Raymond Starr, Book Review Editor
The Mexican Frontier, 1821-1846: The American Southwest Under Mexico. By David J. Weber. Histories of the American Frontier Series, Ray Allen Billington, General Editor; Howard R. Lamar, Coeditor. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1982. Bibliography. Illustrations. Index. Maps. 416 Pages. $9.95 paper. $19.95 cloth.
Reviewed by Daniel Tyler, Professor of History, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, Colorado, who has edited Western American History in the Seventies (1973)andauthored Red Men and Hat Wearers(1977).
As the title suggests, this volume in the Frontier Series discusses the history of California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas when these provinces belonged to Mexico. The author’s focus is on the role of the Far North in the Mexican nation during the turbulent twenty-five years when Mexico began experimenting with a republican form of government. He concludes that the Mexican frontier was different from the Anglo-American frontier; that it was more democratic, fluid, and rebellious than other parts of Mexico; and that the greatest impact on the residents (pobladores) of this region came from contact with North Americans.
The author’s approach is both chronological and topical. Beginning with a discussion of independence and its impact on the Far North, Weber notes how each area adjusted to both federalist and centralist systems. Due to controversies in Mexico City, shifting policies and unstable governments, transitional roles of the Army and Church, inadequate funding for defense, and the distances and dangers that lurked between the capital and the frontier, settlers in the Far North soon came to realize that they were very much on their own. Laws and decrees emanating from Mexico were often ignored or contradicted by local officials who initiated practices designed to deal with the needs and desires of their own people.
Although the results of salutary neglect were different in each one of the borderlands areas, Weber has noted certain similarities in all four: decline of the presidios and a concomitant rise in the importance of the militia; a desire for trade with foreigners at the risk of inviting a Trojan horse into their midst; an increase in Indian belligerence; and a particular sensitivity to appointed officials who were not residents of the area in which they were to serve.
Weber’s narrative is well paced. In addition to the gradual separation developing between Mexico and the Far North, he describes the life of the pobladores (Chap. 11), their tribulations with more aggressive North Americans, and their efforts to ameliorate economic difficulties through trade with the newcomers. The uniqueness of Weber’s approach is that he views these two-and-one-half decades within the national confines of Mexico’s own metamorphosis. He finds explanations for North American prejudices in our failure to appreciate Mexico’s dilemma, and he skillfully directs the reader toward a more balanced framework for understanding both the clash of cultures and the frontier process. This is accomplished through analysis of the individual communities and the region as a whole.
Those interested in California history will find an abundance of detail regarding Alta California’s population growth during this period. While Los Angeles and San José doubled in size, Santa Barbara and Monterey became ” thriving commercial centers” (p. 227). New communities developed inland from the coast, partly as a result of North Americans who dominated the area around Sonoma and who assimilated well into the surrounding environment. With Bostoneces providing an outlet for wine, tanned hides, and tallow in the East, agriculture and stock raising remained the principal livelihoods of the californios who seized mission lands after secularization and manifested a pronounced hostility toward the dispossessed Indians. Because of the climate and profits to be made in farming and pastoral pursuits, California was slow to develop sophisticated urban centers. Political institutions also matured slowly, and a general apathy existed vis-á-vis politics. Representation in the national congress was delayed until the 1830s. In general, Weber sees Mexican California as a bucolic environment, relatively content with the North American population which arrived in its midst, but fearful of foreign domination. Desirous of more autonomy, californios declined to embark on a Texas-style revolution, both because of the general apathy of the pobladores, and because the central government allowed a native son to act as governor (Juan Bautista Alvarado) when demands for home rule were most strident. What North Americans failed to learn in 1846 was that californios were still Mexicans with more than a little nationalism in their cultural baggage.
Critics of Weber’s book will wish that he had placed more stress on Indian life, and that he had explained the reason why the Indo-Hispanic character failed to produce the same results with democracy and capitalism as did the North Americans. On the other hand, the author has established an excellent base for the study of this and other frontiers, and those who read his voluminous footnotes and extensive bibliography will be aware of the limitations imposed on this synthesis by the available literature. No one knows it better than Weber. His articles, ” Mexico’s Far Northern Frontier, 1821-1854: Historiography Askew” (Western Historical Quarterly [July 1976], pp. 279-93) and “Mexico’s Far Northern Frontier, 1821-1845: A Critical Bibliography” (Arizona and the West [Autumn 1977], pp. 225-66) are proof of his mastery of the sources. In addition to his stimulating synthesis of the Mexican period, students will find in Weber’s book a great many ideas on which to build both a better comprehension of comparative frontiers and a bridge to better understanding of present relations between Mexico and the United States.