The Homestead Blog

“For They Are Contraband”—An 1826 Letter From William Workman

Nearly two centuries after it was written, an 1826 letter from William Workman to his brother David has been donated to the Homestead by descendants of David. The amazing correspondence happens to be the earliest surviving missive from an American or European from New Mexico, is a rare sample of William’s handwriting, and has interesting content about life on the northern Mexican frontier.

The letter, written less than a year after he settled in New Mexico from Missouri, where David lived, begins with an apology for not writing sooner. This was because, William wrote, “I have had such a spell of sickness . . . [and] I should have died,” if not for the assistance of friend. Continuing, William observed that, “for they [sic] was no Doctor hear [sic], and not much medison [sic], and it is one of the meenest [sic] Country to be sick in the world, for their [are] no nurishments [sic] to be got.”

A page from a February 13, 1826 letter from William Workman, written from Taos, New Mexico, to David Workman, living in Franklin, Missouri.  Gift of the Krebs Family.

A page from a February 13, 1826 letter from William Workman, written from Taos, New Mexico, to David Workman, living in Franklin, Missouri.  Gift of the Krebs Family.

Once William recovered, he had an idea of how he could generate income in his new home. For example, he reported to David that he planned to buy corn and wheat to either sell in the spring or “turn it into whiskey.” That led to the main object of his correspondence. William requested that his brother buy materials so that he could establish a still for whiskey production.  However, he continued, “be shoor [sic] to never name it to any person for they are countraband [sic].” In fact, distilling spirits by Americans or Europeans in Mexican territory was illegal, though that prohibition was later abolished, and William wished, obviously, to avoid the prying eyes of legal authorities in his new adopted home.

After providing a list of the materials he wanted, William did make reference to other items he had asked for in a previous letter, which has evidently not survived the ravages of time, including fabric, tobacco, a coat, and a pair of shoes. The letter ended with a further request for sugar, coffee, paper to line trunks, Moroccan leather, and saddlers’ tools [this was the Workman brothers occupation from their days in their home country of England].

There was, however, a postscript on the reverse, in which William reported that “Mr. Patton and myself tried our work in Sta. Fee [sic] and could sell nothing,” this apparently referring to trunks. He went on that “I can barter them of [sic] to a good advantage, but there is very little money in [the] Country.”

As a glimpse into the life of a young immigrant to northern Mexico just a few years after that country’s independence and his efforts to get established in a remote frontier community, this letter is a fascinating document. Its donation to the Homestead provides us one more link in the long chain of interpreting William Workman’s life that started in rural northern England and ended in rural Los Angeles County.

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Thanks to Assistant Director Paul R. Spitzzeri for this contribution.

One comment on ““For They Are Contraband”—An 1826 Letter From William Workman

  1. Bill Ohanesian
    May 12, 2016

    Fascinating, Paul – congratulations on the acquisition!

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This entry was posted on April 17, 2015 by in Collections and tagged , , , , , , , .
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