The Journal of San Diego History
Spring 1973, Volume 19, Number 2
James E. Moss, Editor

David J. Weber, Book Review Editor

The Great Southwest: The Story of a Land and Its People. By Elna Bakker and Richard G. Lillard. Palo Alto: American West Publishing Company, 1972. Bibliography. Illustrations. Index. 288 pages. $17.50.

Reviewed by Donald C. Cutter, Professor of History at the University of New Mexico and one of the leading authorities on the Southwest. Dr. Cutter’s most recent book is The California Coast: A Bilingual Edition of Documents from the Sutro Collection (1969)

The Borderlands have never been presented in more glorious color nor in such profusion of illustrations as in this book by a naturalist and a professor of English. Eighteen maps, over two hundred illustrations (nearly half of which are color reproductions of the finest quality) and large 8½”x 11″ pages make for easy reading. This graphic emphasis establishes this along with other books of the Great West series as the quintessence of pictorial representation.

Taking a realistic view of the Southwest (embracing all of Arizona and New Mexico; plus the adjacent areas of desert California, northern Baja California, Sonora, and Chihuahua, West Texas, and the southern portions of Colorado, Utah and Nevada), permits the authors to focus on that region characterized by lack of moisture, fantastic geology and relative isolation. With advanced technology in the 20th Century, man has developed areas which were hitherto impossible to exploit. As a result, not always favorable, the area has vaulted into importance with ancient towns converted into modern cities such as Juarez, El Paso, Chihuahua, Mexicali, Tucson and Albuquerque competing with some “new” centers such as Las Vegas and Phoenix. Population growth has created many problems which underscore the need for planning for even greater anticipated growth.

Those who live in the Borderlands will find little in the book that will not be known already, but many will appreciate the clarity with which it is stated. Emphasis is on the land rather than its people. The paraphernalia of scholarship is lacking, for there is no attempt at footnoting nor anything beyond a minimal effort at a bibliography.

Divided into four unequal sections, both in size and in merit, the book begins with an explanation of the physical setting of the Great Southwest and of the results of its unique physiography. The area stands apart both geologically and climatically from all other areas and the uniqueness which results has conditioned the everchanging story.

Part two deals with the adaptation of plant and animal life to the sparse resources
available. Some attention is given to plant types and their migration, as well as to animal species and their distribution.

Part three, the “Mark of Mankind,” is treated with pre-historic man receiving considerable space. As they enter the period of recorded history the authors enter into a quicksand of errors of fact, usage, interpretation, and typography. For example, the Rodríguez-Chamuscado expedition was not the first to use the term New Mexico, nor was the military leader’s name spelled Chambuscado. The New Mexico penitentes were the result of the Mexican period, not of Oñate’s much earlier penitential observances. Distorted interpretations such as an uncritical acceptance of both the old and the new Black Legends that not only Spanish actions but all European activities in the New World were evil and all native American actions were generous and noble is hard to accept without adequate proof. Statements such as: “In the central elements of civilization, the European, like their Mexican and Anglo descendants had nothing basic to give the New World natives . . . (p. 147); or “Time after time the Spanish broke their word, teaching treachery to the natives and inaugurating four hundred years of sieges, battles, solitary killings and mass slaughters,” contain a modicum of truth. In general they are grotesque distortions, and to have Spain still mistreating Indians up to 1940, or 400 years from first contact, is obviously absurd.

In the fourth section, the “Legacy of Progress,” the underlying purpose of the book is revealed: an impassioned plea for preservation and conservation of the ecological community within the region. The authors exhibit a serious concern for the pressing problems of the area, whether it be over development, lack of water, endangered wildlife, ethnic conflict, poor land utilization, or international disputes. It would appear that the justification for the book is in this “message.” Otherwise it is only a nice picture book to be consigned to waiting rooms of prosperous offices. The final section lifts it to the place of an eloquent brief for logical utilization of limited resources rather than the alternative of certain doom.