Reading Between the Lines in a Letter from Thomas Van Deusen to William Workman, 5 October 1856

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

All too often, searching the history of early American-era Los Angeles is a matter of gathering fragments of those few pieces of material that have survived the ravages of time. Documentation can be awfully hard to come by for so much of what transpired and what a remnant emerges, the challenge can be to find enough information to provide context for those bits that we’re fortunate to have in collections like those of the Homestead.

A good example is the highlighted artifact from the Museum’s holdings for this post: a 5 October 1856 letter to William Workman from Thomas Van Deusen. It’s a short missive for a very specific purpose, but we can, from what has so far been located, provide at least a brief summary that ties in a few elements. First is that Van Deusen was likely from New York and a descendant of those early Dutch families that migrated to America and settled what was called New Amsterdam.

El Clamor Publico, 16 August 1856.

There are a few references to him in Los Angeles newspapers of the last several years of the 1850s. In fact, the earliest located is from 16 August 1856, just about seven weeks prior to his writing his correspondence, and the Spanish-language El Clamor Público noted that he was then the sole constable for the San Gabriel township, which embraced a wide area around the old mission and its surrounding hamlet.

This was an elected position and Van Deusen served the pair of justices of the peace for the township, this being future sheriff James F. Burns and Alviron S. Beard, a former Los Angeles city marshal whose tenure was marked with great controversy with respect to his handling of monies as tax collector as a well as a bigamy charge. In fact, in the aftermath of the January 1857 killing of Sheriff James R. Barton and several members of his posse riding toward San Juan Capistrano to confront the Flores-Daniel gang of bandits wanted to killing a store owner in that mission town and robbing others, there was a subsequent lynching of several Latinos at San Gabriel.

Los Angeles Star, 22 November 1856.

This included the killing and decapitation of Miguel Soto and Van Deusen was identified as one of those who fired at Soto as he dismounted from his horse and ran into a swamp, likely in an area just northeast of the mission church.  Van Deusen was a constable, along with Ezekiel H. Rubottom (a recent El Monte vigilante), as late as November 1856 and, because county elections were usually held in September, he was probably still in that official position at the time Soto was killed. Moreover, one of the two new justices who took office after the recent election (the other being Thomas Dickey) was William B. Osburn, a doctor and formerly a deputy sheriff and militia figure in Los Angeles who was accused by El Clamor of the barbaric decapitation and, that paper claimed, kicking Soto’s head like it was a football.

When the 1857 elections were held, only Rubottom remained in his position, with Osburn, Dickey and Van Heusen no longer in office. The latter had a new vocation, running the Los Angeles Circus, which may have been the first locally organized enterprise of that kind, though visiting circuses were found during that period. The Los Angeles Star of 3 October, which would have been just a few weeks after Van Heusen finished his term, ran an ad from him for a
performance that evening at the venture’s “Pavilion, on the Plaza,” and which included “daring feats of Horsemanship, Leaping, Tumbling, and all the usual exercises of the Circus.” Admission was fifty cents for the pit and $1 for boxes.

Reference to Van Deusen’s presence at a lynching at San Gabriel, El Clamor Público, 14 February 1857.

The following week’s edition reported, that the San Gabriel resident, working with “actors who have been residing amongst us,” put on a show that “gave the utmost satisfaction to a crowded house.” The account continued that

The riders exhibited various graceful and daring feats of horsemanship, with great activity in leaping, tumbling and other sports of the ring. The clown became at once a favorite with the audience. Altogether, the performance was very creditable, and we hope the enterprising proprietor will be amply remunerated for his heavy outlay of capital.

A little over a month later, El Clamor reported that, having given performances throughout the county, the Los Angeles Circus returned to give a pair “brilliant performances” the previous
weekend evenings. The Manzos were singled out for receiving much applause for their rendition of a wire dance, though it was concluded that shows that evening and the next would be the last for the company because winter rains were expected soon.

Star, 3 October 1857.

In February, however, the spectacle returned, as reported by El Clamor in its edition of the 6th, and with the Manzos again being lionized for their pleasing performance, minstrel performer Peter Sterling, accounted a “famous dancer,” was mentioned as a new part of the program.  Also added to the company was Spanish clown Nicolás Martinez and, while it mentioned that he had not been seen in town before, “we hope he will entertain the audience.”  It was anticipated that there would be “a wide variety of interesting events, worthy of being seen by an intelligent public.”

