Richard H. Peterson, Book Review Editor
Camp and Camino in Lower California. By Arthur W. North. Glorieta, New Mexico: The Rio Grande Press, 1977. Reprint from 1910. Bibliography. Illustrations. Index. Map. 334 pages. $20.00.
Reviewed by Lowell L. Blaisdell, Professor, Department of History, Texas Tech University, author of The Desert Revolution (1962).
As Alta California historicial buffs are aware, a flourishing literature testifies to the fascination that their Baja namesake inspires. The recollections of nineteenth and early twentieth century Anglo travellers comprise one segment of the lore. Of these, the North book is a first-rate example. The Rio Grande press, which specializes in Indian studies and reprints of Western America classics, has made this Expansionist Era semi-classic newly available. In doing so it has rendered a valuable service. The Press enlisted W. Michael Mathes, San Francisco University professor and Director of the Archivo Histórico de Baja California Sur Pablo L. Martínez to write an introductory essay. Mathes has extensive scholarly and personal knowledge of Baja. Consequently, his sketch offers a historical perspective of the author and his subject which enables the reader to anticipate what to look for in North’s account. As for the book accoutrements, the print is clear, index adequate, and photos enjoyable. Of the latter, there are thirty-two of North’s that are samples of long-ago photography. There are seventy two other modern color shots contributed by Professor Mathes. There is a frontispiece map, but it is in need of supplement.
A well-educated Californian, Arthur W. North had a mild case of the Social Darwinism so characteristic of the American favored classes at the turn of the century. Living at a time when talk of acquisition of the peninsula was rife along the West Coast, he would have regarded such an outcome as beneficial to Mexicans no less than Americans, provided the United States had brought it about in a benevolent way.
In North, the love of danger and adventure combined with the historical bent that takes the form of trying literally to relive the past. This led him in 1905-06 to undertake a six month north-south trek through Baja California. Later in the latter year he made another briefer exploration of the northeast mountains and the Colorado delta. In the course of these journeys he and his varying companions, guides, and pack animals underwent a variety of hardships, including the crossing of four deserts, one of which was the fear-some Vizcaino.
North’s enthusiasm embraced, in order, the tracking down of mission ruins, exploration more generally, fraternization with peninsular people-usually but not exclusively upper class-and hunting. Accordingly, the descriptive aspects of these activities are very informative, and constitute the best parts of his book. On the other hand, he is deficient in historical and social analysis.
It is noteworthy that the author made his journey in the last years of the Porfiriato. Given his outlook, he probably lacked the social antennae with which to detect incipient unrest. However, North was not so unobservant that, had it been very widespread, he would have been completely blind to it. Though elsewhere in Mexico, dissatisfaction was beginning to spread, evidently very little of it seeped into distant, rural Baja. In the peninsula, the extremely inhospitable terrain made it very hard for the poor to eke out a living. Equally restrictive were the man-made barriers of class and wealth. Yet the reader does not get the feeling that there was rampant frustration among the humbler people whom North encountered. If the author is to be believed, simplicity and religiosity were the dominant characteristics among many of them. It is sobering to think that in our modern, more democratic era there is probably greater social discontent in the overcrowed urban centers of northernmost Baja California than existed in the entire peninsula in the last days of the Old Regime.