Tidbits of Mission San Gabriel History, 1869-1875, Part One

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

The Workman and Temple family’s deep roots with the Mission San Gabriel, which was founded 242 years ago today, extended for about 130 years from the early 1840s to the early 1970s and involved various family members taking sacraments at the old stone church, William Workman’s grant and claim to the lands of the secularized mission, Walter P. Temple’s marking the original site of the institution in the Whittier Narrows, as well the development of commercial property across the street from the mission church, and his son Thomas’ long tenure as the mission (and City of San Gabriel) historian.

We will explore these and other connections during the upcoming free presentation Mission City Affinity: The Workman and Temple Family and San Gabriel, 1842-1972 on Sunday, 17 September at 2 p.m. In the meantime, perhaps this little teaser, sharing some notable tidbits about the Mission and the community from 1869-1875, will entice you to join us. First, though, a general background about those long ties.

A circa 1875 stereoscopic photograph in the Homestead’s collection by Henry T. Payne of the Mission San Gabriel. Note the wood forms for pepper trees that long grew along the south side of the stone church, while, in the foreground, is the Southern Pacific Railroad track completed not long prior and which has recently been lowered to quite a depth, yielding a treasure trove of archaeological finds from the native people, Latinos and Anglos.

In spring 1842, several months after the Workman family came to this region from New Mexico, John Rowland, William Workman’s long-time business partner and friend, secured a land grant from Governor Juan Bautista Alvarado for just under 18,000 acres of the Rancho La Puente. This tract, along with many others east of the mission out to San Bernardino, was long used by the friars at San Gabriel for cattle raising and farming. There has been a significant amount of contentiousness about the status of the indigenous people in the mission’s six decades of operation, from 1771 to about 1834 and reference to this will be made at the talk.

The California missions were “secularized” by the time the grant was made, though San Gabriel’s priests passionately protested the transaction, to no avail. While the grant was initially in Rowland’s name only, this was amended to add Workman a few years later, and the two families resided within about a mile of each other. Over ensuing decades, baptisms, weddings, funerals and other sacraments involving the Workman and Temple family were held at San Gabriel.

Los Angeles News, 27 March 1869.

Moreover, from 1851, the Temple family resided on the Rancho La Merced in a community that was known as Misión Vieja, or Old Mission, because the original site of the institution for a few years was along the west bank of the San Gabriel River (today’s Rio Hondo) in the Whittier Narrows until flooding from the watercourse forced a relocation to the current site. In 1921, to commemorate the sesquicentennial (150th birthday) of the Mission, Walter P. Temple placed a granite marker at the southwest corner of San Gabriel Boulevard and Lincoln Avenue, though this spot was chosen because he owned that piece of ground, while the actual site was slightly to the north.

Having, with the assistance, among others, of Workman and Rowland, seized the governorship of the Mexican department of Alta California in February 1845 by forcing out Governor Manuel Micheltorena, Pío Pico, head of the legislature, became chief executive. Within several months, he not only added Workman as an official owner of the Rancho La Puente, but expanded to nearly 49,000 acres, the maximum allowable under Mexican land law.

Los Angeles Star, 14 June 1871.

In spring 1846, as the American invasion of California was imminent, Pico also granted the lands of the former mission to Workman and Hugo Reid. This was subject to the land claims process established by the United States Congress in 1851 and, while Workman and Reid’s successors secured successful rulings on the grant over succeeding years, the policy in Washington was to automatically appeal all such approvals as far as the Supreme Court, if necessary. With the San Gabriel lands, the hearing before the high court took place in 1864 and the ruling was against Workman and the other claimants.

Jumping ahead a half-century and more later, Walter Temple’s fantastic fluke with the discovery of oil by 9-year old Thomas, eldest child of Temple and his wife Laura González, that brought the family a small fortune meant a significant reengagement with San Gabriel. Not long after the aforementioned plaque was placed and dedicated, Walter Temple purchased a piece of property across from the old stone church and, in 1922-1923, constructed three commercial buildings, while a remaining lot at the east end was donated for a new city hall.

Star, 2 June 1871.

While Thomas was groomed for a legal career including his earning of a degree at the prestigious and rigorous Harvard Law School, he was, as he often put it, “bitten by the genealogy bug” during the Roaring Twenties and forsook the law for a vocation as a historian and genealogist. This involved nearly forty years of service in San Gabriel as the historian for the mission and the city, while his wife, Gabriela Quiroz, attained the distinction of being the first sworn female office in the city’s police department. Just prior to his death in early 1972 and battling throat cancer, Thomas played a significant role in the bicentennial of the mission and was given the rare honor of being buried with the clergy in the Campo Santo next to the old stone church.

