Creating advocates for history through the stories of greater Los Angeles.
by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Nicolasa Urioste de Workman, wife of William Workman, lived nearly the entire 19th century. She was born, according to her crypt in the mausoleum built by her grandson, Walter P. Temple, at El Campo Santo Cemetery on the grounds of the Homestead, on 19 April 1802. She died just shy of her 90th birthday on 4 February 1892.
Yet, while it’s hard enough to find substantial information about most women in 19th century America, it is doubly difficult to do so for a Latina and even more for one who lived in frontier environments most of her life. The lack of documentation about Mrs. Workman is striking, so let’s lay out the little we do know.
First, she was born in Taos, New Mexico, on the northern reaches of what was still then New Spain, a domain of the decaying Spanish empire. Taos was home of an ancient native aboriginal pueblo that was then settled by Spanish and Mexican migrants over early two centuries by the time Nicolasa was born. It seems highly like that she was a mix of Pueblo Indian and Spanish.
When she was 19, Mexico won its independence from Spain after a long, brutal decade-long war. One of the outgrowths of the change was that Mexico was more open to outside trade and settlement and, that same year, 1821, brought the opening of the Santa Fe Trail from central Missouri. Soon, traders, fur trappers and some migrants made their way to and from New Mexico. Within a few years, one of these extranjeros to use the trail was the British-born William Workman, who’d joined his brother, David, at the trail’s eastern terminus at Franklin, Missouri in 1822.
William arrived in New Mexico in spring 1825 and soon settled in Taos, where he did some fur trapping, owned a store, and, in partnership with American migrant John Rowland, who’d arrived in Taos two years prior, manufactured “Taos lightning” whiskey. By 1828, Workman became a Roman Catholic and a naturalized Mexican citizen and, around that time, took up a common-law marriage with Nicolasa, who was in her mid-twenties, something of an advanced age for an unmarried woman in her place and time.
Why there was no church marriage might be summed up by a statement in Rebecca McDowell Craver’s The Impact of Intimacy: Mexican-Anglo Intermarriage in New Mexico, 1821-1846. In this work, Craver noted that “cohabitation and common-law marriages were both customary and socially acceptable in mexican frontier society.” Moreover, she continued, “these were financially practical in many cases because of the high fees charged by Río Arriba priests for sanctifying a marriage.”
On 24 July 1831, a two-day old child named “Antonia Margarita” with no surame was baptized at the Taos church. No father was listed, but the mother was identified as “Nicolasa Urioste.” The maternal grandfather was only given as “Urioste” while the grandmother was “Maria Antonia Valencia.” No paternal grandparents were listed either.
A year-and-a-half later, on 19 February 1833, a boy “Jose Manuel” was baptized and, again, there were no paternal names provided. The mother was “Maria Nicolasa Valencia” and the maternal grandparents were “Valencia” and “Maria Antonia Valencia.”
Clearly, these were the two children of William Workman and Nicolasa Urioste, but, because the two lived in a common-law marriage, the clergy would not record the name of the father. The common maternal grandmother and the use of “Nicolasa” for the mother makes it clear that there was a connection, though Nicolasa’s varied surnames of “Urioste” and “Valencia” are a bit puzzling, unless her parents did not have a church marriage either.
In any case, the Workman family seems to have prospered, but political issues involving the planned invasion of New Mexico by the newly formed Republic of Texas led to the family leaving in fall 1841 for Alta California, another remote northern outpost of Mexico (called, memorably, the “Siberia of Mexico”) as part of the so-called Rowland and Workman Expedition (or Party).
What must it have been like for Nicolasa, who was almost 40, to leave her hometown, which she likely never left or did not stray far from, to make the difficult 1,200 mile, two-month journey across the arid deserts and mountains to the west, especially with two small children in tow? How did she react when she arrived in the Los Angeles area and then settled on the Rancho La Puente to start life anew? Obviously, these are rhetorical questions that cannot be answered, only speculated upon.
In February 1844, perhaps because the fees were far more reasonable, William and Nicolasa Workman underwent a church-sanctioned marriage, a double ceremony with Benjamin D. Wilson, who came to Los Angeles with the family in 1841, and Maria Ramona Yorba at Mission San Gabriel. A marriage investigation, required for such unions, listed Nicolasa with the surname “Gonzalez,” and stated her parents’ names were not known.
