by Paul R. Spitzzeri
It was a pleasure to talk tonight at the Rowland Heights Community Center to about 50 attendees of the monthly meeting of that unincorporated area’s coordinating council about John Rowland and his fascinating history. Rowland gets brief mention at the Homestead during tours of the Workman House as the longtime friend, business partner and co-owner of Rancho La Puente with William Workman.
Tonight, however, was an opportunity to put the spotlight on Rowland in his namesake community and it was an interesting corollary in many ways to the talk I gave at the end of June at the Phillips Mansion in Pomona about Louis Phillips.
For one thing, a key theme for our interpretation at the Homestead and applied to Phillips and Rowland is immigration. As I mentioned in starting my presentation this evening, all of us in that room have immigration stories, whether they come from the first generation or several back in the past. Migration is usually about searching for a better life and the promise of opportunity in America, realized or not, is, of course, a huge draw for immigrants.
Rowland, who, according to his tombstone at El Campo Santo at the Homestead, was born in 1791, the year the Bill of Rights was enacted, probably in northeastern Maryland just off the Susquehanna River, though some sources state he was from nearby southeastern Pennsylvania. In any case, like many on the Eastern Seaboard in the first years of the 19th century, Rowland and his family migrated into what were then called the “Western states,” which we now know as the Midwest, specifically Ohio.
Rowland spent some years in Morgan County, west of Columbus, before he followed another common migration route further west, possibly traveling the Ohio River until it emptied into the Mississippi River and then on to St. Louis. That city was a hub of trappers seeking beavers for the fur that was made into hats and other articles of clothing that were in high demand.
Probably in 1823, Rowland was on the Santa Fe Trail, opened just two years before between Franklin, Missouri, effectively the western end of the United States at the time, and the trail’s namesake town in New Mexico. Mexican independence from Spain meant open trade and migration for Americans and Europeans in the northern departments of New Mexico and California.
Notably, when Rowland passed through Franklin to make the trip to New Mexico, Workman was living in that town, having just moved there to join his brother, David. By spring 1825, Workman joined a caravan on the trail and wound up in Taos, where he soon met Rowland. Both men engaged in fur trapping for at least a few years, but the pair moved into settled businesses: Workman as a merchant and Rowland with a flour mill. Together, the two distilled liquor, included the famed Taos Lightning, an off-limits enterprise for extranjeros (foreigners) in New Mexico, but then legalized.
Rowland married María Encarnación Martinez and the couple had six children who lived into adulthood. He became a Roman Catholic and was naturalized as a Mexican citizen in 1829. With his businesses prospering and his family established, life was generally good for Rowland, but political problems ramped up in the late 1830s and early 1840s.
An 1837 rebellion emanating from Taos overthrew the departmental government, leading to the killing of the governor. A counter-revolt rose up, led by Manuel Armijo, who overcame the Taoseño rebels and seized control of the government. A Missouri newspaper reported that Rowland and Workman were forced to swear loyalty to the rebellion, but, once Armijo seized power, the pair were arrested for smuggling–an obvious pretext for political persecution because smuggling was so endemic at the time.
While that crisis passed away, a new one emerged a few years later, as the independent Republic of Texas began to assert a natural western boundary at the Rio Grande, which was a clear threat to New Mexico. Disguised as a commercial expedition, an armed force was massed in Texas, while citizens of New Mexico were appointed in spring 1840 by a Texan agent, William G. Dryden (who later was friends and an attorney for Rowland and Workman), to help pave the way for the plan.
Rowland and Workman were so named, but it is unclear whether they sought the roles or were nominated by their friend Dryden without their assent. Regardless, they quickly forswore involvement and new agents were selected by early 1841. By then, however, the pair and others concerned about the prospects for an invasion decided to leave. After careful planning and the securing of travel permits, Rowland, Workman and a group of Americans and Europeans left Santa Fe in early September and took the Old Spanish Trail to California.
Not far into the trip, at Abiquiu, the group was joined by a coterie of New Mexicans and the expedition of perhaps 65 persons made their way northwest through a small portion of modern Colorado and into central Utah before the trail, which was neither old nor Spanish being established in 1829, turned southwest.
With a short stop at a desert oasis called Las Vegas, the group pressed onward into the forbidding Mojave Desert, though it was fall, and traveled down Cajon Pass into greater Los Angeles in early November. When the group made landfall, Rowland presented a list of expedition members to authorities in Los Angeles. While some settled in Northern California and others had other destinations, a substantial part of the group decided to stay in the region.