This briefest of summaries aside, let’s take a look at some interesting history involving the mission and town of San Gabriel during the first boom in greater Los Angeles, which took place in the late 1860s through the mid 1870s. It should be noted, though, that the references found for this period almost completely omit the Latino population of the community, aside from an occasional record of the sale of land or of a crime allegedly or actually committed. Instead, those usually mentioned were prominent Anglo landowners.

A Carleton Watkins stereoscopic photo, from the Homestead’s holdings, circa 1880, of the Mission church. Note the pepper trees.

So, in the 27 March 1869 edition of the Los Angeles News, part-owned by Andrew J. King of a prominent and notorious El Monte family, a feature on “San Gabriel” began with the observation that,

One of the places in this county that has grown into importance during the past few years, is the ex-Mission of San Gabriel, situated at the very base of the Coast Range [San Gabriel] mountains, upon a level plain . . . The location is one that for beauty cannot be surpassed in any part of the Pacific Coast; the soil is composed of a mixture of clay loam, with a slight mixture of gravel, that has been proven to be the best kind of soil for grapes. In the ex-Mission proper, there is little at present to attract the attention of the stranger, except the venerable old church of eighty years standing, and the orange and olive groves planted by the Mission Fathers, and [which] still stand as monuments of the early civilization of California.

As to the surrounding lands, these were considered to have largely been “a barren plain” until recently, when it became “so improved and re-polished by the hand of industry, that it cannot fail to attract the attention , and excite the interest of any person who is not dead to the emotions excited by a beautiful and productive country.” Aside from the vineyards, it was asserted that new mulberry tree groves would someday make San Gabriel “a great silk center,” while a recently constructed brick Episcopal church was also highlighted.

Star, 27 June 1872.

Returning to agriculture, the unidentified writer added that the area “deserves especial attention as being the spot, of all others, that has proven the great agricultural resources of this county.” Among the “magnificent estates” in the San Gabriel Township were those of Benjamin D. Wilson (whose Lake Vineyard was formerly the property of Reid’s indigenous wife, Victoria Bartolomea), Edward J.C. Kewen (whose domain included the old mission mill), and Leonard J. Rose and his Sunny Slope tract.

These men and others generated “a wealth of tropical fruits and flowers . . . that can be surpassed in no other country” with visitors able to see firsthand “what can be accomplished in a few years by patient industry.” The piece ended with the claim that “as a silk, wine, brandy ad fruit district, San Gabriel is already inferior only to this city in importance, and we need not be astonished if it does not surpass us in a few years.” That heady prediction, of course, hardly came to pass, but is typical of the “boosting” of a zealous local!

Star, 27 June 1872.

The 2 June 1871 edition of the Los Angeles Star included excerpts from a New York agricultural journal on California’s wine industry, including the observation that

With aid of the Indians, the missionaries . . . laid out vineyards on a grand scale in the Mission of San Gabriel, in Los Angeles county. After the claims of the mission had expired, the vines were transplanted to Los Angeles, nine miles distant from San Gabriel, and were cultivated by a small number of Mexicans and Americans.

Just under two weeks later, in its edition of the 14th, the paper included a report by Benjamin C. Truman of the San Diego Bulletin, but soon of the Star, on that trifecta of Kewen, Rose and Wilson, with the former said to have 75,000 grape vines, 800 walnut trees, 500 orange trees, and 300 each of lemon and olive trees, while Rose possessed 200,000 grape vines. As for the latter, it was said that “he is the most extensive manufacturer of wine and brandy upon the Pacific coast,” with 350,000 grape vines (by contrast, William Workman had fewer than a third of that, some 100,000), as well as an orchard with a tree count of 2,500 orange, 2,000 of varied fruits, 1,000 each of lime and walnut, and 500 each of lemon and olive.

Los Angeles Herald, 3 February 1874.

Wilson’s Lake Vineyard, which the descendants of the local indigenous people state was essentially stolen from Victoria Reid, was “pronounced by gentlemen of culture and extensive travel the most charming place (climate and everything taken into consideration) in the world.” Moreover, it was asserted that the tract “has been visited by persons from every section of the globe, all of whom are lavish in their tender of praise.” Truman continued by suggesting that “Nature must have rested here and robbed herself to enrich this delightful locality” and employed no surfeit of purple prose in his praise of “the balsamic zephyrs of early morn” and the property’s “blooming freshness and beauty of flowers that adorn the bosom of a young bride.”

