“That There May Not Be Any Notice Taken of It & Thereby Escape the Custom House”: Reading Between the Lines in a Letter from F.P.F. Temple to Abraham Temple, 30 June 1844

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

At the Homestead, we are very fortunate to have whatever tiny fraction of Workman and Temple family papers, comprising letters, receipts, back checks, stock certificates, and others, and photographs have survived the ravages of time and which help us to tell the story of them and the region in which they lived during the Museum’s interpretive period of 1830 to 1930.

Among the most fascinating and revealing are letters, which, naturally, often provide us a personal perspective not found in other family-connected artifacts. With these missives, though, there can be some significant variation in how much was about personal details and what concerned business or other concerns. Of course, content can also be dictated by the time period, the reason for corresponding, the gender of the writer, and the personality of the scribe, among other factors.

There are a cache of letters from the 1840s, including originals received by Pliny F. Temple, who, upon taking the baptismal name of Francisco, immediately before his 30 September 1845 marriage to Antonia Margarita Workman, became known typically by the initials F.P.F., as well as copies of those he wrote and sent to his family members. These copies are particularly interesting because this is not something many correspondents chose to do, but, when the time was taken, we’re certainly glad for them because who knows whether the originals were either received or retained by the recipient.

F.P.F. Temple and Antonia Margarita Workman from an daguerreotype taken about 1852.

The featured object from the Museum’s collection for this edition of the “Reading Between the Lines” series of posts is a copy of a letter sent by F.P.F. to his brother Abraham, who lived in the family’s long-time hometown of Reading, Massachusetts, northwest of Boston, dated 30 June 1844 and the original sent from “Angeles.” The paper has an embossed label that is quite faded, but which appears to read “J. Kendall,” and, given the high cotton rag content found in the period, is in generally good condition, with one tear along a horizontal fold another small one at the center fold, and a fairly large number of acid stains throughout.

Temple did not sign his missive, though he wrote on one of the panels established when the document was folded that it was a “Copy of a few articles sent for June 30th 1844.” This, of course, was when Los Angeles and California were under the rule of the Republic of México, though, within a few years that would change with the American invasion and seizure of a large swatch of that country. There was a census taken of the Los Angeles district (akin to the American county) in that year and the tally was about 1,850 residents, all but several hundred residing in the pueblo. F.P.F., listed under his birth name of Pliny, was enumerated with his brother Jonathan (though the Workman family, mysteriously, was not counted and it seems unlikely they were away from the area—travel being unlikely at the time). He began by informing his older brother (Abraham was born in 1814 and died in 1851) that

I send you by the ship Barnstable Capt. Hatch fifteen [this was crossed out over and another number written in, though this is blotted out by an ink stain] ounces Gold three of which I wish you to give mother the remainder after deducting for your trouble & expence [sic] I wish you to purchase the following articles or a part as the funds hold out, commencing at the head of the list & so on and send them when an opportunity presents.

Perhaps the most important aspect of this statement is the reference to gold, because, while many people are aware of the great California gold rush that erupted in 1848, this missive was fully four years before the news of the discovery of huge amounts of this precious metal started to become known. But, in March 1842, there was a much smaller, though not insignificant find of gold north of Los Angeles in San Francisquito Canyon, east of today’s Santa Clarita, by Francisco López.

While it has been stated in histories of greater Los Angeles that the prominent merchant Abel Stearns sold gold dust from the mines at San Francisquito through the American national mint at Philadelphia, it has not been commonly known that others did so, including Temple. We know of at least a couple of occasions in which he sent gold dust to Abraham and requested him to give some of the funds to their mother, Lucinda Parker, while some was to cover, as this letter states, Abraham’s time and expenses, and the remainder to buy items to ship to Los Angeles.

As for the craft, the sailing ship Barnstable, named for the peninsular county that forms Cape Cod Bay in Massachusetts, southeast of Boston, was one of several ships commanded by James B. Hatch (1815-1894), who was third mate as a young man on the Alert (one of his uncles was a part-owner of the craft), which was made well-known through the once widely-read Two Years Before the Mast, published in 1840, which sailed frequently to California as part of the hide-and-tallow trade of that era. Later, Hatch was captain of other vessels, including the Loo Choo, which plied the waters of the Pacific coast later than the Barnstable, including for transport of soldiers from Jonathan Stevenson’s New York Regiment of volunteers during the Mexican-American War.

