The Reverend James Donaldson Mead, M.D. of the Rowland and Workman Expedition of 1841

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

William Workman, at an unknown date, commissioned a glass plaque that was mounted on a door to his adobe house on the Rancho La Puente and which specifically identified his arrival in the area as 5 November 1841, a memorable date to the native of England because it is Guy Fawkes Day, a British national holiday.

What is known by us as the Rowland and Workman Expedition, comprised of about twenty-five Americans and Europeans and about a few dozen New Mexicans, principally genizaros or detribalized Indians, traveled over the Old Spanish Trail from Santa Fé to Los Angeles, leaving the former about the 1st of September.

Mead listed at the bottom among the graduates of the College of Physicians and Surgeons of the University of Pennsylvania, [Philadelphia] National Gazette, 25 March 1830.

While many of the Anglos were leaving New Mexico because of intense tensions regarding the incipient invasion of a force under the benign moniker of the Texas-Santa Fe Expedition, and most of the New Mexicans hoped, with much of the American and European contingent, to find homes in Alta California, a department, like New Mexico, of the Republic of México, not all of those in the expedition had that intention.

William Gambel, an 18-year old naturalist, for example, was studying the flora and fauna of the American West. Jonathan H. Lyman, a doctor who earned his degree at the University of Pennsylvania and its College of Physicians and Surgeons, as Gambel did in 1848, may have been with the group for sheer adventure or to recover his health.

A record of Mead’s conversion by Episcopalian Bishop William White of Trinity Church, Philadelphia, 31 March 1833.

Others appeared to have made the trip to the coast with the intention of heading back to the United States or to other locales, with Benjamin D. Wilson intending to go to China but, having literally missed the boat, he stayed in Los Angeles and became one of the most prominent citizens in the region. Some expedition migrated north to settle, while others like Workman, his wife Nicolasa Urioste and their children, Antonia Margarita and José Manuel, remained in this area.

One of the expedition members looking to go elsewhere was James Donaldson Mead (1807-1882), who was a physician and an Episcopal minister. Expedition accounts suggested he was either from Iowa, Louisiana or Virginia and historian Hubert Howe Bancroft suggested Mead may have practiced medicine in the West Indies, but none of this was the case.

New York Post, 21 March 1833.

Mead was born at New Rochelle, a town adjacent to New York City, where his father was a farmer. An older brother, William, became an Episcopalian minister in 1824 and, after several pastorates, including in Pennsylvania, settled in for a forty-five year career at St. Paul’s Church in Norwalk, Connecticut, where he was widely known and recognized for his leadership in church matters.

Like Gambel and Lyman, Mead graduated from the College of Physicians and Surgeons at the University, though he earned his degree long before them, receiving his diploma in March 1830. He remained in Philadelphia for another three years, during which time, in March 1833, he was confirmed as an Episcopalian, having previously been a Methodist.

Reference to the New York Dispensary, where Mead was a physician from 1833-1835, Post, 13 May 1834.

Mead then returned to New York City, where he worked for a couple of years for the New York Dispensary, formed in 1790 and which worked with the poor, serving around 20,000 patients annually, from a facility at White and Centre streets in Manhattan near today’s Chinatown section. and a couple of New York Post advertisements from 1833 and 1834 show that he resided on Oliver Street not far from the Dispensary. Having been a recent convert to the Episcopalian Church, however, he was likely influenced by his elder brother’s career choice and entered holy orders.

After study in 1837 and 1838, Mead was ordained as a deacon in 1839 and was promptly selected to go to Missouri as part of the work among Indians and whites begun by Bishop Jackson Kemper, the first Episcopalian missionary bishop in the United States. The Spirit of Missions, a Church publication, noted in its November issue that “the Rev. J.D. Mead, some time since appointed a missionary within the Rt. Rev. Dr. Kemper’s jurisdiction, has been assigned to the station at Boonville, Missouri.”

Post, 22 September 1834. This structure was located in New York’s modern Chinatown, not far from the Dispensary and Mead’s residence.

This leads to an interesting likely connection to William Workman. In 1819, Workman’s elder brother David, having left the family home of Clifton, England the prior year, settled in the recently established town of Franklin, on the north bank of the Missouri River. This was at the western edge of the United States, with indigenous lands beyond as well as the northern fringes of New Spain, soon the independent republic of México and, the following year, Missouri was admitted to the Union, though this required a compromise that established it as a slave state and Maine as a free one and which banned slavery in the remaining Louisiana territories north of an established line.

In fact, two years after David Workman made his home at Franklin, the Santa Fe Trail was opened from there to the departmental capital of New Mexico and trade inaugurated along the route. In 1822, David returned home to England and enticed his younger brother William to join him in Missouri, though the latter’s stay at Franklin was brief as he took the Santa Fe Trail and migrated to Taos in 1825.

Reference to Mead’s appointment as an Episcopalian missionary to Missouri in the November 1839 edition of The Spirit of Missions, sources from Google Books.

David remained at Franklin and, after that town was destroyed by a flood, relocated to Boonville and was there in 1839 when Mead arrived to begin his missionary work. A 17 September 1840 letter that Mead wrote and which was published in The Spirit of the Missions recorded that he left New York City on 25 June. When he got to St. Louis, however, “a few days illness arising from the difference in climate and the change of my manner of living, made it necessary for me to remain a few weeks to recruit my strength.”

Though he intended on going to the town of Liberty and Independence, where Kansas City later sprung up, he was convinced by the Rev. Frederick F. Peake, who’d recently been the missionary at Boonville, to go there and “secure the advantage which the Church had formerly gained.” Consequently, Mead arrived on 20 August and found eight persons who were baptized or educated in the Church and many others, he wrote, who “seemed to hail with lively satisfaction the renewal of the Church services in this place.”