Rowland traveled to Monterey, the capital of Alta California, and petitioned Governor Juan B. Alvarado for a grant to Rancho La Puente. For a long time, it was assumed that Rowland became aware of the ranch as he and the expedition passed through it on the way to Mission San Gabriel and then Los Angeles. A document found some years ago in the Rowland House, however, showed that Rowland bought horses from La Puente in 1834. Likely he’d heard about the desirability of the property seven years before he laid eyes on it.
Perhaps because of Workman’s possible ties to an attempt to assassinate Armijo (there’s only one source for the accusation and it can’t be corroborated), the grant was only to Rowland, though Workman and his family settled on the ranch immediately after the grant was approved in spring 1842. Rowland then returned to New Mexico to retrieve his family, coming back again to California at the end of the year. He then built an adobe house, probably the next summer, and took active management of half of La Puente.
The ranch was just under 18,000 acres as granted by Alvarado and was plenty big enough to stock thousands of cattle for the trade in their hides and tallow (fat), this being the sole major economy in greater Los Angeles. After Rowland and Workman lent a hand assisting Pío Pico in taking the reins of government by force in early 1844, the two were given a new grant to La Puente by the new governor, who expanded its size to the maximum allowable by law: just under 49,000 acres.
While Workman played a significant local role during the Mexican-American War and the U.S. invasion of Mexican California, Rowland was characteristically quieter. He did join Americans and Europeans who supported the Americans at the home of Isaac Williams on Rancho Santa Ana del Chino in modern Chino Hills when it was besieged and set fire to by Californios defending their homeland. The occupants were captured and marched to what is now Boyle Heights in Los Angeles where they were held for months after freed by the intercession of Workman and Ygnacio Palomares, whose Rancho San Jose bordered La Puente to the east.
After that excitement, Rowland mostly lived a quiet life as a successful and prominent rancher and farmer. He ran and lost twice for county supervisor, was president of an unsuccessful attempt to create a county agricultural commission, and headed a local protest of an attempted state tax on wine and brandy making. Otherwise, he prudently managed his share of La Puente and avoided the speculative business endeavors Workman joined his son-in-law, F.P.F. Temple, in pursuing.
After Encarnación’s death in late 1851, Rowland married, about a year later, widow Charlotte Gray of El Monte. The two had two surviving children: a son, Albert, and a daughter Victoria, obviously named for the ruling monarch and her consort of England. Three years after the marriage, Rowland leveled his adobe house and built a large brick residence nearby. Still standing, not far from the Homestead in the City of Industry, the Rowland House is the oldest surviving brick building in Southern California.
Meanwhile, the glory years of the Gold Rush when cattle from greater Los Angeles were highly valuable as sources of fresh beef melted away and tough times mounted by the early 1860s, as floods and drought ravaged the region by mid-decade. Moreover, the time-consuming and expensive process of land claims for Spanish and Mexican-era ranchos was another challenge.
Rowland and Workman spent fifteen years fighting for the claim to La Puente and, when Rowland wrote Henry W. Halleck, Abraham Lincoln’s Army Chief of Staff during much of the Civil War and an expert on the land claims situation, he had a simple piece of advice: hire a lawyer and give him plenty of money. Rowland promptly did this and it paid off quickly, as Henry Beard, a Washington attorney, secured the patent in spring 1867.
In his mid-seventies, and with Workman in his late sixties, Rowland realized it was time to divide La Puente for his and Workman’s heirs. In 1868, the ranch was divided evenly, by both hill and valley land measures, and Rowland largely took the southern, eastern and northern sections, while Workman possessed the central and western portions.
Five years later, just as the Southern Pacific railroad was being built from Los Angeles through La Puente, on 14 October 1873 Rowland passed away at his home. The Los Angeles Herald gave a detailed summary of his life, noting the adventures of his earlier years and juxtaposed those with the quiet later years. Upon his death, the Rowland half of La Puente was divided among his widow and several children. The family still has about 100 acres of commercial land leased out, a marked contrast to what happened to Workman, whose estate was wiped out with the failure of the Temple and Workman bank in 1876.
Shortly afterward, Workman committed suicide, and he was laid to rest in El Campo Santo Cemetery next to Rowland, his friend of nearly a half-century. Workman’s remains were moved in to the mausoleum built between 1919 and 1921 by his grandson Walter P. Temple, who acquired the 75-acre Workman Homestead salvaged after the bank disaster and then lost in 1899. Rowland’s impressive tomb, however, remains in a corner of the cast-iron fenced plot behind the mausoleum.
John Rowland’s story is one of interest and instructive value, though with the Rowland House remaining closed for over a quarter century as it awaits further restoration and renovation, that story does not often get told as it should. It is hoped that the Homestead the La Puente Valley Historical Society can collaborate on at least occasional programs and tours of the Rowland House, so that the combined stories of the Rowland and Workman families can be shared with the public.