Richard H. Peterson, Book Review Editor
Land in California. By W. W. Robinson. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979. 291 pages. $4.95.
Reviewed by Harry C. McDean, Associate Professor of History at San Diego State University, where he teaches American Economic and Business History.
Because California ranks as the nation’s leading agricultural state and one of the world’s top industrial regions, it is fitting that this groundbreaking book in California land history should be reissued. First published in 1948, this unrevised paperback edition tells the story of how Indian lands became Franciscan missions and Californio ranchos and how various legal and extra-legal devices of the United States encouraged private American ownership of these lands after the Mexican-American War.
The strength of the book derives from the author’s ability to accomplish the goals he establishes in the subtitle: to tell the story of mission lands, ranchos, squatters, mining claims, railroad grants, land scrip, and homesteads. The author is gifted with the talent to unravel these developments in the style of a storyteller. For example, Robinson first describes California’s early Spanish land laws and institutions, then selects San Pascual (Pasadena) as their archetype, and narrates the area’s land history. After further discussing changes in land institutions and laws that followed the Mexican-American War, Robinson profiles San Francisco and Los Angeles as prototypes of such changes.
His historical methodology makes pleasant and entertaining reading. However, some researchers may find it raises as many questions about land in California as it answers. First, Robinson’s narrative style does not lend itself to interpretation. As a result important historical questions remain unanswered. For example, what impact did Spanish land law have on California’s unusual patterns of agricultural growth? In what ways did the state’s land laws and institutions discourage traditional patterns of American urbanization? To what extent did these land laws alter basic American systems of manufacturing and industry?
There also is another kind of treatment of California land history that the modern researcher will find absent from this book: statistical analysis. The recent development of econometrics as a tool in historical study no doubt will revolutionize Robinson’s land history when one day the modern researcher applies it to California.
These two criticisms notwithstanding, Robinson’s work still provides the basic treatment of the subject. It is good that the book again is available.