The Journal of San Diego History
Spring 1980, Volume 26, Number 2
Thomas L. Scharf, Managing Editor


Richard H. Peterson, Book Review Editor

Observations in Lower California (California Library Reprint Series). By Johann Jakob Baegert, S.J. Translated from the Original German, with an Introduction and Notes, by M.M. Brandenburg and Carl L. Baumann. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979. Notes. Illustrations. Index. 218 pages. $15.75.

Reviewed by Stephen A. Colston, Director, San Diego History Research Center, San Diego State University.

Father Johann Jakob Baegert, S.J. (1717-1772) produced one of the greatest single sources of information on colonial Baja California that has come down to us. His Nachrichten von der Amerikanischen Halbinsel Californien was first published in Mannheim in 1771 and, with his corrections and addenda, republished in 1772. This second edition has been the focus of considerable editorial activity for more than a century. The work was abridged and translated into English and published in 1863 and 1864 in the Annual Report of the Smithsonian Institution. However, the abridgement only pertained to Baegert’s references to the native inhabitants of the Peninsula. In 1942, the entire chronicle was translated into Spanish and printed in Mexico. Ten years later, the University of California Press published a fully translated and edited English edition which has now been reprinted.

The Alsatian Jesuit arrived in Mexico in 1750 and, between 1751 and 1768, engaged in missionary activities among the Indians of Baja California. Shortly after the Spanish Crown issued a decree expelling all members of the Society of Jesus from the American colonies, Baegert returned to Europe where he wrote his chronicle. According to the author, he penned his treatise “to satisfy the craving curiosity of the people, as well as to refute the falsehood and defamations of some of the writers” (p. 5). While Baegert wished to provide his readers with a credible account of Baja California, his motives of authorship were no less, and appear at times to be even more fundamentally, directed to extolling the Jesuits on the one hand and vilifying their antagonists on the other.

The treatise is divided into three sections, which respectively examine the natural history, ethnography, and spiritual administration of the Peninsula. Also included are two appendices in which Baegert spares little ink in assailing writers who had in his estimation presented distorted reports of the land and its missionaries. The writer identifies many of the source materials he collected for his work. While he consulted several written accounts, Baegert’s originality lies chiefly in his astute observations and rigorous use of informants. Much of what he relates in his first and third sections can be found elsewhere, although his liberal sprinkling of personal anecdotes is noteworthy. Yet it is his commentary on the natives that is of particular significance.

Baegert found no noble savages in the Peninsula, and he rendered a realistic, if not caustic, commentary on the natives’ customs and language. He most frequently refers to the natives he is describing as “Californians” which could easily be interpreted to mean the Indians of the entire Peninsula. However, his remarks pertain to the natives residing in the environs of the Mission San Luis Gonzaga located in the southern portion of the Peninsula. Baegert was stationed at this remote mission during his residence in Baja California, and its isolation appears to have weighed heavily on him and doubtlessly contributed in no small measure to the biting quality of his narrative. Nonetheless, it was this very prolonged contact with the natives of this area, principally the Guaicura, that makes his descriptions so valuable to modern scholars.

The introduction to the text consists of a biographical study of Baegert and is elucidating as far as it goes. It is regretted that something more in the way of a historiographical analysis was not also provided. Students who wish to examine Baegert from this perspective should consult Paul Kirchoff’s scholarly introduction to the Spanish language edition. However, there is little else to detract from this typographically attractive volume. The extensive notes and topical index are useful, and the translation reads easily while preserving the acrid flavor of Baegert’s narrative.

The Jesuit chronicler has created a unique and highly personal portrait of a land that was to serve, only one year after his departure, as the base of Spain’s occupation of Alta California. Alongside Venegas, with whom he was to take considerable issue, and Clavigero, Baegert merits an important position on the bookshelf of any serious student of Borderlands history.