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The Journal of San Diego History
Summer 1980, Volume 26, Number 3
Thomas L. Scharf, Managing Editor

Book Review

Richard H. Peterson, Book Review Editor

New Spain’s Far Northern Frontier: Essays on Spain in the American West, 1540-1821. By David J. Weber. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1979. Index, Photographs, Maps, 321 pages. $14.95.

Reviewed by Clare V. McKanna, instructor of California History at San Diego Evening College.

For years historians have relied heavily upon basic textbooks to teach the Spanish borderlands. Whether they used W. Eugene Hollon’s Southwest: Old and New or possibly John Francis Bannon’s The Spanish Borderlands Frontier, they found that most works lacked the diversity of historical research that helps to stimulate student interest. David J. Weber has finally filled the void with this useful collection of articles on various aspects of borderlands history. Although not the first work covering the scholarly literature of the field, this, by far, is the best because of the wide selection. Eighteen essays which focus on exploration, institutions, society, Indians, and other aspects of Spanish culture are considered under nine somewhat uneven topics. After reading this volume, it becomes clear that the Spanish borderlands was a transitional frontier fraught with security problems from the beginning of settlement to the end of Spanish control in 1821. As Professor Weber indicates in his introduction, the government in Mexico City could not populate the frontier sufficiently to provide security for the settlers. Yet, the institutional method of conquest remained constant throughout the period.

In a well-known essay, Herbert E. Bolton, the father of borderlands history, details the significance of the mission in Spain’s colonization attempts. Unfortunately, as Weber explains, “Bolton chose to stress only the positive aspects of the missionary experience,” ignoring the feelings of the Indians who were brutalized by the system. In a later chapter, George H. Phillips puts to rest the concept that Indians did not play an active role in breaking up the missions during the secularization period in California. Using a variety of sources, Phillips destroys the Franciscan illusion that the Indians’ life style was “haphazard, irresponsible, brutish, benighted, and barbaric.” Indeed, they did not care for mission life, which the author describes as a “plural institution” not much different from a mental or penal institution. The neophytes left the mission of their own volition.

Odie B. Faulk, in his “Presidio: Fortress or Farce?” takes a hard look at Spanish military strategy in the Southwest and concludes that the medieval concept of warfare left much to be desired. The line of forts stretching from the Gulf of California to Texas did not act as a deterrent to Indian attacks. In fact, the Indians rode around the presidios, stopping only long enough to steal the horses and cattle left outside the fortresses. It appears that the soldiers were virtual prisoners, protected only by the thick adobe walls. During the years 1771-1776, the Indians raided and ran off 68,256 head of livestock and caused the abandonment of 116 ranches. There can be little doubt that the presidio was a miserable failure.

In a different vein, Manuel Patricio Servín scrutinizes the “fantasy heritage” of California. He concludes that most of the settlers were not Spanish but mestizos or of some other racial mixture. It becomes clear that they played an important role in colonizing the northern provinces. Unfortunately for the Spanish, it was impossible to recruit enough of them to effectively populate the greater Southwest. This helps to explain why Mexico lost her frontier provinces in the Mexican War.

Weber has provided the reader with a list of suggested readings, an adequate index, maps, and some excellent illustrations. The publication of this useful volume may rekindle interest in the Spanish borderlands as a field of serious study. It certainly should serve as a welcome addition to the classroom.