by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Pliny Fisk Temple, named for a famed Congregationalist missionary whose work in Palestine led to many a young boy receiving his moniker, was born in Reading, Massachusetts on 13 February 1822. He was the youngest of a large brood born to Captain Jonathan Temple, who served in a state militia, and his second wife, Lucinda Parker.
Pliny came from a family that had lived in Reading for several generations and his ancestry in America dates back to 1636 and English emigre Abraham Temple, whose origins in Great Britain are not yet known. The Temples were numerous in Reading, which is northwest of Boston, but, in the early 1820s, Pliny oldest sibling, a half-brother, also named Jonathan left for far-flung Hawaii, where Congregationalist missionaries recently had settled to convert the “heathen” Hawaiians to Christianity. As is typical, merchants quickly follow the missionaries and, often, the military isn’t far behind.
In any case, Jonathan worked in Honolulu as a merchant for several years, but uncertain times in the troubled island kingdom led him to take ship in 1827 to California, just six years removed from Mexican independence from Spain. After a short sojourn in San Diego, where he was baptized a Catholic, Jonathan relocated to Los Angeles, becoming only its second Anglo resident and opening the pueblo’s first store.
Shortly before he turned 19, Pliny decided to venture west to California. As he stated in “Recollections of Francis Pliny Fisk Temple, a resident of Los Angeles and a Pioneer of 1841: Events from 1841 to 1847,” an interview conducted with Thomas Savage for the library of California historian Hubert Howe Bancroft:
I left Boston on the Am[erican] Bark Tasso on the 18 of Jan[uar]y 1841 . . . Ship came to this coast on a trading expedition from the House of A. Bryant & Sturgis of Boston. I was a passenger on board. Arrived at port of Monterey in 156 days, ab[ou]t 26 June. Remain[e]d in Mont[erey] a few days, from there came to Santa Barb[ar]a on a Sch[oone]r commanded by Capt. Leidesdorff. I believe she was owned by Mr. Jones. From there came here by land, on arriv[in]g at this pl;ace, I found my brother, John, whom I had never seen before, he being the oldest & I the youngest of our family, he had left home before I was born.
Bancroft, who was less interested in the biography of his subjects than what they could tell about life in Mexican California, and, especially, the political situation in those final years before the American seizure of the region, instructed his interviewers to get to those points.
Temple did manage to add that he worked for his brother at the Los Angeles store until 1849 when Pliny, who changed his name to F.P.F. when he took the Catholic baptismal name of Francisco immediately before marrying Antonia Margarita Workman in September 1845, left to prospect for gold during the famed California Gold Rush. Other than saying that, from 1849, he “attended to my own private affairs” and that his marriage produced several children with his wife, who was still living, the remainder of the interview was entirely devoid of personal information.
Instead, he provided remembrances of events like the controversial governorship of Manuel Micheltorena just after Temple’s arrival in Los Angeles, particularly the revolt against him that culminated in a showdown near the pueblo and which involved Temple’s future father-in-law William Workman as an associate of Pío Pico, who wound up becoming governor when Micheltorena agreed to return to Mexico.
Temple also talked about Pico’s sale of the California missions to private citizens, including San Gabriel to Workman and Hugo Reid for the expenses of the state and he specifically stated that Pico used the meager funds obtained for “legitimate uses” and defended the former governor that he made the sales for personal gain. He went on to say that “Pico had no need of it [the money], he was a man of means who could always command any reasonable amount of money.”
There was also discussion of the American invasion of 1846-47, preceded by conflict between the governor and José Castro, who effectively governed northern California and was commander of any military forces but then left for Mexico instead of fighting against the Americans. Temple recalled that Pico was asked by the California legislative body, the asamblea, to leave the territory for Mexico to obtain assistance and avoid capture in California.
He also discussed the first capture of Los Angeles in summer 1846, the revolt of Californios who retook control of the town. At the end of the year, a new American force headed north from San Diego and confronted the Californios near Los Angeles, defeating them and reconquering the pueblo, ending the war. Andres Pico, left to command what was left of the local forces arranged a surrender to John C. Fremont, who marched from the north and arrived just after the final battle took place.
The narrative ended with Temple also giving some recollections of the major Californio victory over American forces led by Stephen W. Kearny at San Pascual near San Diego and a rather abrupt conclusion about how Kearny and Commodore Robert Stockton, who took Los Angeles the second time joined forces at the end of the war at Los Angeles.
While the interview with Savage was written as a narrative that looked seamless and organized, Savage reported to Bancroft that his meeting with Temple did not go well and that the subject was having serious problems during the conversation. There was a reason why this was the case.
The interview took place on 1 November 1877, nearly two years after the failure of the Temple and Workman bank in Los Angeles, of which F.P.F. Temple was president. The traumatic experience, including the imminent loss of huge tracts of land in Los Angeles and the surrounding areas to Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin, who loaned the bank a substantial sum, and the resulting suicide of Temple’s father-in-law and partner, William Workman, was compounded by a series of strokes Temple suffered.
At the time of the interview, Temple was 55, but his health was broken by the disaster, even as he was nearing the end of a two-year term as Los Angeles County Treasurer, a position to which he was elected in September 1875, as his bank suspended business because of an economic panic and a run on the institution by depositors.
After he officially turned over the office in spring 1878, Temple returned to his home at the Rancho La Merced, awaiting the inevitable foreclosure on the bank loan by Baldwin. This took place the following year and a court decree certified the results. Not surprisingly, Temple was struck by another stroke, from which he died in April 1880. He was just 58 years old.
Speculation and risk can often lead to financial troubles. Temple’s was unusually public, because his bank failure was symptomatic of the end of Los Angeles’ first boom and because the institution was over-leveraged and poorly managed. He was an immensely popular figure and his downfall was especially striking, being well remembered for decades afterward, especially as greater Los Angeles grew dramatically. He may have been a broken man, in the way Savage described him, when he conducted the interview, but it can easily be seen why knowing something about the misfortunes that befell him just prior to it.