The Journal of San Diego History
Winter 1989, Volume 35, Number 1
Thomas L. Scharf, Editor

Book Review

Raymond Starr, Book Review Editor

Law and Community on the Mexican Frontier: Anglo-American Expatriates and the Clash of Legal Traditions, 1821-1846.

By David J. Langum. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1987. Index and Bibliography. 308 pages. $30.00.

Reviewed by Clare V. McKanna, Jr., Lecturer in American Indian Studies, San Diego State University, and author of an article in this issue of The Journal.

While reading this brief study on Anglo-Americans living in an Hispanic cultural system I noted, with a little irony, that the “expatriates” were treated much better than Hispanics in the Anglo dominated system that evolved after 1848. David J. Langum clearly maintains that the Anglo-Americans disliked a legal system that did not offer “prompt bail, a jury trial with confrontation of accusers, and a separation of judicial and executive functions.”

Mexican legal methods included the use of alcalde, hombres buenos, and mediation. The alcaldes acted as executive and judicial officials, while the hombres buenos were selected to help in the mediation process. In civil cases it was hoped that the parties to a litigation would settle before it came to trials. The hombres buenos joined their respective litigants in a meeting with the local judge in an attempt to resolve the issue. If they failed the litigants were excused and the judge and hombres buenos continued to talk over the issues in the civil dispute. This form of conciliation gained high marks with 85 percent of the cases reaching resolution. As Langum noted, the close knit Californio society accepted this process to end civil issues. Many marital disputes were resolved in this manner.

Minor criminal issues involving drunkenness or breach of peace were settled by alcaldes and justices of the peace. More serious crimes were investigated and handled by a judge. They usually questioned witnesses and took depositions. Since there were few trained lawyers present on the Mexican frontier the Anglo-Americans intensely disliked the existing legal system. Yet, as Langum points out, they received equal justice in Mexican California.

Langum has provided an important study of Anglo-Americans operating in an Hispanic setting. There are, however, several minor things that detract from this study. The title is somewhat misleading since the bulk of the research, as Langum admits, relies on the Monterey District archives, 1835-1846. Further, his use of statistical data should have been expanded. For example, on page 74 he gives percentages of crimes, but fails to provide a numeric breakdown by type. He also notes that the jails in Mexican California were in terrible condition. This, of course, is nothing new. San Quentin probably equalled or excelled these conditions in mid-nineteenth century. Prisons throughout the world had similar conditions. Neverthless, David J. Langum offers the reader an excellent study of how the Anglo-Americans reacted to the legal system developed in Mexican California. It is highly recommended for students of California history. Anyone will find it highly informative.