Creating advocates for history through the stories of greater Los Angeles.
by Paul R. Spitzzeri
It was 175 years ago today that a group of New Mexicans, Europeans and Americans, collectively the Rowland and Workman Expedition, arrived at Mission San Gabriel after a two-month, 1,200-mile journey along the Old Spanish Trail from Santa Fe, New Mexico to the Los Angeles area.
Though the group is named after its two purported leaders, William Workman and John Rowland, it consisted of perhaps sixty-five persons with varying reasons for banding together for the trip. Some, like Rowland and Workman, were looking to settle in the Mexican department of Alta California. Others were on their way to somewhere specific outside of California. One young man, still in his teens, was on a continent-crossing survey of plants as part of his studies.
At the same time, the first wagon train to make its way across from the midwest, specifically Missouri, to northern California, made its landfall at Marsh’s Ranch near Mount Diablo in the Bay Area. Known typically as the Bidwell-Bartleson Party, that group had a unified purpose with everyone seeking settlement in California.
Rowland and Workman and many of their compatriots were motivated to leave New Mexico because of political problems. Both men had lived in Taos, northwest of Santa Fe, since the mid-1820s. Rowland, originally from northwestern Maryland, migrated to Ohio and then headed west, presumably along the Ohio River down to the Mississippi and then to St. Louis. In order to reach, in 1823, the new Santa Fe Trail, leading into New Mexico, he would have had to have gone to Franklin, in central Missouri and which was the first eastern terminus of the trail.
Newly arrived to Franklin was Workman, a native of far northern England, who was induced to come to the United States by his brother, David. The brothers traveled by ship from Liverpool to Philadelphia, visited a sister in Baltimore, and then made their way across to Franklin. It is uncertain whether Rowland and Workman crossed paths there before the former took the Santa Fe route to New Mexico. Two years later, in 1825, Workman went across.
Both men became Roman Catholics and naturalized Mexican citizens during the years in Taos. Rowland was a miller by trade and Workman operated a store, but both men did some fur trapping. Later, they partnered in the lucrative business of distilling whiskey, notably the famed Taos Lightning.
The pair also met their wives (Rowland’s wife was Encarnación Martinez and Workman’s was Nicolasa Urioste) and the couples started and raised families in Taos, so the growing political instability that roiled New Mexico in the late 1830s and early 1840s raised serious concerns about the staying. Specifically, an internal revolt stemming from Taos overthrew the departmental government and the governor executed. A counter-revolt led by Manuel Armijo routed the Taoseño rebels, to whom, it was reported, Rowland and Workman were forced to swear loyalty. This, likely, did not endear the two to the Armijo administration, which arrested the men for smuggling (which many fairly openly did).
Then, in 1840, the new, independent Republic of Texas, which broke away from Mexico in the revolution of four years before, announced the “Texas-Santa Fe Expedition,” a group that was publicly announced to be for peaceful commercial purposes, but was a thinly-veiled effort at seizing all of the land east of the Rio Grande, including New Mexico’s largest towns.
The effort was led in New Mexico by William G. Dryden, a Kentuckian who had the ear of Texan president Mirabeau Lamar. Dryden became friendly with Rowland and Workman and named them commissioners of the Texans to pave the way in New Mexico for the impending expedition. Neither men, however, appears to have sought the appointment and promptly disassociated themselves from the commission. In 1841, when the expedition’s efforts were renewed (it failed miserably when it set out for New Mexico and was easily dismantled by New Mexican authorities), another set of commissioners were working with Dryden, but the damage was done. As tensions mounted, it was time for Rowland, Workman and others to leave.
Around the first of September 1841, the expedition left Santa Fe and headed northwest on the misnamed trail that was neither old (it opened only a dozen years before) or Spanish (this was the Mexican era). The group was following one of the trade caravans that plied the route taking blankets and other woolen goods from New Mexico and bringing horses and mules back from California. At the town of Abiquiu, not far from Santa Fe, a substantial contingent, perhaps about 40, New Mexicans, including the Trujillo, Vaca and other families, joined the caravan. One of them fulfilled the vital function of guide for the expedition.
Though the journey was long and wended its way through deserts and mountains, the trip seems to have gone relatively smoothly. Not surprisingly, those with experience traveling through the vast western part of the North American continent felt that it was easy going. There were others with a different take, like 18-year old William Gambel, the budding naturalist, who wrote his mother from Los Angeles of the sufferings he encountered.
The route veered to the northwest from Santa Fe into central Utah and the Green River, from which the trail headed southwest, to the west of today’s Bryce Canyon and Zion National Park areas, through modern St. George and down into the harsh deserts of southern Nevada. There was a prolonged stop at an oasis where a spring of fresh water bubbled to the surface–this was known as las vegas.
More difficult slogging through the inhospitable Mojave Desert brought the trail and its users to the steep Cajon Pass, but at the bottom of that cut through the San Bernardino Mountains was the payoff: the plains and valleys that, within a few days, led to landfall at the Mission San Gabriel.
The route seems to have cut through the lower portion of the eastern San Gabriel Valley generally along today’s Valley Boulevard and through a former mission rancho called La Puente. Seven years before, Rowland purchased horses from La Puente and had them taken back to Taos over the Old Spanish Trail, so he was likely familiar with the area before seeing it for himself.
In any case, once the expedition reached the trail’s end and Rowland presented a list of its members to the authorities in Los Angeles, a new era for him, Workman and many others, including Benjamin D. Wilson, a Tennesseean who had spent some years in New Mexico and intended to go to China before literally “missing the boat” and remained in Los Angeles, had begun.
More on that in a future post . . .