By Paul R. Spitzzeri
Another series in Museum Director Musings is All in the Family, which highlights artifacts in the Homestead collection relating to the Workman and Temple family.
Today’s opening offering is an original 1852 daguerreotype, donated just last month by Ruth Ann Michaelis of her great-grandparents, Antonia Margarita Workman (1830-1892) and Francis Pliny Fisk Temple (1822-1880).
One of the oldest photographs in our collection, this “dag” shows the couple at a notable time for them and the region broadly.
The pair was married on 30 September 1845, having the distinction of being the first wedded couple in the region to have non-Spanish surnames, which shows how few Americans and Europeans there were then.
Within a year-and-a-half, the American conquest of Mexican California was completed and the Temples’ first child, Thomas Workman Temple, was born as the conflict was nearing its end in November 1846.
The couple’s second child, Francis Workman Temple, was born in August 1848 just as news of the discovery of gold in northern California was making its way out to the world and the famed Gold Rush erupted.
In October 1850, just a month after California became a state, F.P.F. was elected Los Angeles city treasurer, beginning twenty-five years of political involvement in the region. The year the photo was taken, Temple was elected to serve on the first Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors (interestingly, there were five members then as now–only the population of the county has gone from several thousand to millions!)
In early 1851, the Temples obtained, from Margarita’s father, William Workman, a half-interest in the Rancho La Merced, a 2,200+ acre ranch in modern South El Monte/Montebello. Shortly after taking possession of their half of La Merced (the other was owned by Juan Matias Sánchez, former ranch foreman of Workman at Rancho La Puente), the Temples welcomed their third child, William Workman Temple.
At La Merced, the couple built an adobe residence on the east bank of the old San Gabriel River (today’s Rio Hondo). The L-shaped adobe and a later two-story French Second Empire brick residence somehow survived earthquakes and floods until about 1910. Today, the property is in a restricted flood zone managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
But, in 1851, when they moved there and stocked their ranch with horses and cattle and planted grain, fruit, nuts and other crops, the Gold Rush was in full swing. Miners and migrants were coming to California in droves and the cattle ranches of Los Angeles County were teeming with animals in high demand in the gold country and elsewhere in the new state. The Temples and Workmans joined other ranchers in annual cattle drives which made them rich. Economically, times were incredibly good.
Yet, there was a down side to the good times. Gold Rush-era Los Angeles was a hotbed of violence on a scale that dwarfs that of the modern megalopolis. Cattle and horse theft, bar brawls, gun battles and other crimes were regular occurrences and, in the absence of effective law enforcement and court operations, popular justice and vigilantism responded. Matters improved by the 1860s, but occasional rampant violence and mob law still burst out well into the next decade.
So, this 1852 photo is representative of just more than the immediate subject(s). It can be interpreted in terms of their personal lives and the situation in the greater Los Angeles area in which they resided. Historic artifacts have that power–to provide the base material for the stories embedded in our regional history.
Look for more of these stories in future Museum Director Musings posts.