Reading Between the Lines in Letters to F.P.F. Temple From his Sister Clarinda Bancroft and Niece Lucinda Sanborn, 30 January 1842

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

The Homestead is very fortunate to have in its collection a wide-ranging archive of material relating to the Workman and Temple family, including furniture and furnishings, photographs, documents, and letters. These latter, often shared as part of this blog “Reading Between the Lines” series of posts, are often particularly valuable for giving us, along with photos, a more humanized perspective of the family and their history.

This post features some of the earliest pieces of correspondence we have, dating to just a year after Pliny F. (later, F.P.F.) Temple arrived in California to meet his half-brother, Jonathan, who left their native Reading, Massachusetts, northwest of Boston, before Pliny was born. These letters, dated 30 January 1842, a couple of weeks before Pliny turned 20 years of age, are from his sister, Clarinda Bancroft, and niece Lucinda Sanborn, whose mother, also Lucinda, was another of Pliny’s siblings.

It is very rare, indeed, to have letters sent to California during this period, when the department, as it was called, was so remote and isolated that it has been called “the Siberia of México.” As Clarinda’s letter noted in its address, these were sent by sailing ship and such journeys, making their way around the horn of South America, took a full half-year so that, as with Pliny’s migration, they did not likely arrive in Los Angeles until sometime in July.

It is not known if another missive from Pliny’s brother Abraham, dated 24 January and featured in this blog previously, was included with these, though it seems likely. That correspondence began with a remembrance that it was a year before that Pliny left home and a statement that the deep ties between the brothers were not changed, so it is hardly surprising that Clarinda’s introduction was filled with her strong feelings about her absent sibling:

More than a year has elapsed since you left the shores of happy New England, since you left the meternal [sic] roof, where you left one of the kindest and best of Mothers, and who feels deeply for your welfare, where we enjoyed the pleasures of childhood, love, health, peace, and competency blessed our dwelling, and all the allurements of the world, although time and distance has separated [sic] us from each other, you are not effaced from my memory, a kind and affectionate brother. It was with unspeakable joy that I heard you were wafted safely across the mighty deep.  Dear P reflect on the unbounded goodness of God in preserving your life, while many have found a watery grave. 

She added that she was “extremely anxious” to know that Pliny got to California and to Jonathan safe and sound, as well as about her brother’s health and whether “you duly appreciate the advantages of your own native land, and if the shores of New England would not be a pleasant retreat to you.”

Most of the remainder of Clarinda’s letter, naturally, concerns local news, including that her husband, John H. Bancroft, a shoemaker, rented the house of the man for whom he made his products, though it was apparently a temporary arrangement. As for neighbors, she mentioned those who may “enter the conjugal relation” or sold their dwelling and moved to another area. She also “with much pleasure” related that Reading just opened the Franklin Library “of nearly 200 volumes” and she asked her brother “would it not afford you much pleasure to have access to a Library?”

As a matter of fact, there was strong interest by the Temples of Los Angeles for just such an institution, though it took quite some time. In 1859, Jonathan Temple was president of a newly formed association for that purpose though the effort soon foundered. A renewed attempt, however, in 1872, including F.P.F.’s eldest child, Thomas, as a founding trustee, as a success and the Los Angeles Public Library has just passed its 150th anniversary.

Another overriding concern for 19th century Americans was health and letters invariably discussed, often in some great detail, when it was good as well as when there was sickness and disease, which were all-too-common before the discovery of germ theory and the introduction of vaccines. While Clarinda assured F.P.F. hat she and her husband were feeling quite well and she noted that “there has [sic] been few deaths this year past [compared} to what there has been,” there were still 17 of them in the time since her brother departed for California. One man, Amos Parker, fell from a hay load and was immediately killed and “took a quick retreat into the unknown regions of eternity” and constituted “a warning to us to be also ready” for when “the son of man cometh.” In the immediate neighborhood surrounding Clarinda, there were a quintet of persons who “fell a prey to the ruthless tyrant.”

As she reached the end of her letter, Clarinda told F.P.F. that “the fond recollection of an absent brother still reverts to my mind” and she added that “it would be a source of unspeakable gratification could I have the pleasure of enjoying a verbal interview with you.” She, however, though that not only must “that gratification be denied at present,” but that it “perhaps [may] never [be] enjoyed this side of Eternity.” This being the case, she hoped that they could “enjoy uninterrupted felicity where friendship and love are universal and permanent,” though F.P.F. did make one visit home, in 1870, and also sent three of his sons (Francis, William and John) to schools in the Commonwealth State.

