The Journal of San Diego History
Summer 1985, Volume 31, Number 3
Thomas Scharf, Managing Editor

Book Review

Rim of Christendom: A Biography of Eusebio Francisco Kino, Pacific Coast Pioneer. By Herbert Eugene Bolton. Reprint Edition. Foreword by John L. Kessell. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 1984. Bibliography. Illustrations. Index. Maps. 644 Pages. $40.00 

Reviewed by Janet R. Fireman, Curator of Cultural History, Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History,

When Rim of Christendom first appeared in 1936, it was widely reviewed and almost exclusively praised with superlatives that surely made Herbert Eugene Bolton proud. The biography of Jesuit Father Eusebio Francisco Kino was the result of perhaps Bolton’s most exhaustive research project. Kino was Bolton’s favorite among historical Jesuits, possibly his favorite player on the broad stage of the Spanish Borderlands that Bolton did so much to delineate and promote.

In the year of publication, Bolton explained that “the writing of Rim of Christendom was an adventure on the trail as well as in the archives.” In his terse but informative Foreword to the new edition, John L. Kessell further elaborates on Bolton’s eager search for Kino materials, which began in 1907, when he found Kino’s autobiographical manuscript, “Favores Celestiales” in the Mexican archives. Besides research in Spain, Mexico, Peru, Italy, Germany, England, and France, Bolton tramped the deserts of Baia California, Sonora, and other parts of Mexico so that he could “see Kino’s world as Kino saw it, understand the words of his diaries and letters, know the scene of his labors, visualize the conditions under which he worked, relive the experiences which he recorded” (p. xiii). Bolton dedicated the book to Herbert Jr., his “good companion on the trail,” a sure indication of the prodigious value he rightly placed on his extraordinary field work.

The critics’ praise in 1936 and 1937 was right on. The strengths and deficiencies of Rim of Christendom were noted in the pages of scholarly journals, newspapers, special interest publications, and news magazines. In the American Historical Review, (April 1937), J.B. Brebner wrote:

Professor Bolton and his subject are kindred spirits. Father Kino was much happier on the trail beyond the frontiers of Mexico than as a sedentary priest. Professor Bolton, by emerging from the Bancroft Library to trace Kino’s expeditions in actuality, has instilled into his story vividness and authenticity too often lacking in the history of exploration.

John Kessell, himself a Kino scholar with interests, like Bolton’s, from here to there and back again in the Borderlands, also points out that in Kino, Bolton had found a kindred spirit. Kessell, who certainly knows, explains that a great deal of new Kino material has been located since Bolton’s time by Ernest J. Burrus, S.J., among others, but boldly and accurately asserts that Rim of Christendom retains its status as the standard biographical work on the now famous Kino.

The review in Catholic World (December 1936) was correct in its prophecy that Rim of Christendom “will long remain … the best book on Father Kino.” Other reviewers perceived Bolton’s skill at capturing his subject and his times. The New York Times (August 2, 1936) declared:

Perhaps no volume at once so basic and so fraught with human interest has issued from the Pacific Coast as Rim of Christendom … It is the first complete biography of (Kino) … but it is more than this; it is also a remarkably detailed exposition of the conditions under which the missionaries of New Spain worked.

Time (July 27, 1936) indicated that Bolton gave readers something to get involved in, a long and detailed read:

It is a strange and pleasant book, complete with maps and long quotations from Kino, in which the story is often interrupted with discussions of the author’s own trips over the routes Kino followed . . . Not a book to be read hastily, it is nevertheless of cumulative interest to readers who enjoy an abundance of facts on which their imaginations can dwell.

Reviewers also noted what Kessell calls Bolton’s “folksy” style (p. xiv). “He masks his broad yet exact scholarship under an entertaining, even colloquial, narrative style” (American Historical Review, April 1937). And more, from Commonweal (November 20, 1936):

Bolton puts a remarkable immediacy into his biography . . . the author writes with enthusiasm and interest which are transferred to the reader and make him a witness of the living frontier of the Faith and of civilization.

A couple of reviewers pointed out deficiencies in Rim of Christendom, that like its strengths, have survived-the half-century since first publication. The New York Herald Tribune July 7, 1936), asserted that


Mr. Bolton’s book is a monument of research and has the defects of its qualities. The details obscure the main line of the narrative and the personalities of the people concerned. The gift of forging miscellaneous facts into a large design is lacking, the final process which places history among the arts.

In the American Sociological Review (December 1936), Bolton’s crusade for recognition of Spanish primacy as an American colonial power rankled the reviewer:

Certain scenes, characters, and events are described with a trifle too much of coy whimsy; and there are pages when Bolton’s insistence upon the priority of Spanish frontiers to English settlements along the Atlantic seaboard seems excessive. But one may skim these passages, content to watch from the sidelines the skirmishes of the scholarly historian with his data and his colleagues. Father Kino may not seem as absorbing to the reader as he evidently was to Professor Bolton; yet the work the missionary did was solid. The experience of a wise pioneer is always worth pondering.

“The experience of a wise pioneer is always worth pondering” could be invoked just as well to praise the University of Arizona Press for reissuing Rim of Christendom by Borderlands studies pioneer Bolton. The original 1936 Macmillan edition and a 1960 Russell and Russell reissue are scarce. Several Los Angeles library copies recently checked by this reviewer are worn, inscribed by various readers, and loose in their bindings. That Rim has been roughed up is empirical testimony to its usefulness and excellence that goes beyond the words of the critics almost fifty years ago.

Rim of Christendom, like Kino and Bolton, has aged extremely well. Both subject and biographer were still on the trail to the end of their lives. Revival of interest in Kino during the 1960s, principally due to the locating of his remains in Magdalena, Sonora (now Magdalena de Kino), and subsequent canonization efforts, together with the new printing of Rim of Christendom, should assure the continuing and well deserved recognition of this impressive piece of Bolton’s work.