by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Not quite a decade after he and his family migrated to the Mexican department of Alta California, about four years since he played a role as a negotiator in the seizure of Los Angeles by American forces during the Mexican-American War, and about three years after the Gold Rush was unleashed by James Marshall’s discovery of the precious metal in Sierra Nevada Mountain, William Workman made his sole trip back to his home country of England in 1851-52.
He’d left his hometown of Clifton nearly three decades before when his older brother David came back home after about five years in the United States and convinced William to join him in Missouri. The brothers, who had bequests left to them by their parents that paid for their going to America, left Liverpool and arrived in Philadelphia in September 1822. After spending some time with their sister, Agnes Vickers, who lived in Baltimore, they headed west to the end of the country, Missouri, where David resided in Franklin, in what is now the center of the state.
William didn’t stay long, leaving his brother’s employ in a saddlery and taking a caravan in spring 1825 on the Santa Fe Trail, opened from Franklin a few years prior, to New Mexico, in the northern frontier of Mexico. He settled in Taos, which had a substantial contingent of extranjeros, or foreigners, and engaged in fur trapping before opening a store. Becoming friends with John Rowland, Workman joined in a partnership with him in distilling liquor, including the well-known “Taos lightning.”
Workman married (or, rather, had a common-law marriage with) Nicolasa Urioste, a Taos native, and the couple had a daughter, Antonia Margarita, and a son, José Manuel. Generally, the family did quite well, but there were occasional problems, including an 1837 revolt emanating in Taos that overthrew and killed New Mexico’s governor and instigated a counter-revolt that crushed the rebels, who’d, evidently, forced Rowland and Workman to swear loyalty to the Taoseños. When Manuel Armijo stamped out the uprising, Rowland and Workman were soon arrested for smuggling, something very common and widespread and so which may have been politically motivated.
Three years later, the pair were named agents of the Republic of Texas in a scheme that was lightly disguised as for commerce and trade instead of an outright invasion. It is not known if Rowland and Workman sought out this honor, but they quickly disentangled themselves from associations with what became the disastrous Texas-Santa Fe Expedition. By the time this poorly planned and executed invasion foundered in the deserts of eastern New Mexico, the two and Workman’s family were on the road to Los Angeles via the Old Spanish Trail with several dozen New Mexicans, Americans and Europeans.
Rowland obtained a grant of about 17,000 acres on Rancho La Puente in spring 1842 with Workman granted the privileges of settling on and using the land as if an owner, building an adobe home that summer, stocking the ranch with cattle and planting some crops. As a reward of sorts for assisting Pío Pico in successfully challenging an unpopular governor and then being installed in that executive office in early 1845, Rowland and Workman’s rancho was expanded to nearly 50,000 acres and Workman was added as an official owner.
Whatever success the two men had with the “hide and tallow trade,” in which those raw products of cattle were sold for export, the proceeds paled in comparison to the riches that flowed to them with the onset of the Gold Rush and the hordes of miners and others who flocked to California after early 1848. Workman’s return trip to England was likely only possible because of the sudden, unexpected financial bonanza he enjoyed as cattle were sold “on the hoof” in the mining regions where beef was in high demand at inflated prices.
Workman traveled to England with David W. Alexander, a native of Ireland who came to Los Angeles when John Rowland made his second trip from New Mexico bringing his family west in late 1842. Alexander was a merchant in Los Angeles and achieved some financial success, as well, and later was twice Los Angeles County sheriff and had business ties with Workman and the latter’s son-in-law, F.P.F. Temple.
There is not a great deal known about the trip that Alexander and Workman made to the United Kingdom. The two apparently stopped in New York on the way over and had their photograph (almost certainly the first for either man) taken in daguerreotype form by Mathew Brady, later famous for his images of Civil War battlefield scenes. A copy of that photograph is shown here.
At the end of March 1851, Workman, who’d probably arrived not long before, was in his family home in Clifton, Westmorland (now Cumbria) County, England when the enumerator arrived for the decennial census taken in the United Kingdom. The document, reproduced here, shows that the head of the household was William’s 42-year old unmarried sister, Mary, while his younger brother Thomas, age 49, also resided in the home. There was a servant, 30-year old Margaret Dell, and then William. He was listed as age 50, married, “a visitor” and a “proprietor of land.” While Mary was born in Bowes, Yorkshire (now Durham County) about 35 miles east of Clifton, Thomas and William were from Temple Sowerby, some 8 miles east of Clifton.
In May of that year, the famed Crystal Palace Exhibition opened in London and it is believed that William visited there, perhaps towards the end of the fair, which closed in mid-October. Another surviving remnant of his stay in England is a receipt from 4 November from a London chemist’s shop, owned by H. Burfield on The Strand near the River Thames, and purchased several items including bicarbonate of soda, essence of peppermint, castor oil, tartaric acid, and other items for his health and perhaps to take with him on his trip back to California.
The other surviving artifact from the Homestead’s collection is a document from the early part of Workman’s travels. Dated on 6 February 1851, the artifact is a certificate authenticating that Workman registered with the National Guard at the port city of Veracruz facing the Gulf of Mexico east of that nation’s capital. The item states that the registration was a requirement of the Organic Law of 15 July 1848 and has the printed name of the governor of the department of Veracruz, José de Empáran.
More than likely, Workman and Alexander traveled from Los Angeles to the rudimentary harbor at San Pedro and then took a ship down the west coast of Mexico likely disembarking at Acapulco. From there, an overland trip of about 660 kilometers, or just over 370 miles, would take travelers to Veracruz. Another ship would carry the two men into the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean, probably with a stop at Havana, Cuba, before making the trip up the east coast of the United States to New York to have the photo taken. After a sojourn in the Big Apple, the travelers crossed the Atlantic to England.
It is notable that, when the sole California state census was conducted in 1852, William Workman was not enumerated, though Nicolasa was adjacent to her daughter, son-in-law, F.P.F. Temple, and three grandchildren. It may be that William went back to Clifton for a period after his visit to London before returning to California after the state census was conducted.
In any case, Workman’s lengthy trip to England was a reflection of the newly obtained wealth he experienced in Gold Rush California and which afforded him the only such visit he made in the over half-century since he’d left his hometown for the “new world.” There is, actually, another surviving artifact of that trip: a monument he commissioned for his deceased family members in the graveyard at St. Cuthbert’s Church in Clifton. This significant expense also is a symbol of his growing affluence and a drawing of the proposed marker also survives in the Homestead’s collection.