William Workman Orders Still For Taos Lightning

On Monday, February 13, 1826, William Workman of Taos, New Mexico sent a letter to his brother David in Franklin, Missouri. William asked David to have two 80-gallon stills shipped to him from St. Louis. Copper stills were essential in the production of hard liquor like the wheat-based Taos Lightning that William produced and sold.

Not only did William Workman’s letter ensure that Taos residents would have more liquor available to them, it also may have triggered one of the American West’s most famous runaway stories.

David Workman, a saddle and harness maker, had a teenage apprentice named Christopher “Kit” Carson. The letter from New Mexico may have reminded the young Kit that there were more exciting ways to earn a living. When he took off for New Mexico that August, he may well have traveled in the same wagon train as the stills that William Workman had ordered.

Workman manufactured Taos Lightning until 1841, when he himself had to run away, this time from—rather than to—New Mexico. Workman and his distillery partner John Rowland fled Taos for California that September, after rumors spread that they were collaborating with a Republic of Texas expedition to annex New Mexico.

feb-13-illustration-workman-william-1855-mnm-13492.jpeg
William Workman, 1855. MNM 13492

While Carson stayed in New Mexico and made him name for himself, Workman, in California and still partnering with John Rowland, obtained a Mexican land grant of over 48,000 acres and founded  Rancho de la Puente, now a cultural landmark in Southern California.

In both cases, running away seems to have been the best move either Workman or Carson could have made. They both made a name for themselves as a result.

 

Sources: Samuel P. Arnold, Eating up the Santa Fe Trail, University Press of Colorado, Niwot, 1990; Leroy R. Hafen, editor, Fur Trappers and Traders of the Far Southwest, Utah State University Press, Logan, 1997; Hampton Sides, Blood and Thunder, Doubleday, New York, 2006; Marc Simmons, Kit Carson, and His Three Wives, University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, 2003.

 

There’s Always a Way – Fur Trapping Under Mexican Law

On Friday, October 29, 1824, Santa Fe Trail originator William Becknell swerved from the Trail he’d inaugurated three years before and instead got a license from the Mexican government to go trapping. He may have been the first American to do so.

Getting a trapping license that October was complicated. Four months earlier, the Mexican government  had ordered New Mexico’s governor to ban all non-citizens from trapping. Only Mexican nationals were allowed to hunt beaver, although even they needed a license to do so. The process required the applicant to pay a fee, provide information about the number of hunters in the party, the type of hunting to be done and the weapons used, and the length of the planned expedition.

The American trappers got around the new restrictions by asking Mexican citizens to apply for the permits, then allow the Americans to hunt under their licenses. This subfertuge seems to have done with the Governor’s knowledge: Becknell sent Governor Baca a letter to confirm receipt of the permission he’d obtained through Manuel Rada, the priest at Santa Cruz de la Canada.

oct 29 illustration.pixabay

And Becknell wasn’t the only trapper to do this. A year later, Sylvester Pratte and Jean Pierre Cabanné went through customs collector Juan Bautista Vigil y Alarid to get a permit.

However, there was a slight problem with this approach. Different officials read the law differently, and difficulties could develop. For example, in May 1826, the Taos alcalde confiscated the pelts of Sylvestre Pratte and Francois Robidoux, even though they both had permits issued by the Governor. (Robidoux’s had been obtained through Juan Bautista Vigil.) When Pratte and Robidoux protested the seizure, Santa Fe officials ordered the alcalde to return the plews.

But this approach made life uncertain. Additional conflicts occurred the following summer over plews brought in by Ewing Young and his trappers.

And there was another solution to the license problem. A naturalized Mexican citizen could obtain one without a go-between.

This fact seems to have triggered a rash of applications for Mexican citizenship. In 1830 alone, thirteen men (Abraham Ledoux, William Wolfskill, Geronimo Lonte, Pedro Laliberte, Antoine Leroux, Jose Bissonette, Amablo Para, Antonio Blanchilla/Blanchard, Jean Baptiste Trudeau, Luis Ambroise, Carlos Guara, Francisco Siote, Pierre Lesperance, and Paul Anderson) all became Mexican citizens. They joined Richard Campbell, Antoine Robidoux, John Rowland, and Gervais Nolan, who’d already made the switch.

These are the men for whom citizenship records are still extant. Who knows how many other men also decided to live by the old adage, “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em?”

Sources: Daniel J. Weber, The Taos Trappers, Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1971

Mexico Establishes Citizenship Requirements

On Monday, April 14, 1828, Mexico’s Congress spelled out the conditions under which foreigners could become Mexican citizens. The rules were simple: They had to have lived in Mexico at least two years and be Roman Catholic, employed, and well-behaved. If these conditions were met, the governor of the Deparment could issue a certificate of citizenship.

It seems to have taken a while for word about the new law to get to New Mexico, but once it did, at least twelve French-Canadians and Americans applied for citizenship the following year. One of these men was John Rowland, trapper, trader, and owner of both a Taos flour mill and a Taos Lightning distillery.

April 14 illustration.John Rowland.Hafen Vol IV
John Rowland. Source: Mountain Men and the Fur Trade of the Southwest, Vol. IV, Leroy R. Hafen

Rowland didn’t remain in New Mexico, although he did remain a Mexican citizen. In 1840, he and his England-born distillery partner William Workman, supposedly without their knowledge or consent, were named temporary commissioners for the Republic of Texas. Feelings against Texas were strong in northern New Mexico and the two men’s apparent support for Texas and the hated 1841 Texas-Santa Fe expedition was enough to make New Mexico too hot for them. In 1841, they emigrated to California.

Both men did well in California. Workman became an important figure in the Los Angeles business community and Rowland became one of California’s most important wine manufacturers while continuing his work to produce both flour and distilled spirits. He died in 1873 and was buried in the cemetary of the Catholic church built on the 48,790 acre Rancho la Puente, which he co-owned with Workman.

Sources: Mountain Men and the Fur Trade of the Far West, Vol. IV, Leroy Hafen, Arthur H. Clarke Company, Spokane, 1966; The Taos Trappers, David J. Weber, U of Oklahoma, Norman, 1971.  www.homesteadmuseum.org