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

Royal Officer in Baja California 1768-1770: Joaquin Velazquez de Leon. By Iris Wilson Engstrand, Los Angeles: Dawson’s Book Shop, 1976. Bibliography. Illustrations, Index. Maps in pocket. 133 pages. $24.00.


Reviewed by Homer Aschmann, Department of Earth Sciences, University of California, Riverside.

Essentially self-taught in the sciences since he never left New Spain, Joaquin Velázquez de León became a highly competent astronomer and surveyor, contributing significantly to the accurate mapping of that country during the latter eighteenth century. Alexander von Humboldt was to praise his work more than a decade after his death.

Because the Visitor-General Jose de Gálvez’ visit to Baja California to initiate the Spanish and mission advance into Upper California coincided with the transit of Venus across the sun’s disc and the Franco-Spanish expedition to Baja California to observe it he selected Velazquez to go with him as his second in command. The Chappe d’Auteroche expedition, scientifically successful though physically tragic, has been well reported. While they were making observations at San Jose del Cabo, Velázquez was successfully performing the same operation at the interior mining Real de Santa Ana. Velázquez’ choice of Santa Ana as his base for almost all the two and a half years of his association with Baja California was based on his interest in mining and metallurgy. It also physically separated him from the governor in Loreto, reducing the opportunities for conflict over whose authority was superior. This did not prevent the local mine operators around Santa Ana from complaining bitterly to the governor over Velázquez’ interference in their affairs.

Dr. Engstrand’s volume consists of widely disparate bits of historic material relating in various ways to Velázquez’ stay in Baja California. Some manuscript letters are largely translated; others are used with a few quoted excerpts to support a narrative of events. The interwoven narrative of Velázquez’ biography, the Chappe d’Auteroche astronomical expedition, and Gálvez’ major work in organizing the occupation of Upper California from the dismantled base of the Jesuit mission system on the peninsula is intrinsically interesting. Perhaps most appealing is the reproduction of a set of paintings by Alexander-Jean Noel, the young artist who accompanied the Chappe d’Auteroche expedition and was one of few who survived the fever that afflicted San Jose del Cabo. The paintings were acquired by the Louvre and are almost unique as direct representations from the eighteenth century by a trained artist who was there. The recently discovered Drawings of Ignacio Tirsch (Doyce Nunis narrator, Dawson’s Book Shop, 1972) were probably reworked or painted from memory during that Jesuit’s exile in Prague. Housing, which was largely brush shelters, and dress, with which Indian women were completely covered while men wore only a breechclout, are two aspects of mission life that are unequivocally shown.

Finally, attractive reproductions of two maps of California from Spanish archives are included with the volume. They are dated 1768 and 1771 respectively, and rarely could one find so drastic an improvement in the geographic knowledge of a large region in so short a time.

I regret that I must be negative concerning the quality of the translation of two long descriptive letters Velázquez wrote shortly after his arrival at Santa Ana. Although only recently arrived on the peninsula, at odds with the local entrepreneurs, and either personally inclined or politically motivated to be critical of the Jesuits, Velázquez was a scientifically trained observer. His quantitative statements must have made sense. When references to silver ores from one to ten ounces are made, I’m sure they were not in reference [to the pound] as the translator adds (pp. 48-49). To the arroba is more likely. Maize yields of 150 fanegas and wheat of 50 to 60 (p. 41) are meaningless without a unit of area. Velázquez states that he wants to “dig down” two pits of 25 to 30 varas (p. 50). It would be a prodigious task if these were vertical pits, or was he talking about costeening along a vein? I would feel impelled to go to the original manuscripts if I wanted to use any of Velázquez’ descriptive data.