Raymond Starr, Book Review Editor
A Visit to the Missions of Southern California in February and March 1874. By Henry L. Oak. Introduction by Henry R. Wagner. Edited by Ruth Frey Axe, Edwin H. Carpenter and Norman Neuerberg. Los Angeles: Southwest Museum, 1981. Illustration. Index. 85 pages.
Reviewed by Warren A. Beck, Professor of History at California State University, Fullerton and author of several books on California and the Southwest.
In February 1874 the historian Hubert H. Bancroft, accompanied by his daughter, Kate, and his chief assistant, Henry L. Oak, sailed from San Francisco for San Diego. They returned home by stage in March after stopping at most points northward. On the trip all three kept daily journals. Bancroft used his as the basis of one of the chapters in his Literary Industries. This publication is the journal kept by Oak.
The purpose of the trip was to gather historical material on the Hispanic past in the southland. Some historical material was obtained by interview, some from the archives, and much was gathered by identifying that which was
valuable and hiring copyists to make transcriptions. By far the most successful result of the trip came when Bancroft was able to purchase the Judge Benjamin Hayes collection of scrap books and assorted bundles of material copied from archives which had largely been destroyed. As Bancroft later put it, ” This collection was by far the most important in the state outside of my own. ” (Literary Industries, 483) Hayes, then a San Diego resident, had made his collection in anticipation of writing his own history. However, age and ill health convinced hm that this was not possible.
There are interesting accounts of the state of the mission archives with some reference to those of the pueblos. The researchers were often given leads as to who might have collections of value but all too often they arrived too late as the following demonstrates: “Sr. Olvera told much the same story as Pico . . . Many documents in his possession formerly but all now lost.” (48) A conference with Don Andrés Pico promised much but delivered little when this important Californio failed to keep an appointment or write as promised. One of their more significant contacts was Mrs. Abel Stearns, whose father, Juan Bandini, had left a trunkful of papers, including a partially written history.
While Bancroft emphasized the research side of the trip, Oak was much more interested in the missions. In addition to a detailed description of the sad state the missions were in when he saw them in 1874, Oak describes how they were originally built. His account covers all of them from San Diego north to San Miguel omitting only La Purísima Concepción which the travellers did not visit. Comments touch on the conditions of the organs and the bells but mainly related the way in which the missions were abused. For example: “The missions further north, according to Bishop Amat, are in a very bad condition, that at Santa Inéz having been used for the storage of hay which has been several times set on fire by malicious persons. At Carmelo Mission the padre who attempted to live at the place some years ago was driven away by threats of shooting.” (57)
This work is made more attractive by Oak’s drawings of the missions and by the inclusion of pictures of them as they were circa 1874. Woven through the text are comments by an expert on the Spanish past dealing with every-thing from agriculture and water supply at the missions to the plight of the Indian in 1874. One of these observations was on the settling of San Diego: “It is rather surprising that either the site of New Town or the Peninsula was not at first selected as the site of the first settlement in Upper California. Had the peninsula been chosen for the purpose the present town and future city of San Diego would probably have clung to the position and the story of San Francisco and Oakland have been repeated.” (18) The notes of the editors are most helpful and the excellent introduction by Henry R. Wagner provides valuable background on Henry L. Oak.