Sketches of a journey on the Two Oceans and to the Interior of America and of a Civil War in Northern Lower California. By Abbé Henry-J. A. Alric. Baja California Travel Series No. 24. Translated by Norah E. Jones and edited by Doyce B. Nunis, Jr. (Los Angeles, Ca., Dawson’s Book Shop, 1971). Notes. Illustrations. Index. Map. 215 pages. $20.00.
Reviewed by Dr. David J. Weber, book review editor of the Journal of San Diego History. Professor Weber teaches the history of Latin America and the American Southwest at San Diego State College. His most recent book is The Taos Trappers: The Fur Trade in the Far Southwest, 1540-1846, published by the University of Oklahoma Press.
A forty-five-year-old priest with a yearning for travel, Henry-Jean-Antoine Alric set out from his native France in 1850 on a remarkable series of adventures in the New World. He would not return home for seventeen years. From 1851 to 1856, he served as a priest in the Upper California gold rush community of Sonora, which had a substantial French-speaking population. From 1856 to 1860, he served in northern Lower California and from 1861 to 1867, he ministered to the French community in Mexico City.
Alric’s chapter on life in gold-crazed California is brief and ordinary. He comments on disease and despair, gambling, and vigilante justice — “especially when it was a case of Mexicans.” As a man of the cloth he was able to save only one man from hanging, but he does no philosophizing about the nature of sin in gold rush communities or his own inability to influence men’s actions.
The abbé’s description of Mexico City (where “I spent the pleasantest days of my life”) is also ordinary and brief because the editor wisely omitted the most ordinary part of the chapter. After French soldiers occupied Mexico and made Maximilian a puppet emperor, Abbé Alric had a large flock of Frenchmen to attend and became a military chaplain. He was not in a position to know politicians and the upper class, and had little sympathy for or insight into the lives of the Mexican lower class, so his comments shed little light on French-occupied Mexico.
Ironically, Alric’s longest and most significant chapters concern the area he served most briefly, Baja California. Early in 1856 he journeyed to Baja, stopping at San Diego which he termed a “ruined city,” but where he enjoyed Juan Bandini’s customary hospitality. Alric made his headquarters in Baja at Santo Tomás, then the largest settlement in the vast northern part of the peninsula called La Frontera. The only resident priest in the entire area, Alric presided over a dozen abandoned missions. The poverty of his parishioners led him to raise his own crops, apparently at considerable time and expense. Two years in succession, military officers confiscated his harvest. Disgusted and impoverished, Alric abandoned Baja to serve as military chaplain at Fort Yuma during most of 1858. Unfortunately he makes no comment about his experiences there.
In late 1858, Alric returned to Santo Tomás and made a difficult tour of La Frontera. Local officials received him more graciously than before and he seemed destined for success. Then, in 1859 a power struggle between caudillos unleashed nearly two years of carnage and pillaging that destroyed the meager properties and decimated the population of La Frontera. This breakdown of civil order even invited Californians with personal scores to settle to cross the border and join in the fray. Alric regarded himself as fortunate to have fled to San Diego with his life. When the shooting stopped, he returned to Santo Tomás only to find the town deserted.
It is Alric’s detailed description of the social and political conditions in La Frontera which led to the violence of 1859 and 1860 that make this volume so valuable. Equally valuable are Doyce Nunis’s skillful and copious notes which verify and substantially expand upon Alric’s account by drawing from other contemporary sources. To date, the two decades following the Mexican War in Baja have been nearly unstudied and this volume only whets the appetite to know more about those turbulent years. Happily, Nunis promises a future volume in this series to be entitled: Baja California, 1848-1868: Years of Strife and Turmoil, A Documentary Narrative.
Norah E. Jones’s translation of Alric’s recollections is smooth and, in one sense, is more valuable than the original French which appeared in three different editions. Jones translated all three of these and Nunis collated them to make this English composite. Although Alric wrote in a straightforward manner, his adventures were such that they tell a gripping story even without benefit of a dazzling prose style. Follow him, for example, on his 1861 journey on horseback and by boat from San Diego to Mexico City by way of Yuma, Hermosillo, Guaymas, San Blas and Guadalajara. With Mexico embroiled in the War of the Reform and banditry rampant, Alric’s trail was literally strewn with corpses at times. Or commisserate with Alric over his inexperienced ship captain who became so lost in the Pacific that they hit Hawaii instead of San Francisco. Abbé Alric’s Journey, then, is not only a valuable document but, at times, high adventure as well and a worthy addition to Dawson’s distinguished Baja California Travel Series.