The Journal of San Diego History
Winter 1977, Volume 23, Number 1
James E. Moss, Editor
Thomas L. Scharf, Assistant Editor

Book Review
Douglas H. Strong, Book Review Editor

Desert Documentary; The Spanish Years, 1767-1821. By Kieran McCarty. Tucson: Arizona Historical Society (Historical Monograph No. 4), 1976. Illustrations. Index. Map. 150 pages. $5.00.


Reviewed by Janet R. Fireman, Associate Curator of Social and Cultural History, Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, author of The Royal Corps of Engineers in the Western Borderlands; Instrument of Bourbon Reform, 1764-1815 (in press).

Father Kieran blithely states in the opening sentence of his introduction to Desert Documentary that his purpose in compiling, translating, and editing this collection is to “provoke more questions than it answers and to open new doors.” The point is well taken. A first question might be, “Where do the doors lead?” The answer is clearly “to Tucson and its environs’ past.” But, the persistent inquisitor asks, “What is the theme, or the underlying motive, or the intellectual framework (or all of the above) of this book?” The answer is lost to the stereotypical shifting desert sands… or at least to the reader.

Certainly this motley assortment of primary sources serves its purpose. Questions are indeed provoked. At least one is answered. Of some 41 documents translated in Desert Documentary, only sixteen were found in the same repository: the Archivo General de la Nación in Mexico City. Father Kieran clearly, admirably, and enviably made the archival rounds. He has included material from the Archivo Franciscano of the Biblioteca Nacional, also in Mexico, the Archivo Histórico del Estado at the University of Sonora, and the Archivo Hist6rico de la Mitra de Sonora in the Cathedral Archives in Hermosillo. Farther from home, Father Kieran gleaned material from the Antonianum Library in Rome and the Newberry Library in Chicago; closer to home he consulted House Executive Documents from the 33rd Congress, and of course the resources of his publisher, the Arizona Historical Society’s Figueroa Collection. The answer is unequivocally that this is not a narrow study (in the familiar usage of the profession); Father Kieran gets around—and through—the archives.

Besides demonstrating great variety in source origins, Desert Documentary displays a goodly variation in the types of materials included. There are a number of letters, which given the communication network of the eighteenth century Sonora desert, are to be expected. Additionally, there are one or more examples of personal service reports, petitions, royal decrees, fiscal tabulations, construction contracts, questionnaires, trial transcripts, presidio rosters, and reminiscences. Generally routine reports on various areas and activities are balanced by fifteen service records of common soldiers meriting award, an unusual find and a bonus of merit, itself deserving award.

The documents are distributed in twenty sections with uninspired headings. If the section or chapter titles leave some doubt as to what follows, the explanatory introductions following them add only slight elucidation. Fraught with trite syntax (“the document tells the story,” “death finally came,” “true story”), any pretensions to a scholarly caliber for this book are shot through with lightning-swift, death-dealing arrows of doom. Repeated use of the term, “Spanish Sonora” is perplexing since the collection’s subtitle clearly delineates the period, and subject matter defines terrain.

Weaknesses considered, Desert Documentary nevertheless has value. The convenience of translated documents gathered from afar is irrefutable; service to the reader is undeniable. The book is paperbound, lightweight, and otherwise easy to purchase and hold. The pages between the covers are printed with interesting episodes of “little history.” And then, of course, Father Kieran has been successful in achieving his purpose: he has raised more questions than he has answered.