“Torrent of Evils”: A Warning About An Immigrant Caravan to California, Fall 1841

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Tomorrow’s election looms large on the minds of many of us for a multitude of reasons.  Among the rhetoric launched in the days and weeks leading up to the vote has been very pointed warnings about purported threats posed by the caravan of Central Americans making their way on foot towards the U.S.

At the moment, thousands of people are in or near Mexico City with the nearest entry point at Brownville, Texas being 600 miles away, though it is reported that the caravan may turn toward California, a full 1,700 miles from Mexico City.  An arrival, if it happens, is at least weeks away, but the calculations of the campaign complicate the situation.

It is interesting, then, to look back nearly 180 years at another caravan that largely walked from Santa Fé, New Mexico to greater Los Angeles and bitter invective about them made by a political figure.  On this day in 1841, approximately 65 persons, including Americans, Europeans and New Mexicans, arrived in this region after a 1,200-mile trek over a little more than two months along the Old Spanish Trail.

William Workman And AMW Temple ca 1852 96.7.95.9
William Workman and his daughter, Antonia Margarita Workman de Temple, ca. 1852, about a decade after the family migrated from New Mexico to California.

Dubbed by some as the Workman-Rowland Party, or more recently, at least from me, as the Rowland and Workman Expedition, the group left New Mexico amidst a heated political period.  In April 1840, Mirabeau Lamar, the president of the independent Republic of Texas, announced plans for what became known as the “Texas-Santa Fe Expedition,” couched as an effort by Texas to invite and welcome those New Mexicans who lived east of the Rio Grande (a natural border, he explained) as citizens.

Lamar issued a proclamation in April that there would be a group of commissioners sent from Texas about six months later to lay the groundwork for the expedition, but, in the meantime, he

empowered some of your own citizens, Capt. W.G. Dryden, Mr. W.H. Workman, and Mr. Rowland (to whom the views and feelings of this Government have been communicated) to confer with you upon the subject matter of this communication.

Dryden, as noted in a recent post on our last “Curious Cases” presentation dealing with Los Angeles County judges from 1850-1875, was a confidant of Lamar’s and a friend of William [no H] Workman and John Rowland.  He may have suggested the latter as willing to assist in Lamar’s scheme or may have done so without their knowledge or approval.

In any case, Lamar took ill later in 1840 and the expedition was postponed.  In February 1841, Juan B. Vigil accused Workman of complicity with the Texas plan, upon which, according to a letter from trader Charles Bent to United States consul Manuel Alvarez

Workman stru[c]k him [Vigil] with his whip, after whipping him for a while with this he drop[p]ed it and beate [sic] him with his fist.

Whether this was an admission of guilt or an expression of outrage at such a suggestion, it is pretty clear that Workman was not one to trifle with, to borrow an old term.  In any case, when the Texas-Santa Fe Expedition was reconstituted in 1841, a new slate of commissioners, Dryden and two others, was named and Rowland and Workman were deep into planning their departure for California.  The expedition, poorly planned and executed, failed miserably and Mexican forces made quick work in capturing its hapless members, including Dryden.  He later showed up in Los Angeles, got reacquainted with Rowland and Workman, and was a long-time county judge until his death in 1869.

Rowland family
John Rowland and his second wife Charlotte in what appears to be a post-mortem photograph with a deceased child of theirs, ca. 1850s.

Their efforts were such that Simeon Turley, a fellow distiller of whiskey in Taos where the two men resided and were successful in the manufacture of “Taos Lightning,” grumbled in a letter that he could not sell much product because “Ro[w]land and Workman is Selling whiskey at half price to Sell out to gowe [sic] to Californe [sic].”  Turley had to “Lay Silent and Sell noe” until they left Taos.

That happened about the first of September 1841, several months after the Bidwell-Bartleson Party left Sapling Grove, Missouri and became the first of a legion of wagon trains to ply the famed California and Oregon trails across prairies and mountains west, opening the coast to overland migration.  Rowland and Workman were joined by about two dozen other Americans and Europeans on their departure and then were accompanied by a large contingent of New Mexicans at the town of Abiquiu, not far northwest along the trail.

On the 22nd of that month, Governor Manuel Armijo wrote a letter to the Mexican Ministry of War and Navy.  Armijo took power in New Mexico four years earlier to quell a revolt instigated from Taos and to which Rowland and Workman were, it was reported in a Missouri newspaper, sworn to loyalty.  This black mark on their character was reflected in their arrest for smuggling shortly after Armijo consolidated control of the departmental government–although many persons openly engaged in smuggling, so the arrest might have been political payback.

In his missive to the military department, the governor excoriated

the naturalized foreigners Juan Rooland and William Workman, traitors who have gone to California to seduce and confuse its inhabitants, whose exemplary punishment would be the only dike to the torrent of evils that they have committed in this department under my command, and will be the ones which undoubtedly they will commit in the Californias.

Notably, Armijo allowed Rowland and Workman to leave New Mexico with official travel documents to go to California, though perhaps his letter indicated some “buyer’s remorse” and he felt that alerting officials in Mexico City would lead to some communication with local leaders in Los Angeles, where the expedition/caravan arrived weeks later.

In any case, the group made landfall with some members going to northern California, including the Vaca family, namesakes of Vacaville, and some of the Americans and Europeans.  Others in the expedition stayed for a short time and then headed elsewhere, including the young naturalist William Gambel, who was exploring the fauna and flora of the western part of the continent.

Many in the caravan remained in greater Los Angeles along with Workman and Rowland, including Michael White, Daniel Sexton, Jacob Frankfort (the first Jew to live in Los Angeles) and Benjamin D. Wilson, who didn’t intend to stay, having planned to take a ship to China, but then became a mayor, state senator and prominent rancher and farmer in the region.

Farnham map OST detail
 A detail from a reproduced 1849 map in a book by Thomas J. Farnham showing the “Gap Road to New Mexico” and “Dr. Lyman’s Route” comprising the Old Spanish Trail. Jonathan Lyman, a physician, was on the Rowland and Workman Expedition of 1841 and gave an account of the journey to Farnham.

Rowland and Workman settled on the substantial Rancho La Puente, eventually encompassing nearly 50,000 acres.  The rancho was initially in Rowland’s name, perhaps because Workman chose to lay low after the tense times in New Mexico (an uncorroborated accusation [fake news, perhaps?] accused him of conspiring to assassinate Armijo).  In 1845, a new grant by Governor Pío Pico enlarged the boundaries of La Puente and added Workman as owner after Rowland wrote that he was accidentally left off the original grant petition—a rather strange explanation to be sure.

Both men were highly successful in cattle ranching and farming over their thirty years and more in the area, though Workman’s foray, with his son-in-law, F.P.F. Temple, in business in Los Angeles ended badly with the failure of their Temple and Workman bank and Workman’s subsequent tragic ending by suicide.

Rowland and Workman also enjoyed lasting and deep friendships with Spanish-speaking Californians and Mexicans.  Workman negotiated an amnesty with American military leaders for Californios defending Los Angeles in early January 1847 in the last battle of the Mexican-American War fought in California.  He and Pico were friends and neighboring rancheros for many years and Workman’s ranch foreman and New Mexico native Juan Matias Sánchez was a close compadre for decades.

As for seduction and confusion prophesied by Armijo, this did not come to pass in the way the governor claimed. That rhetoric, however, may well have been the inflamed passions of a politician who felt wronged by foreigners–a point that might have some relevance for us now.

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