In 1872, Charles Nordhoff visited the region and wrote articles for the New York Tribune, with another the result his popular and influential book, California: For Health, Pleasure and Residence. In a section headed “A Delicious Picture,” the journalist wrote that “at the Mission San Gabriel, you will find two large and fine places,” those of Rose and Wilson. The former, born in Germany like Nordhoff, was possessor of “a model of its kind” in Sunny Slope with its “2,000 acres of fine, fair-laying land,” including barley, wheat and oats, as well his horse-breeding operation and the orchards and vineyards embracing the vines that produced 100,000 gallons of white wine and 3,000 gallons of brandy. His 400 orange trees were supplemented with 4,000 others about to bear fruit and another 2,000 recently planted, along with 500 trees and the prior year’s yield brought a quarter million oranges and 50,000 lemons, while 350 English walnut trees produced 25,000 pounds of the nut.

“Juan Jose” Warner’s discussion of the history of the orange in California, Los Angeles Express, 21 March 1874.

Rose told Nordhoff that the keys to his output was consistent irrigation and cultivation that kept his orchards free from weeds and he added that one laborer supervised 20 acres of groves and another could pick 5,000 oranges in a day, while he had his own fruit boxes and wine barrels made on site. Notably, Nordhoff recorded that Rose’s “whole force consists of fifteen men, of whom the plowmen are Indians; some others are Chinese.” The writer also mentioned that “Los Angeles oranges have been sent to Boston overland and arrived in good order” and Rose refused an offer of $150,000 for Sunny Slope. He concluded that regional agriculturists were confident of their prospects for taking products to market with a unmatched climate, fertile soil and other conditions that meant that, even if it took ten or so years for maturity of the fruit and nut trees, it was worth the patience with respect to assumed profits.

The Star of 27 June, however, claimed that Nordhoff undervalued the yields on places like those of Rose and Wilson with claims of $900 per acre when the two actually experienced at least $1,500, while at the “Mission Garden” where the original orange groves, said to be 90 years old and dating to the early mission days, generated above $2,500 an acre. The paper noted that San Gabriel’s location against the mountains presented a perfect position for protecting the orchards of orange, lemon and lime. Moreover, it reported that Rose’s brandy production was underreported “and his port and brandies . . . stand ahead of all others produced.” The soil was said to be of the right mix of gravels and decomposed granite and proper drainage so that the grape had the sugar content and aroma for a rich and mellow product, while Rose was praised for introducing new varietals.

Former governor John G. Downey’s history of orange cultivation, Express, 3 June 1874.

Jonathan Trumbull (known to locals as “Juan Jose”) Warner, who became a noted expert on regional history, contributed a series of articles on the subject for the Los Angeles Express. In its 21 March 1874 issue, the paper published his explanation of the history of the orange in California, and stated

The only orange trees, except a few isolated ones, of the Seville variety, that had ever been planted in California, prior to 1832, were at the Mission of San Gabriel, where there was an orchard containing quite a number of trees, most of which, but not all, still remain.

In the Thirties, French-born Jean Louis Vignes, previously of Oahu, Hawai’i (where Jonathan Temple resided for several years before coming to California in 1827), and William Wolfskill were early viticulturists and orange-growers in Los Angeles, as were Richard Laughlin and Lemuel Carpenter. Warner also believed that there were orange trees already at Lake Vineyard under Victoria Reid’s ownership prior to its acquisition by Wilson.

A rejoinder and correction from Warner, Express, 2 September 1874.

During 1874, he and former governor John G. Downey offered competing accounts (with barbed rejoinders as a matter of course) as to orange history in greater Los Angeles, with the latter believing that there was no proof in existing records of the fruit being grown before 1820 while stating that Vignes transplanted mission trees in 1832, but Warner offering the recollections of the prominent Californio Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo to the effect that there were mature bearing trees at that earlier date, suggestive of origins earlier in the century if not before.

Meanwhile, the Express and the Herald in early February 1874 also mentioned the recent efforts of Luther H. Titus, who, since he bought his San Gabriel-area property two years prior, had 4,000 orange and lemon trees. They reported that he had up to 360 Sicily lemon trees transplanted after three or four years elsewhere and that the yields to date were promising, leading the Herald to suggest that “a few more such enterprising men would greatly enrich our county.”

A circa 1897 snapshot of the east entrance to the stone church at San Gabriel, also from the Museum’s collection.

There are more interesting references to the Mission San Gabriel and its surrounding area in the 1874-1875 period, including the Downey-Warner historical jousting, other visitor accounts, and a rare reference to an indigenous “pow-wow,” so we’ll return with a second part of this post soon. Check back with us for that!

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