Douglas H. Strong, Book Review Editor
The Spanish Royal Corps of Engineers in the Western Borderlands: Instrument of Bourbon Reform 1764 to 1815
By Janet R. Fireman. Glendale: Arthur H. Clark Co., 1977. (Spain in the West Series, XII). Illustrations. Appendices. Notes. Bibliography. Index. 250 pages. $16.95.
Reviewed by Iris Wilson Engstrand, Professor of History, University of San Diego; author of Royal Officer in Baja California 1768 – 1770: Joaquín Velázquez de León and other books on California history.
Janet Fireman’s work is a scholarly and well-written study that brings in-to focus the origin, activities and personnel of an elite military unit heretofore given only peripheral treatment. The Spanish Royal Corps of Engineers, founded in 1711 as one of the first manifestations of Bourbon reform, consisted exclusively of highly trained officers. The requirements for entry into the Corps were stringent-all engineers had to have previous military training and status. Once accepted, they entered a rigid system of rank and class overseen by the engineer general. Their duties included the formation of maps and plans for ports and towns; drawings of fortifications, barracks, and other royal installations; and designs for roads, bridges and hydraulic projects. They also served as teachers and administrators of military academies. The organization of the small Corps-its numbers never exceeded 200 officers-was modified from time to time, but its objectives remained essentially the same throughout the later colonial period.
Dr. Fireman summarizes the organization of the engineers in terms of Spanish military needs during the Bourbon period and then proceeds wíth a description of their subsequent contributions in the western Borderlands. Through a series of biographical sketches, men who have received mere mention in previous works come alive as they face the difficult circumstances of defending and extending New Spain’s northern frontier. Fireman begins with the career of Francisco Alvarez Barreiro in 1718 and details his association with Pedro de Rivera’s 8,000 mile trek through Texas and New Mexico from 1724 to 1728. She then moves to later events, especially the expedition of Juan de Villalba y Angula in 1864 and the contributions of Nicolas de Lafora to the Rubí inspection-tour of 1766. The policies of Visitador General José de Gálvez are also given careful conideration.
Perhaps most interesting to California readers will be the chapter on Upper California featuring that no longer forgotten founder Miguel Costansó, engineer with the Sacred Expedition of 1769 and diarist of the Portolá march to San Francisco Bay in October of the same year. Costansó’s map of the Pacific Coast dated October 30, 1770 is the first to include California’s great natural harbor to the north. After spending fourteen months in the Monterey area drawing maps and designing installations, Costansó returned to Mexico City to continue his career with the Corps. He participated in plans for the Anza route from Tubac to Monterey and kept abreast of California affairs until his death in 1814. Also featured in the California story is Alberto de Córdoba, resident expert on fortification and town planning from San Diego to San Francisco during the 1790’s.
The careers of Manuel Agustín Mascaró, Gerónimo de la Rocha, Juan Pagazaurtundúa, and other engineers in adjacent Borderlands areas are covered in a chapter on the Commandancy General. Fireman closes with an overall assessment of the accomplishínents of the Corps of Engineers as it helped “to create, maintain, enhance, and defend Spain’s western Borderlands.”
The primary documentary materials for this work come for the most part from the major archives of Spain and Mexico. The research, carried on over a period of several years, is exceptionally thorough. Included are eight appendices-precise reports by the engineers which illustrate the detailed nature of the Corps’ work. These are expertly translated by the author. The book, attractively designed and printed by the Arthur H. Clark Company, includes fourteen original maps.
Overall, Dr. Fireman’s competent use of Spanish sources and her flair for good writing combine to make this book a stimulating experience for the reader of Borderlands history.