The Journal of San Diego History
Winter 1985, Volume 31, Number 1
Thomas L. Scharf, Editor

Book Review

Raymond Starr, Book Review Editor

Obras Californianas del Padre Miguel Venegas, S.J. Edition and studies by W. Michael Mathes; bibliographies and indices by Vivian C. Fisher and E. Moisés Coronado; prologue by Miguel León-Portilla. 5 Volumes. La Paz: Universidad Autónoma de Baja California Sur, 1977-1983. Edition limited to 1000 copies (500 out of commerce). Exclusive distribution by Howard Karns Books, Santa Monica. $200.00

Reviewed by Harry W. Crosby, author of Last of the California (1981), The Cave Paintings of Baja Californios (Revised 1984)

Popular education in American California tends to create the perception that the region’s history began with the opening of “our” (Alta) California. But informed people will want to know about the earlier beginnings of Hispanic influence, the explorations and, indeed, the seventy years of colonization in Antigua California that preceded the more familiar accomplishments of Governor Portolá and Father Serra. W. Michael Mathes of the University of San Francisco here sets before us a real cornerstone of our area’s history, three mid-18th century works that have dominated and influenced all subsequent study of Hispanic California’s formative years.

In the late 1720s, the Mexican Jesuit Miguel Venegas was assigned the task of creating a general history of California where, for fifty years, his order had been involved in opening the land and Christianizing the native people. Venegas was given access to virtually all pertinent Jesuit and secular documentation. He was able to refer to intramural letters and reports of all the pioneer missionaries, instructions and requests sent to them by their superiors, and copies of most California-related reports sent to the crown, viceroys and other secular officials. Further, Venegas received permission to correspond with Jesuits who had had California experience and to query them as he saw fit in his pursuit of a thorough history. For some ten years the scholar applied himself to this demanding work, finished in late 1739. The laborious paragraph-long title is usually shortened to “Empresas Apostólicas . . .” (“Apostolic Endeavors . . .”).

Venegas’s great work has never reached an audience beyond a few scholars. Politics of the times made Jesuit actions in California more than usually controversial and Venegas filled his work with all manner of defenses, apologies and pious asides that soon must have seemed labored and dated. Further, Venegas was innocently frank in referring to the weak defenses of the Californias and the danger of foreign intervention, impolitic revelations in view of the always-paranoid Spanish Crown.

Rather than being hurried into publication, “Empresas Apostólicas …” was shelved for ten years by the very Jesuit leadership that had commissioned it. This has proved to be a great loss. In time, many of Venegas’s sources became scattered and lost to scholarly view. “Empresas . . .”, even when it was later used as a basis for other writings, was one step closer to the prime documents and almost always gave more data. With all its faults, “Empresas …” was, and is to this day, the best single source of information covering the poorly understood first forty years of the California colony.

In 1750, the huge manuscript was turned over to Andrés Marcos Burriel, a Jesuit scholar then working in the royal archives at Toledo, Spain. Burriel was asked to shorten the work, recast it into a more wieldy literary format, and bring its history and geography up to date. Working at night and in whatever other time could be arranged away from duties to the Crown, Burriel pored over new Jesuit materials and corresponded with European intellectuals in search of the latest knowledge pertaining to California. In four years he created the work now known as “Noticia de la California”. After much further in-house editing and the usual royal review and censorship, “Noticia …” was published in 1757, nearly thirty years after Venegas began the parent document. “Noticia …” was a huge success in a Europe that seemed fascinated by remote California. Burriel et al had achieved success with a tightly written, readable and generally accurate book. Within two years an abridged English translation was printed in London and similar editions soon appeared in French, Dutch, and German.

Despite the fact that “Noticia de la California” filled an obvious need in its time and remains a prime printed source of early California lore, it soon stimulated the creation of other important works to correct or supplement its perceived shortcomings. Copies of the “Noticia …” reached Jesuit missionaries in California who read it with intense interest and no little criticism. With all his care and correspondence, Venegas did not entirely overcome his total lack of firsthand experience in California. And Burriel, even farther removed, perhaps had had too much confidence in European erudition and had failed to follow Venegas’s inspired lead and tap the knowledge gained by eyewitnesses. After 1768, when the Jesuits were expelled from all Spanish territory, two of California’s recent missionaries, Johann Baegert and Miguel del Barco, wrote lengthy works designed to refute and augment parts of “Noticia . . .”. The literature and history of California is inestimably richer for their efforts. Nor was that the end of the wave set in motion by Venegas; we now know that Clavijero’s long important “Storia della California” was based primarily on Barco’s unpublished manuscript.

Dr. Mathes’s monumental edition includes most notably a complete facsimile of “Empresas Apostolicas . . .”, the first time this unique work has ever appeared in printed form. There is also “El Apóstol Mariano . . .” by Venegas alone, a biography of California’s pioneer missionary, Juan María de Salvatierra. Finally, there is the result of Burriel’s labors in a facsimile of the original 1757 Spanish imprint of “Noticia de la California”. The latter includes, as the last of seven appendices, one handwritten by Burriel himself that is reproduced here for the first time.

Beside being the motor behind this major effort of scholarship and publishing, Mathes contributes an admirably thorough introduction to all these works, invaluable because of their complex histories and inter-relatedness. Vivian Fisher of the Bancroft Library and Moisés Coronado of the Autonomous University of Guadalajara have contributed an extremely useful cumulative index to all three works, another first that every user will applaud.

Buyers of this edition will include few individuals. It is all in Spanish (save the inclusion of a separate English version of Mathes’s Introduction). Part is in handwriting, excellent, as it happens, but requiring some familiarity with 18th century practices. Even the printed works appear in their original form, quaint and a bit slow to read. Ideal owners will be the Southwest’s institutions of higher learning, the historical societies, and the major libraries. Here, scholars and interested laymen will be able to consult and profit from not only these remarkable pieces of early historiography but also the organization, analysis and supportive documentation provided by Dr. Mathes and his co-workers.