The Journal of San Diego History
Winter 1976, Volume 22, Number 1
James E. Moss, Editor

Book Review

David J. Weber, Book Review Editor

The Presidio: Bastion of the Spanish Borderlands. By Max L. Moorhead. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1975. Bibliography. Illustrations. Index. Maps. 288 pages. $9.95.

 Reviewed by Leon G. Campbell, Assistant Professor of History and Chairman, Latin American Studies Program, University of California, Riverside, and author of Military and Society in Colonial Peru, 1750-1810 (forthcoming, 1976).

Professor Max L. Moorhead has written a very good book about an essential Spanish American institution, the presidio, or garrisoned fort which defended populated or strategically-important positions on the northern frontier of New Spain and other areas. Although those persons interested in the Borderlands regions of Florida and California will perhaps be disappointed that Moorhead has chosen to limit his study to the presidios of the so-called Provincias Internas (today the American States of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, and the Mexican States of Coahuila, Chihuahua, Durango, Sonora, and Sinaloa), most will recognize the book as an important addition to the history of the Spanish Borderlands.

While Borderlands historians from H. E. Bolton onwards have recognized the importance of the presidio as a defensive institution and a civilizing agency, Moorhead is the first to fully explain its several functions as a market center, social unit, sanctuary, religious outpost, administrative seat, and military outpost. His scrupulously-researched and clearly-written study indicates that the presidio was as essential an element of Spanish civilization as the missions, mines, and civil settlements which it was established to defend and which historians have generally preferred to study.

Employing a chronological approach to his subject, Moorhead traces the evolution of the presidio from the prototype employed in Spanish Morocco prior to the Conquest of America to its appearance in the New World. During the sixteenth century the presidio in New Spain served as a simple garrisoned fort with a purely military mission to fulfill, that of defending the northern frontier against hostile Indians. Gradually, however, Spain began to utilize the presidio to extend this frontier. As time went on, presidios became the nuclei of civil towns, markets for the produce of neighboring farms and ranches, and agencies for the formation of Indian reservations. In response to the real or imagined threat of Indian attack or European invasion, the twenty-three presidios in the Provincias Internas reached a total garrison strength of over 3,000 men.

With the help of twenty-one detailed plans of these presidios which he located in the British Museum, Moorhead manages to give the reader a complete picture of these forts and their companies of quasi-regular troops. By means of the regulations of 1729, 1772, 1779, and 1786, he explains how these troops were armed and mounted to meet the contingencies of Indian warfare, how the Crown attempted to regularize and control the garrisons, and the problems encountered in so doing. While acknowledging the failure of these efforts at standardization, Moorhead concludes that the presidios, for all their failings, were strong enough to nominally pacify most of the hostile Indian tribes of the area by the late eighteenth century.

In Part II Moorhead descriptively analyzes five significant presidial functions: the military fort, the company of troops, the sizeable government payroll, the nucleus for an urban community, and the agency for an Indian reservation. The author’s forte (pun intended) is his careful description of the legal and economic aspects of the institution. He explains, for example, the many factors working to prevent the presidial payroll from pumping life into frontier economies as it was supposed to do, and the problems faced by presidials trying to live on their meager salaries. He feels that the presidios’ contribution to the peaceful settlement of the Indians is an unsung chapter in their history.

Some attention is also paid to the presidial soldiery and their lifestyles but this is done suggestively and without the attention given to legal and economic aspects. The author does, however, point out that few of the presidials were Spaniards or even whites by the eighteenth century. Local recruitment produced companies in which officers and men were often related, producing problems of discipline. Also presidials, priests, and civilians apparently maintained cool if not hostile relations with one another. Soldiers were less preferable than civilians as bridegrooms and apparently lacked the entrepreneurial talents of civil settlers. Obviously these tensions produced endoga-mous marriages in which soldiers married lower class women from other army families and remained at some distance from civil society.

At last the Spanish presidio has its historian. Yet Moorhead’s book really opens rather than closes the field of presidial studies. Social historians will want to explore many aspects of presidial life raised by Moorhead as a means of understanding more fully how society functioned on the frontier of New Spain.