Douglas H. Strong, Book Review Editor
Mexico’s Miguel Caldera: The Taming of Ameríca’s First Frontier (1548-1597). By Philip Wayne Powell. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1977. Illustrations. Maps. Appendices. Notes. Bibliography. 322 pages.$7.95.
Reviewed by Stephen A. Colston, San Diego History Research Center, San Diego State University.
Powell’s Soldiers, Indians and Silver (1952), his documentary collection, War and Peace on the North Mexican Frontier (1971), and significant contributions to the periodical literature have established the author as an acknowledged doyen of the Chichimeca War and the northern Mexican frontier experience during the sixteenth century. While these studies have provided valuable insights into the history of New Spain’s tumultuous northern periphery, the profound influence of Miguel Caldera (1548-1597) in shaping the character of this frontier has only now received due attention.
The discovery of rich silver deposits in Zacatecas motivated Spain’s first substantive penetration into northern Mexico and generated settlements lying within the domain of the nomadic Chichimecas. Hostilities with these Indians developed soon after the initial Spanish advance and threatened both the tranquility of the colony and the productive extraction of mineral resources. While peace was eagerly sought, resolution of the conflict was to be long in coming. Powell’s survey of the principal developments of this frontier war and quest for peace introduces his biographical study of Caldera.
There is a wealth of official documentation relating to Caldera’s public career as an administrator and soldier, although there are few sources which chronicle his private life particularly prior to his entry into military service. Caldera was the illegitimate son of a Castilian soldier of fortune and a Chichimeca woman. This mestizo frontiersman enlisted in the Chichimeca War and attained the rank of captain. He was early impressed by the futility of the Crown’s efforts to subdue the Chichimecas by naked military force (“guerra a fuego y a sangre”), and achieved peace in the locality under his charge by diplomacy and gift-giving. His successes in fashioning a “peace by purchase” had a notable effect in directing viceregal policy to this end and, as chief justice of the frontier, Caldera became the principal implementor of the Crown’s pacification program that was so deeply impressed by his personal stamp. The consolidation of peace during the 1590’s accelerated settlement of the northern frontier which in turn facilitated Spanish occupation of the American Southwest. The viability of this frontier peace was due in no small measure to Caldera’s personal financing and, while he discovered new mines and accumulated considerable wealth, he died in debt.
The author has adroitly utilized archival resources in this country, Mexico and Spain in recounting the events of Caldera’s life. The detailed examination of military campaigns, jurisdictional disputes and other elements which contributed to the evolution of the pacification program forms an illuminating historical context for the actions of Powell’s protagonist. The work is however, not without several flaws. The text might have been sprinkled less liberally with “savages,” “war paths,” “powwows,” and “high noons” which tend to evoke images more of the Silver Screen than of the silver frontier, and with prose that appears at times as purple as the sage. While a bibliographical essay is provided for the introduction to the Chichimeca War, comprising approximately one-third of the book, the dearth of specific source citations can also be regretted.
In spite of these blemishes, Powell has produced a perceptive biographical study that firmly establishes Caldera’s place in history. The maps, illustrations, and transcriptions of select documents enhance the value of this work that should be welcomed by both the specialist and general reader.