“This Section of the State Has Been Infested With Hordes of Horse Thieves”: A Note and Receipt from Henry D. Barrows to William Workman, 11-12 October 1861

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

A constant concern of the ranchers of greater Los Angeles during much of the 19th century was the continuing depredations of horse thieves, who took advantage of the vast open spaces of surrounding areas to escape with their ill-gotten gains and sell them elsewhere. On many occasions, raids were conducted on regional ranchos by indigenous people, such as the Paiute and Ute tribes, from the interior deserts and basins, but there were those of other ethnic groups, including Latinos and Anglos, who availed themselves of the opportunities that the stealing of stock provided.

After the secularization (essentially, the closure) of the missions by the mid-1830s and the granting of ranchos controlled by them, those that were east of Mission San Gabriel were issued to Californios and Anglos alike, evidently on the premise that this would provide a layer of protection for Los Angeles and nearby lands from incursions through the Cajon and San Gorgonio passes that were major entry points from inland areas.

Los Angeles Times, 8 August 1914.

One of those ranchos was La Puente, of which nearly 18,000 acres (four square leagues) was granted by Governor Juan Bautista Alvarado to John Rowland in spring 1842 with a new grant given three years later by Governor Pío Pico and officially including William Workman as a co-owner. A persistent account concerning the Workman House, the earliest sections of which were built in 1842, was that it contained a tunnel in the basement (these being rarities in the area at the time) that was used for the family and others to hide when indigenous raids occurred.

As a recent post here involving an 1856 letter sent to William Workman by Thomas Van Deusen of San Gabriel noted, one aspect of stock thievery concerned the question of animals bearing brands but which were found in locations that indicated theft. Moreover, there was the common matter of stealing as animals were being driven to various location, whether in search of adequate grazing land or for sale in such places as the distant gold fields of the northern part of the state. Sometimes, accusations were made that the absconding of animals was undertaken by underhanded vaqueros and drovers while the long, dreary marches to distant markets were made.

Joseph E. Pleasants, Santa An Register, 13 June 1934.

While the halcyon days of the Gold Rush, when large sums were realized in selling cattle for fresh meat to the miners and settlers who flocked to California, was over by the middle 1850s, ranching continued to be the primary economic engine for greater Los Angeles for about another decade. The value of horses, meanwhile, continued to be somewhat consistent, for native people for their use in hunting and gathering, warfare and other aspects in the massive open spaces of the Southwest, as well as for sale to those in the midwestern states and, particularly, the Mormon domain of “Zion” in Utah.

This was especially true in the early 1860s when the local economy was in a long period of doldrums, following the end of the Gold Rush, the consequent glut in the cattle market because of steep declines in demand (this was also affected by the importation of better breeds of bulls from places like Texas and its higher-quality longhorns), and likely lingering effects of the Depression of 1857. Often, with poor financial conditions comes an increase in crime and this looks to be the case in 1861 as a spate of horse thievery took place in greater Los Angeles.

A note of Barrows retuning to Los Angeles with his first wife following his appointment as United States district marshal, Los Angeles Semi-Weekly Southern News, 5 June 1861.

One of these periods of theft took place as the fall dawned, with the Los Angeles Star of 21 September reporting,

For some weeks past, this section of the State has been infested with hordes of horse thieves, who, if not stopped in their career, bid fair to steal every valuable animal in Southern California . . . up to the present time no clue has been obtained of the thieves.

The following week’s edition of the paper reported that “the horse thieves will soon have all the ‘gentle’,” that is, broken and trained,” horses belonging to the rancheros,” as it noted that a dozen were stolen from the Rancho Lomas de Santiago owned by William Wolfskill, while others mentioned as being victimized by the thieves included Abel Stearns, Benjamin D. Wilson and Dr. John S. Griffin. The Star added, however, that “almost every one possessing stock have been made to suffer,” and concluded that the word had it that there was “an encampment on the Mojave [River], and that the horses are sent towards Salt Lake,” for sale to the Mormons.

Los Angeles Star, 21 September 1861.

Under the heading of “The Whereabouts of the Stolen Stock!,” the issue of 5 October included the assertion that “we have now reliable information” as to the location of stolen animals in the high desert above Cajon Pass. Not only that, but it was reported that a visitor to Los Angeles who had migrated through a watering hole and grazing area in a large desert valley in southern Nevada called “Las Vegas,” where, two decades before, the Rowland and Workman Expedition stopped on its migration along the Old Spanish Trail (this section becoming part of the Mormon Trail,) saw “large bands of gentle horses [which] were driven into that pasturage from California, on their way to Salt Lake.”

One of the bands was said to have contained 150 horses and “the bands of [Ygnacio] Palomares,” whose Rancho San José bordered La Puente on the east, “and other rancheros have since been identified as having been [among] those animals.” Beyond this, it was asserted that “the notorious Lot Huntingdon, Riley Morse, and Al Williams, came to the Vegas the day after the stock were driven in,” with the former reportedly mounted on one of Palomares’ steeds.

Star, 5 October 1861.

The 11 October edition of the Los Angeles Semi-Weekly Southern News recorded that “the party which left this city in search of stolen horses, returned this morning,” having ventured as far as the Mojave. Once there, however, “hearing that the thieves were 250 miles in advance of them, and numbered twenty men, while their party was only ten, they concluded to return.” It was also discovered that 150 horses were in the possession of the bandits, “most of them bearing brands of parties in this county” and the account ended with the note that Eli Smith, sheriff of San Bernardino County, was still on the chase with his posse.

