The Journal of San Diego History
Summer 1988, Volume 34, Number 3
Thomas L. Scharf, Editor

Book Review

Raymond Starr, Book Review Editor

Xantus: The Letters of John Xantus to Spencer Fullerton Baird from San Francisco and Cabo San Lucas 1859-1861

Edited by Ann H. Zwinger. Los Angeles: Dawson’s Book Shop, 1987. Bibliography, Maps. Illustrations. Index. 422 pages. $60.

Reviewed by Fabio A. Martinez, M.A., Adjunct Professor of Mexican-American Studies, San Diego State University, and author of several articles on the fishing cooperatives of the Vizcaino coastline of Baja California. He recently presented his work at St. John’s College, Oxford.

The letters of John Xantus from Cabo San Lucas, Baja California Sur, are a chronological and archival record of the correspondence between Xantus and the director of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. They cover 28 months of work by Xantus, who was a tidal observer for the United States Coast Survey at Cabo San Lucas and a collector of specimens of animals, birds, insects, plants and marine life for the Smithsonian.

Xantus’s letters and Zwinger’s introduction show the state of field collecting in 1859 to be primarily the province of the amateur. A Hungarian-born, naturalized American citizen, Xantus was an army medical corpsman with a European education who had been tutored in field collecting and cataloging by his mentor and commanding officer, Dr. William A. Hammond, himself an amateur ornithologist. Zwinger describes Xantus as a status-conscious poseur who was difficult to work with, but who became the self-taught collector for the Smithsonian mostly through amazing self confidence and self promotion.

Fifty-one letters from the cape describe in detail what it was like to live in isolated areas of Baja California in the mid-nineteenth century. The population of Cabo San Lucas was sparse and living conditions were difficult. There was a lack of social and cultural activity, books, and intellectual companionship to ameliorate the lonely life of the field collector.

The letters record a panoramic view of events at Cabo San Lucas and near by parts of Baja California Sur. Examples would be a description of the beginning of whale hunting by American whalers in Scammon’s Lagoon, and the start of an abalone shell trade with France. Editor Zwinger’s first-hand knowledge of the history, geography, flora, fauna and marine life of the cape gives her a unique insight into the character of Xantus and his lonely labors. Xantus’s letters by themselves, rich as they are in information about the cape and his daily activities, are not enough to hold the interest of the reader. However, Zwinger’s meticulous and scholarly research (shown in her notes to each chapter) gives a wealth of information on the state of ongoing field research and collecting in 1859 in botany, zoology, geography and geology. The list of researchers and ongoing research at the time becomes a basic catalog of considerable importance to those studying the period.

This book is of interest to the layman as well as the scholar. It is richly illustrated by Ann Zwinger’s drawings and John Xantus’s maps and sketches. Zwinger calls Xantus her “indefatigable collector.” The empathy and respect she feels for Xantus is seen throughout the book, a feeling that is expressed in her observation that if Xantus ever achieved anything worthwhile for his work it was to have more than 52 species named after him. The reader who enjoys this book will find Zwinger’s A Desert Country Near The Sea an excellent companion volume.