from the closest evidence of fresh water amid “one of the most sterile wastes on the Colorado River and the doctor claimed he found “a deep excavation which has every appearance of an old silver mine.”
After a series of rhetorical questions about the mystery people who built and resided in this locale, Lyman stated that the Ute Indians had no answers or legends about this, bur Farnham went on to ask, “was not this the Cibola of the early explorers; the land visited by the Jesuits—filled with people and wealth, and which the volcanic fires that even to this day groaned under the whole western coast of America have seared into a homeless waste?
Farnham then wrote that,
Doctor Lyman suffered so many hardships and privations while travelling down the Colorado, that he, as well as his animals, barely lived to reach the green fields and pure waters of the Californian Mountains.
There was some detail about the Cajon Pass (deemed “a great curiosity” because of its break between the mountain ranges); the Mojave desert and river, the latter which was said to ran below the surface with only occasional surface stretches giving the appearance of a series of small lakes; and the sight that beheld the traveler as the descent was made from the pass “into the sweet plains of the Californian sea-board; that most delightful of all lands—that paradise of the continent, if not of the world.”
With respect to Lyman’s later years, he practiced medicine in his hometown for probably some fifteen years, but, when the 1860 federal census was taken, his occupation was given as “gentleman” and he self-reported his wealth at $22,000. While this was a decent sum, the enumeration of a decade later, the only other census in which financial values were provided by the person for their real and personal property (the 1850 count had a general property amount), Lyman, listed as an attorney, stated that the former was $40,000 and the latter a rather impressive quarter million dollars. What caused the dramatic change in his fortune is not yet known, though one source below may be at least part of the explanation, if not from the boon of his law practice or an inheritance of some kind.
As Benjamin D. Wilson observed in his 1877 dictation, Lyman, his second wife Mary and his son John moved across the continent (likely by rail rather than the difficult overland trek he made thirty-five or so years prior) to San Francisco, selling a house that still stands today and is owned by Smith College, while another of his houses in Northampton also remains standing.
He sold his son some property in the greater Los Angeles area that year, and, two years later, while residing at San Rafael, north of the Bay City, he was listed, in a voter registration book, as a retired doctor, while the 1880 census, enumerating him in San Francisco, had no occupation given. Two years later, though, another voter registration listing recorded that he was an agent of some kind, but, after the death of his second wife in the mid-1880s, Lyman returned home to Northampton.
In June 1890, Lyman died of heart failure, with a news article stating that the immediate cause was “overwork,” and a couple of brief obituaries were located. The Fall River [Massachusetts} Herald of the 16th stated that the deceased “was a pioneer traveler in California before the gold fever days, his route taking his name in maps.” Moreover, it was reported that “he had many interesting frontier experiences” while his later life was “connected with railroads in the northwest,” perhaps explaining his sudden leap in financial fortune in the 1860s. The Boston Transcript two days later explained that “in 1841 he crossed the continent by a track that was afterward put down in the maps of the day as ‘Dr. Lyman’s route,” though it added he returned to Massachusetts in 1845.
One wonders if Farnham, whose work did give him some attention in posterity, thanks to the efforts of his remarkable wife, Eliza, was correct that, if Lyman had published his own account of his travels, he would have been assured a place in the annals of American frontier literature. Of course, whatever local renown he may have had in Northampton, he only may be known at all because of his friend’s inclusion of the account Lyman provided him of his travels with the Rowland and Workman Expedition, which, according to Workman, made local landfall on this day 181 years ago.