After that, however, Van Deusen’s name could not be located in Los Angeles or San Gabriel and it seems he left the area, perhaps with his finances in shambles given the expenses he incurred to establish the company and provide for paying its performers and the decorations of the portable venue, almost certainly some kind of tent structure as was typical.  In fact, it is not clear what happened to him, though there was a Thomas Van Deusen who was mining in Placer County when the 1860 census was taken there and one who lived and farmed in the Merced and Fresno areas in the late 1870s.

El Clamor Público, 6 February 1858.

As to the letter, it began by acknowledging receipt that morning of a note by Workman in response of which, Van Deusen responded,

I have only to say that a Cow, bearing your Brand, was found tied to my Rope.  But in what manner it came there, were my life to pay the penalty for failing, I should be unable to save it, for I am as yet totally ignorant of when how or by whose agency, it came there.

The San Gabriel constable went on to explain that he had “butchered by Beef that evening, and left it hanging to the Windlass,” which held the heavy sides of beef off the ground and that Workman’s animal was apparently tied to the same rope which was attached to the butchered one of Van Deusen.  It was clear, he continued, that he would not have done this dual attachment, because “a very little exertion” by Workman’s cow “would have thrown down my beef.”


Star, 19 April 1856.

The peace officer pledged that “I shall use my utmost endeavors to discover the author of the deed, and have him brought to justice.”  Otherwise, he concluded, “I have no explanations to make” and he insisted that “it was evidently done by some person with the intention of injuring me.”  Showing no small amount of respect to the La Puente rancher of fifteen years standing in greater Los Angeles, Van Deusen humbly closed with “if you see fit to prosecute I have only to say I shall suffer innocently.”

A review of criminal case files reviewed for this period shows no record of a proceeding involving Van Deusen, though not all of the material has survived.  It may be that someone stole Workman’s animal and then decided to abandon it at San Gabriel.  Given the prominence of Los Angeles County as a ranching center, recently supplying large amounts of fresh beef to the gold fields of the north, though the Gold Rush had petered out no long before, there was a great deal of cattle and horse theft during the period.


Southern Californian, 13 June 1855.

In fact, the prior April, an ad was taken out in the Star in which “rancheros and all other owners of stock are hereby cautioned that they cannot be too watchful of the same.”  It was stated that 26 animals “were taken from a drove that left Mission San Gabriel, about ten days since,” and among these were five owned by Workman along with others belonging to his La Puente co-owner John Rowland; Rowland’s son-in-law John Reed; Workman’s son-in-law F.P.F. Temple; the latter’s brother Jonathan; Ygnacio Palomares of Rancho San José (Pomona); Isaac Williams of the Chino ranch; Tomás Colima Sánchez of Rancho Santa Gertrudes, near Whittier and Downey; and the Yorbas of what became north Orange County.

The notice also observed that “it is to be regretted that some few Rancheros in this County employ thieves as vaqueros, whose stealings are sometimes winked at by their employers,” though how this might have applied to this instance was not explained.  Lastly, it was concluded, “by keeping a good lookout these fellows may be detected, and finally driven from the county.”  Just below this ad was a notice from Elias Dean of San Gabriel offering a $50 reward for the return of the animal and surrender of the thief or half for either one.

Another recent example of problems relating to animals and their branding was from an ad taken out by Workman in mid-May 1855 in the Southern Californian newspaper in which the rancher “having found several of his horses, with a false counter-brand . . . has now registered a new counter-brand, which shall be the only evidence of his having legally sold any horse or horses.”  Anyone purchasing a steed branded by Workman was warned “to see that it is properly counter-branded” to indicate a legitimate sale, “otherwise it will be reclaimed by its proper owner.”

Again, finding documents of any sort from this era are generally pretty unusual and this letter has no small amount of interest because of its relation to ranching, stolen stock, and the communications between local residents about this issue.  Having access to original documents, almost completely from donations by descendants, from the 1850s pertaining to the Workman and Temple family is always appreciated, though we certainly wish we had more of them so we can better understand them and the place and time in which they lived.

Leave a Reply