Book review by Steve Matthews of Bookends:
On September 22nd, 1841, Governor Armijo of New Mexico sent a communiqué to the Mexican government. It concerned “The naturalized foreigners, Juan Rooland and Julian Workman, traitors who have gone to the Californias to seduce and confuse its inhabitants, whose immediate exemplary punishment would be the only stop to the torrent of evils they have committed in this department under my command, and will be the ones which undoubtedly they will commit in the Californias.” Julian Workman had been born William Workman forty years earlier in the village of Clifton, south of Penrith.
The two Workman brothers, David and William, had emigrated to America and settled first at Franklin, on the Missouri, in 1819. They’d made a decent living for themselves as saddlers. For two years, until he ran away, their apprentice had been the young Kit Carson, who later became one of the most famous scouts in the history of the American West.
In 1825, William had taken the dangerous Santa Fe trail to New Mexico and set himself up as a fur trader and distiller of Taos ligtnin’, “a fiery mixture of grain alcohol laced with a flavouring of chilli pepper, tobacco and even a touch of gunpowder”.
The small party of adventurers arrived in California, at the Mission San Gabriel, a few miles east of present day Los Angeles on 5th November, 1841. “They were the first immigrant party of any real significance to reach southern California by an eastern land route.” They’d undergone such hardships and privations crossing the mountains and the deserts that one member of the party claimed “that he, as well as his animals, barely lived to reach the green fields nd fine waters of the California mountains”.
William and his Indian wife built an adobe house and established a small farm. He played a leading part in the insurrection of 1845 against the Mexican governor and was rewarded with a land grant of 50,000 acres followed a year later by a further grant which included the land of the Mission San Gabriel. William also acquired as a smart bit of property speculation a twelve acre uninhabited rock in San Francisco Bay known as Alcatraz.
William, now a successful farmer and landowner, returned home to Clifton on a visit in 1851. After having led such a tumultuous life in a rapidly changing world, he found his home village much as it had been when he was a boy.
His brother David, had continued his business in Missouri. He joined William in 1851, but died as a result of a horse accident a few years later.
William Workman became a wealthy man, a partner in the Workman and Temple Bank in the booming city of Los Angeles. However, in 1876, the bank went bust. William Workman was bankrupt. “His American dream had become a nightmare. . . . Before the day was out, William went to the parlour of his hom and shot himself.”
“A consummate adventurer, mountain man, pioneer trader, rancher and businessman, William Workman was at heart an enterprising Englishman . . . who was there at the birth of Los Angeles.”
John Sharpe has followed the trail the Workman Brothers took from Clifton through the American West. The brothers sent letters home and there are traces of their lives in official documents, but it is an exciting trail, full of drama and incident, but also hard to trace in places.
The Workman Brothers from a small village in Cumbria were there at the birth of one of the world’s greatest cities.
The Workman Brothers is available from Bookends, 56 Castle Street, Carlisle, and 66 Main Street, Keswick, and from www.bookscumbria.com.