Part of Mead’s September report in the November 1840 issue of The Spirit of Missions, also from Google Books.

After preaching for the first few Sundays, Mead sought to establish a congregation and a vestry (a legal entity to handle Church property), which were effected eight days before he penned his missive. Buoyed by “a very encouraging reception,” the pastor expressed confidence that, before long, a church would be built “and the services of the Church thus placed on a permanent foundation.”

Adding that “Boonville is justly considered the second town in Missouri,” after St. Louis, Mead looked forward to the ability of the Episcopal Church to “emanate a most powerful influence all over the state, and in every direction. He hoped that construction on an edifice could be launched in the spring of 1841, though it was not built until several years later, and he concluded that, after preaching at nearby Fayette, fifteen miles north, there was enough support for there for him to alternate services at the two towns.

Also from Google Books.

A second letter, dated 4 January 1841, appeared in the March edition of The Spirit of Missions, in which Mead reported that he went to the state Episcopal Church convention at St. Louis in mid-November. Returning to Boonville, the pastor reported that he had to suspend services at Fayette because of the impossibility of crossing the iced-over Missouri River, except on Christmas Day. As to his preaching, it was consistent until the first Sunday following that holiday, “when I was disabled by sickness.”

Noting that his congregation was small in number but large in devotion and commitment, Mead wrote of launching a Sunday school for children with the hope of also influencing parents “in their attention to religious duties.” Referring to his prior letter and the hope of building a house of worship, Mead observed that “we have not made such progress in the matter as I had hoped,” but he trusted that the vestry would soon make up for the deficiency to date. As to congregants, he recorded that there were 9 in Boonville and 7 in Fayette, among 16 and 13 families, respectively—this latter seeming to be the number of families with Episcopalian baptism and education among them.

Mead’s brief report published in the proceedings of the April 1841 report of the Episcopal Church Board of Missions. From Google Books.

In an April 1841 statement published in the annual report of the missions board of the Church, Mead reiterated that he was working in both communities and added that, though efforts were “not rapid” they were “yet surely and steadfastly advancing.” He referred to the work of other Christian denominations, including Baptists, Methodists and Presbyterians, but added that “deistical opinions also prevail to a considerable extent, among the people.”

With the lingering effects of the Depression of 1837 still evident, though there would soon come an unprecedented fifteen-year period of recession-free economic growth in America, Mead noted that “the general distress which prevails throughout the community, will, I fear, make it necessary to postpone, for a brief period, the erection of a church edifice.” The pastor, however, concluded that the time would soon approach when the Church “will finally be established at this station, and extend its influence in every direction, whose foundation shall not be removed forever.”

Reference to Mead traveling for his health in a Diocese of Missouri report from 14 October 1841 at the Episcopal Church national convention in New York City. From Google Books.

When, however, the national Episcopal Church convention was held in New York City in October 1841, the Diocese of Missouri report, rendered on the 14th, observed that “the Rev. J.D. Mead, of Boonville, now travelling for the benefit of his health, is still connected with the Diocese.” The 20 November edition of The Western Episcopal Observer reported, though, that

The Rev. J.D. Mead has resigned his appointment as a missionary in Missouri, and has gone to the Sandwich Islands, via. Mexico and California, in pursuit of health.

How Mead would have known that a path to Hawaii was possible by traveling through Mexico and California along the Santa Fe and Old Spanish trails could perhaps have been conveyed to him by David Workman in correspondence with his brother William. The Workmans were members of the Church of England in their home country and it may be that David and his family, comprised of wife Nancy Hook and their three sons, Thomas, Elijah and William H., were members of Mead’s congregation.

Mead’s listing with his father, sister and her family at New Rochelle, New York in the 1850 census.

Whatever the means, Mead took the Santa Fe trail to New Mexico and then joined the Rowland and Workman Expedition to Los Angeles. It is not known if he went to Hawaii or what he did for about three years, but a report about him after his death stated that the clergyman was “received from Bishop Kemper’s jurisdiction” in 1845. When the 1850 federal census was enumerated at New Rochelle, Mead was residing with his father (his mother died five years prior), his sister and her family and his occupation was given as “Prot Epis Clergyman” indicating that he was at least in official standing with the church.

Yet, the aforementioned report also remarked that Mead was “prevented by ill-health from performing more than occasional services” from 1845 to 1882. In 1853, his father died and it may be that the family farm at New Rochelle was sold, as Mead then moved near his brother, William, at Long Ridge, a community north of Stamford, Connecticut near the border with New York.

Mead’s enumeration in the 1870 census at Stamford, Connecticut and his profession given as “Retired Doctor.”

While Mead could not be found in the 1860 census, he was counted a decade later at Stamford and living with a relation, with his occupation given as “Retired Doctor,” which is interesting given that he left medicine for missionary and clergy work long before. In 1880, he resided in the same community with two sisters and had no listed profession and passed away on 12 September 1882 with no known obituary located, nor was any reference to him found beyond occasional listings in Episcopalian reports as residing in Connecticut.

There is no located mention of Mead’s travels with the Rowland and Workman Expedition outside of a few brief and generally erroneous references and if he wrote of it in letters, journals, newspaper articles or in other ways, these have so far proved elusive. Still, he took part in a historic crossing from New Mexico to Southern California and this post provides a little more about Mead and his life as a doctor and missionary struggling to recover his health by making the rigorous trip to the Pacific Coast over 180 years ago.

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