The Journal of San Diego History
Fall 1979, Volume 25, Number 4
Thomas L. Scharf, Editor

Book Reviews

Richard H. Peterson, Book Review Editor

Los Paisanos: Spanish Settlers on the Northern Frontier of New Spain.
By Oakah L. Jones. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1979. Illustrations. Maps. Glossary. Notes. Bibliography. Index. 455 pages. $22.50.
Reviewed by Theodore E. Treutlein, Professor Emeritus of History, San Francisco State University.

“It is the thesis of this book,” writes the author, “that Spanish settlers on the frontier of New Spain were more numerous than has been supposed and that they not only developed a culture distinct from those in other parts of the viceroyalty but contributed markedly to the development and permanent occupation of a ten-state region on the far northern frontier of New Spain. These settlers were everyday people who created a culture reflecting institutions brought from Europe, yet modified to meet the challenge of different environmental conditions. This culture became the nucleus of the present Mexican society in the northern states of that republic and of the Spanish-speaking life style in the southwestern states of the United States of America.

“Yet few historians have studied the role of the settlers in these frontier provinces. Instead, they have contributed important works on government officials and institutions, the presidial system and military affairs, and the work of the Church and its missionaries. I have chosen to concentrate on the civilian settler-the farmer, day laborer, stockman, and artisan-to depict his importance in the frontier expansion of New Spain from the settlement of Culiacán in 1531 to the achievement of Mexican independence in 1821.”

The author goes on to say that he has emphasized three general subjects: the establishment of civil settlements; the settlers themselves; and the life style, achievements, and problems of these frontier people. These declared objectives are analyzed through examination of the following regions: the Northeastern Frontier (Coahuila-Nuevo León, Texas, and Nuevo Santander); the North Central Frontier (Durango and Chihuahua) and New Mexico; the Northwestern Frontier (Sinaloa and Sonora); and the Pacific Frontier (Baja and Alta California).

The use of the word paisanos reflects the author’s view that these “countrymen” were “the real settlers of northern New Spain, not aristocrats, government officials, missionaries, and presidial soldiers except when they also became permanent residents of frontier communities.” The word paisano “accurately describes the settler as one who was attached to the land and the environment, who worked the land, and who raised livestock.”

The above words and expressions of purpose are found in the author’s Preface, xi-xv, and should be kept in mind as the book is studied. One notes that the author has set himself a most difficult task, namely, to write about the generality of people, the commonplace episodes in life, and the mundane aspects of existence. In short, the reason the author can complain that historians have emphasized the role of explorers, missionaries, government officials, and presidial soldiers (at the expense of Spanish-speaking settlers of the frontier communities) is that it is easier to translate a diary, to trace the route of an explorer, or to evaluate an administrator’s handling of a royal cédula than it is to detail the doings of the multitude.

But is it necessary to carry this complaint to the point of arguing that “… the true settlers of the northern frontier were not missionaries, soldiers, aristocrats, great landowners, European immigrants, or even government officials. Some of these were present, but they were at all times a decided minority. The paisanos, commonplace countrymen, were over-whelmingly the backbone of Spanish settlement on all frontiers.” (p. 255) Why not admit that the settlement of the so-called ten states came about as it did through the roles played by all participants and that in any settlement pattern the generality of people are the most numerous of the several types that make up a society. The reviewer is certain that the author understands this, but has overstated his case.

Time and space permit only a couple of examples which illustrate a basic, but not completely damaging inconsistency in the author’s stated approach: (1) “… Spanish communities were planned in advance (and towns were where paisanos first lived in Spanish frontier regions), their locations specified and mapped, and the settlers brought in by royal officials.” (p. 254) (2) The introduction of smallpox vaccine into the Spanish colonies by royal order began in about 1804. In New Mexico, for example, a ten-year effort to vaccinate the population contributed to a decline in smallpox epidemics, improved longevity, and, therefore, the population increase during the last two decades of Spanish adminstration.” (pp. 140-141).

In other words, the paisanos became the “backbone of Spanish settlement” through design, not through accident or special virtue. Kings, colonial administrators, the Church, explorers, missionaries, and presidial soldiers all made their contributions.

Professor Jones has performed a monumental task. The documentation is very impressive (detailed notes at the end of the volume cover some thirty-eight pages). The bibliographical essay is conveniently divided into a section on General Works and Bibliographies and Guides and into the several frontier districts already identified. A Chronology and Glossary of terms along with a carefully prepared Index and appropriate maps and illustrations provide the reader with the tools necessary for studying this important volume, handsomely printed by the University of Oklahoma Press.