One blog, providing some great information about Hatch, quoted a newspaper from his hometown of Springfield, Massachusetts (also where the sport of basketball was created) as noting that the peak of the Gold Rush found people paying up to $75 per ton for freight carried by Hatch’s ships and added that “people were willing to pay anything to get a few of the necessities of civilization on the unsettled Pacific coast.”

Some of the “necessities” might include what Temple requested from his brother, though it was also noted that Hatch’s vessels, as were many others, were floating stores with goods that California residents could purchase direct from him. In other cases, however, he and other captains would unload cargo from owners of stores in towns like Los Angeles, where Stearns and Jonathan Temple, the much-older half-brother of F.P.F. and Abraham, were successful merchants.

What follows in the document is a lengthy list of those goods that Temple requested and which, presumably, were purchased and transmitted by Abraham dependent, naturally, on how far the money went. The quantity was inscribed first, followed by brief descriptions of the items and then the dollar value of them. One online source states that the price of gold per ounce in 1844 was $15.85, so, presuming this to be accurate, and seeing that the list involved $172, less an absence for value for a few items (see below), while accounting for the nearly $50 to be given to Lucinda Parker Temple and Abraham’s expenses, the fifteen ounces, if this is the correct number, would total about $238.

In any case, the requested items included “Fancy Silk pocket Hdkfs [handkerchiefs]” for the pocket and neck; black silk velvet vests; sewing silk and satin; pencils and lead; letter stamps with the initials “P.F.T.” and “J.T”; leather pocket memorandum books; a large music box (of up to $15 in price); a silver watch ($20); buckskin, kid, silk and cotton gloves; a silk shawl ($25); a valise “for carrying behind saddle”; women’s belts; pen knives and blades “of a good quality”; a pair of pocket pistols with percussion locks ($5); and, without prices assigned, a balance with weights “for the purpose of weighing Gold (Troy weight)” and a large stock of lead pencil points for silver pencils (separate from the other pencils and leads mentioned above). It seems that some of these items were for the Temple store in Los Angeles (located where the City Hall is today), while others were, obviously, for F.P.F. and Jonathan.

Next came some detailed instructions about these purchases with Temple carefully stating,

The above articles you can pick up at your leasure [sic] so when an opportunity presents they will be ready. I wish them to be packed as small a box as convenient & well balanced in order that there may not be any notice taken of it & thereby escape the custom house—duties at the presant [sic] time are very high.

Not unlike his future father-in-law, William Workman, some twenty years before in making a similar request to his brother David (and untold numbers of correspondents before and since), Temple sought to skirt California regulations on import fees, though whether this was for the customs house at Monterey of if there was one at nearby San Pedro is not known.

In any case, there was another important request made of Abraham by his sibling and this was the purchase of a leather trunk of 2 1/2 feet length and inscribed by the initials “P.F.T.” on one end. The older Temple was then asked to “fill it up with papers, books, &c,” including four newspapers and journals from Boston, Philadelphia and New York, along with other daily and weekly sheets; the revised statutes of Massachusetts; a book of 5,000 blank receipts; a book regarding the growing of mulberries; and seeds for apples; pears; quinces; cherries; plums; peaches; chamomile; pumpkin; corn and a variety of flowers.

The Homestead’s holdings include two old trunks donated by Temple family members, including an amazing one with a cattle hide cover and a surviving label from the Boston manufacturer and a leather one that is about the size of that requested by F.P.F. Though it doesn’t have his initials on it, one wonders if this is what was sent by Abraham almost 180 years ago—assuming, that is, that the items requested were sent and/or received. When this trunk was donated by Ruth Ann Michaelis Temple, it was closed and locked and the only way it could be accessed was by carefully prying open a bottom corner—in it were family letters, though not this one, and most dating much later.

There are other Workman and Temple family letters in the collection to share, so check back for more of these in the “Reading Between the Lines” series!

2 thoughts

  1. Hi Paul – I was interested in the name of the ship, Barnstable, as my home in Devon was not far from a town called Barnstaple. I found this on line “Barnstable takes its name from the English town of Barnstaple, in the county of Devon. The first European to explore the area was Bartholomew Gosnold in 1602. It was settled in 1638, as one of the first towns in the Plymouth Colony, one year behind Sandwich further south in Massachusetts on Cape Cod.”

  2. Thanks, Janet, for that information; we can add that the first member of the Temple family to come to America was named Abraham and he arrived by 1636, just prior to the establishment of Barnstable.

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