That same day, the featured object from the Homestead’s collection for this post, was written, it being a short note from Henry D. Barrows, who was in Los Angeles, to William Workman, at La Puente, in which the former informed the latter, “the company that went out after the Horse Thieves has returned” and asked “will it be convenient for you to pay the Bearer, Mr. Pleasants the amount of your subscription $100.” It was, indeed, convenient, as a postscript from Joseph E. Pleasants, dated the 12th, noted “received of Wm. Workman one hundred dollars in cash.”

Southern News, 11 October 1861.

The subscription was one in which local ranchers and others in greater Los Angeles chipped in to provide funds to outfit the posse that went out in search of the thieves. Barrows, who was born in Connecticut in 1825, was a very talented musician and taught that subject in Boston from 1850 to 1852 before sailing to California. After a two-year period of gold mining, he was hired by Wolfskill as a teacher at a private school for the children of the prominent rancher and orange grower.

In November 1860, Barrows married one of his pupils, his boss’ daughter Juanita, though she died in two years and left her widow and a daughter. His second wife was the former Mary Alice Woodworth, widow of Thomas H. Workman, nephew of William Workman and one of the many victims of the April 1863 explosion of the steamer Ada Hancock at Wilmington. A loyal Republican during a period when greater Los Angeles had a great many supporters of the Confederates when the Civil War erupted in 1861, Barrows was named by President Abraham Lincoln to be the federal marshal for the United States Southern District Court.

He served in that position during the war years and then went into the hardware business from 1865-1880. He was also widely known to be an unidentified correspondent from Los Angeles for the San Francisco Bulletin and contributed to other papers and magazines, as well. As befitting a former teacher, Barrows served as a county school superintendent, on the Los Angeles Board of Education and was a key supporter of the city’s library. An avid student of history, he was a founding member and frequent contributor to the publications of the Historical Society of Southern California. Barrows lived to be 89 years old, dying in Los Angeles in August 1914.

Pleasants, who went by his middle name of Edward, was born in Missouri in 1839 and migrated to California with his family and other Gold Rush ’49ers. After some years at Bidwell’s Bar east of Oroville and then in a valley north of Vacaville named for the family, Pleasants was sent to Los Angeles to attend the Wolfskill school and be taught by Barrows. Completing his studies, he was hired by Wolfskill to be the foreman of the Rancho Lomas de Santiago and was likely part of the posse sent out by the subscription mentioned in the note, given that his boss’ horses were among those stolen.

Married to Maria de Refugio Carpenter, daughter of Rancho Santa Gertrudes grantee Lemuel Carpenter and María de los Angeles Dominguez, Pleasants was given 200 acres of the Lomas de Santiago after Wolfskill’s 1866 death and remained there for over two decades before selling the land to the famous actor Helena Modjeska and acquiring another 400 acres nearby on the same ranch, remaining there until his death at age 95 in 1934. During a terrible two-year drought in 1863 and 1864, Pleasants was able to find water for Wolfskill at the base of the San Bernardino Mountains along the Mojave River, to which Workman, Rowland and F.P.F. Temple were invited to bring their stock, which saved them from greater financial losses than otherwise occurred as the cattle industry was largely ruined.

While the company which Workman helped reimburse finished its work, Sheriff Smith of San Bernardino became a regional hero for his untiring efforts to track down the thieves and recapture as many stolen horses as possible. The Southern News of the 18th observed that the sheriff and his posse arrested a man near Rock Creek, northwest of Bishop at the eastern end of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and

learned that two men were coming in with horses. They waited four days, when in the night one of them came in and was captured. The sheriff went to where he had left his companion, and secured forty-six stolen horses and mules; twenty-six of which belonged to Wm. Workman, of the Puente.

Conveniently, the pair possessed a memorandum book that noted there was to be a rendezvous of stolen animals in eight days. The paper hoped that Sheriff Smith’s efforts would lead to further animal recovery and “to ferret out this band of thieves; the dread of this community, and bring them to speedy justice.”

Southern News, 18 October 1861.

The following week, the Southern News reported that Smith brought in three more prisoners, with another bandit killed—all the thieves were Americans—and 150 horses “supposed to have all been stolen from rancheros in this valley.” The paper added that Smith was a former law enforcement officer in Los Angeles and it went into depth lionizing him for being “one of the most vigilant and energetic officers in this lower county,” adding “he goes out of his way to perform his duty and protect the community.” Concluding that “the public should never neglect a faithful officer,” it advised that “the rancheros can well afford to present him with a handsome testimonial in appreciation of his worth as an able officer.”

On the 9th, the Star reported that James Oliphant brought back stolen animals, including a pair of mules valued at $150 each, but, when the owner arrived to retrieve them and was requested by Oliphant to pay $5 for their recovery, he only offered half that amount. Oliphant refused and merely ordered the man to take his mules and leave. In the same issue, it was stated that ten Salt Lake City men came to greater Los Angeles earlier in the year and set up a ranching operation, but “with what success our rancheros can testify.” Their clandestine thievery was detected by Smith and his men with the result that “no less than seven of the ten men are now ranching” at the “State Hotel,” meaning San Quentin State Prison.

Southern News, 25 October 1861.

Documents like this one are very rare to find and help give us a better understanding of ranching and crime during a period when both were important elements of greater Los Angeles life. We are fortunate that Workman and Temple family members (in this case a donation from the estate of the late Josette Temple) have preserved materials like this and, in many cases, donated them to the Homestead so they can be shared with the public through channels like this blog.

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