Clarinda again wrote that she was “extremely anxious” to know how her brother fared during a terrible drought in 1841 and “whether there was sufficient sustenance to supply the wants of nature,” while she also wanted to know what F.P.F.’s “situation” entailed, how Jonathan and his family (including wife Rafaela Cota and their child, Francisca) and “how long you think of remaining on the coast.” It has been suggested that F.P.F. only considered staying for a short period of time and this comment seems to support that idea, though, of course, he became a permanent resident of greater Los Angeles.

It must’ve been late or chores were calling, because Clarinda noted that “I intended to fill my sheet,” with wasting paper much frowned upon, “but time will not allow” more writing. With this need to “curtail” her letter and sending a wish for prosperity and greetings to Jonathan and his family from herself and husband as well as “all the blessings allotted to men,” he then closed. Two postscripts requested that F.P.F. “write every opportunity long letters” and, in his next missive, to provide the names of his sister-in-law and niece.

F.P.F.’s niece, Lucinda, turned 14 years old a little more than a month prior, her birthday being Christmas day, and she displayed a precocious personality in her letter. Her opening was about as formal as could be, as she noted that “It is with unfeigned pleasure that I now embrace the present favorable opportunity of writing you hopeing that it will find you as it leaves me in the enjoyment of health and happiness.”  She added that “we [including her father Benjamin C. Sanborn] are all in the enjoyment of comfortable health” and had been since her uncle left for California.

From here, however, the tone changed considerably and the teen allowed herself to gossip freely with her uncle. After noting that there was a change in teachers at her school, with the woman who was at the helm the previous term married to a Temple and the replacement being a young man attending college but who was suffering from poor health, Lucinda added, as her aunt Clarinda did, that there were a few deaths in the neighborhood. She also recorded that there were a couple of births and a marriage, but more of interest to her with the trials and travails of someone only identified as “Sylvanus” and who “is in distress to get married” and who “has tried almost every girl in the parish in their teens and some married ladies!” Lucinda went on to record that the bachelor had a marriage offer rejected and thought of leaving town to find a spouse.

After talking about another newly married couple in Reading, Lucinda stopped herself and wrote, “but I have doubtless we[a]ried your patience with my nonsense and I will now turn the subject of my letter to something besides matrimony.” She mentioned her 2 1/2 year old brother, Thomas, who “has several times set out to go to California” and “has taken his provisions with him, but he can never find it.”

She added that “he wishes uncle Pliny would come back and bring him some dates.” As for the rest of her family, she noted that her parents and sister Garifilia sent their love “and would be extremely happy to see you,” while her brother Thornton “would have written but so many others thought of writing [that] he thought that he should have nothing to say,” while he hoped his uncle would send him a letter.

As she neared the close of her missive, Lucinda declared that

Although my letter is not as sentimental as some I think there is quite as much new in it as in the rest of them and as it is of no other use than merely to get the news I beg of you to commit it to the flames which I have no doubt you will be glad to do as soon as you have read it.

Fortunately, her uncle chose to keep the latter and it has now survived 180 years! But, she wasn’t quite finished as, in contrast to her aunt, Lucinda decided that she would “try and fill up the waste paper” with more news, even “if it is not quite so bright” in tone. So, she relayed more information about Reading residents until she’d exhausted all of the space available.

As to these letter writers, Clarinda lived until 1886 and she and husband John wrote and received letters from F.P.F. that have survived the ravages of time. Lucinda married Talbot T. Fowler in 1849, but, after their child died of a diseased liver just after birth, she succumbed a few days later of fever at just age 24. Fowler then married her sister Garafilia and the two raised a family in Massachusetts and Virginia until his death a quarter century or so later in 1879. Thornton Sanborn came out to California and worked for his uncle in the Tuolumne County town of Springfield, where F.P.F. had extensive cattle and other interests in the area, as well as at Temple’s Rancho La Merced in the Whittier Narrows. After his uncle’s bank failed in 1876, Thornton returned to Massachusetts.

These letters were part of a large donation by the late Josette Temple, a great-granddaughter of F.P.F. Temple, and we’ll look to highlight more missives from this and another family gifts in the “Reading Between the Lines” series.


2 thoughts

  1. Thank you for continuing to share these “Visions on the past”! So wonderful to read this and to see people were not much different than we are today, is quite humbling yet fantastic!

  2. Hi Dana, we are very appreciative these are in the Museum’s collection and are glad you’re enjoying them. They really give us a personal perspective on the family that we wouldn’t otherwise have. Thanks for the comment.

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