From the early 1840s onward, the fortunes of the Workman family rose to heights almost certainly impossible to have obtained in New Mexico. Through cattle ranching and farming and with political and social connections developed over years, the family became one of the wealthiest in the greater Los Angeles region. Again, we know nothing about Nicolasa’s feelings about this or about how she may have enjoyed her status. There is a good deal of information about her husband, but precious little about here.
By 1870, about thirty years after migrating from New Mexico, William Workman was a banker and invested, through son-in-law F.P.F. Temple, husband of Antonia Margarita, in many speculative business enterprises as Los Angeles underwent its first significant population and development boom. Yet, within several years, everything came crashing down as the family’s Temple and Workman bank collapsed, due to being over-extended in business and poorly managed.
Her husband’s May 1876 suicide, obviously left the 74-year old widow bereft and bewildered–though, again, we have no record of how she felt or dealt with the tragedies that befell her and her family. Yet, she lived another 15 years, spending much of that time living in the Workman House with her grandson, Francis Temple.
In these later years, we have spotty information, at best. There is a short statement in a letter from Walter to Francis that “grandmother gets her usual wine sometimes.” In secret letters from Walter to his sweetheart, Laura Gonzalez, he talked of arranging with his grandmother to meet in the basement of the Workman House under his Mrs. Workman’s room so he could work out how to meet with Laura so his brother, Francis, would not know. After all, Laura was in the employ of Francis and consorting with “the help” was certainly not to be encouraged openly!
Once in a while, Mrs. Workman appears in a legal record, whether it was transferring her interest in the Rancho La Puente to Francis after her husband’s death or being party to a rental agreement for land she owned. In both cases, her approval of these transactions was recorded with a mark of an “X” signifying that she could not read or write, which was commonplace for Latina women in the place and time.
It may be that Mrs. Workman remained at her home until she became very ill early in 1892, because, when she died, just twelve days after her daughter and a week before her oldest grandchild–all struck down during a flu epidemic–she was at her daughter’s home at nearby Rancho La Merced, near modern South El Monte and Montebello.
However, when the Los Angeles Times reported on her death, the erred in saying she was the mother of the recent mayor of Los Angeles, William H. Workman, who was actually her nephew. Then, when the paper sought to update the information, and correctly noted her son’s name, it reported that she “settled in Los Angeles in 1830 with her husband, who came from Independence, MO.” Finally, it asserted that “Mrs. Workman belonged to one of the old Spanish families.”
It is perhaps typical that one of the few scraps of information on a woman who raised children, ran a household, and, undoubtedly, had much of interest for us to want to know more about, was full of misinformation.
This was exacerbated by a 16 April 1929 letter from her great-niece, Mary Julia Workman, daughter of the ex-mayor, who wrote to a friend about a proposed visit to see Walter Temple at the Homestead. In the missive, she wrote that
William Workman had married a Pueblo Indian woman in Santa Fe, that is, without benefit of clergy. But he was always faithful to her and she was the mother of his two children, Margarita, afterwards Mrs. Temple, and Joseph. The Indian woman’s name was Nicoasa, she spoke no English and he spoke very poor Spanish, Mother says. He was anxious to do what was right, but Nicolasa was not acquainted, naturally, with English ways of living.
While the statement about Mrs. Workman being an Indian, or at least partially so, and that the relationship with her husband was common-law, are rooted in some truth, the location was, of course, not Santa Fe. Moreover, it is hard to believe that William Workman could have lived in Mexican territory for over twenty years, conducted business and had social interaction with many Latinos and been married to a Spanish-speaker for nearly a half-century while only being able to speak “very poor Spanish.” There is also something striking in the assertion that a lack of “English ways of living” was an issue in the relationship between the Workmans.
In any case, Nicolasa Urioste de Workman undoubtedly lived a remarkable life over the course of nearly all of the 19th century. She witnessed dramatic personal and society transformations from the remote northern frontier of New Mexico and the rapid changes in frontier Los Angeles. The dearth of references to her is so pronounced that there is not even a photograph of her–though those of her daughter, which, to me at least, show a pronounced native Indian character, might hint at how Mrs. Workman looked.
Perhaps there are some more pieces of information about her that have not yet come to light, but it is a shame, though not entirely surprising, that we know so little about a woman whose impact on her husband, children, grandchildren and others cannot have been anything but significant. As noted above, though, this is not unique to Nicolasa Urioste de Workman, but goes for many women of her ethnic background, time and place.