The Journal of San Diego History
Spring 1977, Volume 23, Number 2
Editor James Moss
Asst. Editor Thomas L. Scharf

Book Review

Friars, Soldiers, and Reformers: Hispanic Arizona and the Sonora Mission Frontier, 1767-1856.

By John L. Kessell. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 1976. Bibliography. Illustrations. Index. Maps. xv, 347 pages. $14.50, clothbound; $8.50 paper.

Reviewed by Cynthia Radding Murrieta, Researcher in history, Centro Regional del Noroeste, Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia, Secretaria de Educacion Publica, Mexico.

Friars, Soldiers and Reformers is a masterpiece of the historian’s craft. A major contribution to the historiography of Northwest Mexico and the U.S. Southwest, Kessell’s recent volume is a narrative history of the Hispanic and Mexican periods in the Sonora-Arizona frontier, following the close of the Jesuit era.

The work represents a blending of casestudy and regional history. The narrative focuses on the Franciscan mission of Tumacacori and the presidio of Tubac, in the upper Santa Cruz valley, two communities which “provide a window on the SonoraArizona frontier” (p. xiii). However, the author’s presentation widens to include much of the vast subregion of Pimeria Alta, with occasional references to the remote European and North American capitals whose policies came to be felt in that desert frontier.

The chronological limits of the study are dictated by the subtitle: “Hispanic Arizona and the Sonora Mission Frontier.” Kessell follows the evolution of Hispanic, and later Mexican, institutions in the region until the final transfer of Arizona to Angloamerican authority. The initial date is set by the expulsion of the Jesuit missionaries from Northwest New Spain, an event which marked the beginning of a new era in the development of the mission communities in the entire region.

The major emphasis is on mission history, although important consideration is given to the role of the presidial soldiers in the Arizona-Sonora frontier; In this sense, the present study is a sequel to Kessell’s earlier volume, Mission of Sorrows: Jesuit Guevavi and the Pimas, 1691-1767 (Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 1970), a regionally and locally oriented history of Guevavi, the predecessor to the Franciscan cabecera of Tumacdcori. The image of the mission which guides this study, in contrast to the tradition set by Bolton, is that of a frontier institution threatened by private interests and by the reforming ideologies of eighteenth-century Spanish Bourbon rule.

From an historian’s point of view, the book’s greatest strength is the author’s masterful use of the voluminous Franciscan and civil documentation available in both Mexican and U.S. archives. Throughout the book, the author’s aim is an historical reconstruction of the past; and he achieves it through a critical reading, sifting and cross-checking of the documents.

While basically a narrative of biographical and institutional history, centering on the missions, Friars, Soldiers and Reformers leads the reader to several possibilities of analysis by the way in which the facts are presented. Such is the case in the reconstruction of events surrounding the ultimate destiny of the Tumacacori mission lands. Kessel’s study offers ample material for topics of socio-economic interest and for ethnohistory.

The author’s skills become evident in the biographical portrayals of the individuals brought to life in this history. Perhaps the most memorable example is his poignant treatment of Fray Francisco Garces, famed explorer and martyr of the Yuma missions.

Kessell’s contribution to the historiography of the Arizona-Sonora mission frontier is not “definitive”; it has not closed the topic, but rather opened new insights for further research. In the area of quantitative analysis, while data are included in this narrative on population, mission lands, and other facets of the economy, these materials are not submitted to systematic analysis. Work remains to be done on the trends and focii of change in the socio-economic structures of the region. In addition, an historical synthesis of the Sonora mission frontier requires similarly detailed microhistories of other missions in the Pimeria Alta. More work is needed on the role of mining in the development of the subregion.

In sum, Friars, Soldiers and Reformers is both a beautiful story and a model of historical research. The author’s judicious use of humor reminds us that history, of all the social sciences, most nearly portrays the human comedy.