The Journal of San Diego History
Fall 1989, Volume 35, Number 4
Thomas L. Scharf, Editor

Book Review

Raymond Starr, Book Review Editor

Indian Survival on the California Frontier.

By Albert Hurtado. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988. Bibliography. Illustrations. Index. Maps. 246 Pages. $25.00.

Reviewed by Robert H. Jackson, Visiting instructor in History, University of Minnesota. Jackson has authored articles dealing with demographic, social, and economic change in the missions of the Californias and Sonora, and changes in the rural structure of Bolivia in the nineteeth and twentieth centuries.

Albert Hurtado has written a useful synthesis of the adaptation and survival of California Indians in the period from about 1819 to 1860. The author focuses on several important themes, including the evolution of Indian labor and the social and economic consequences of incorporation into an expanding market economy; the failure of ad hoc United States government policy in California between 1846 and 1860; and the continued demographic collapse of the Indian population, particularly during the gold rush. While drawing upon a variety of secondary sources for theoretical and factual context, Hurtado also makes a number of significant contributions to the debate on Indian-White relations on the California frontier, Indian women, and the potentially disruptive impact of sexual assaults of Indian familly stability, The author draws upon a wide variety of primary sources, including letters, census manuscripts, pioneer accounts, and newspapers.

While it has many strengths, Hurtado’s book also contains methodological and conceptual flaws. Hurtado relies upon modern psychological literature to discuss the potential impact of rape on Indian women, but, aside from several qualitative sources, does not begin to indicate, in even the crudest quantitative form, the extent of sexual assault. Rape is a major and certainly valid consideration in Hurtado’s explanation of continued Indian depopulation during the Gold Rush era, but he does not document whether rape was widespread enough to have significantly altered at the aggregate level the stability of the Indian family. Granted, it is difficult to document rape in historical contexts, but Hurtado might have employed innovative methodologies to coax such information from newspapers and other sources, thus giving his conclusions on this issue more validity.

More significatllly, the author has not consulted the most recent social and demographic studies on the California missions. These studies would have been useful for context, but also could have been employed, for example, in a discussion of the adaptations made by the Central Valley Indians who elected to remain in the neighborhood of the missions following secularization rather than returning to the Central Valley to become livestock raiders. The lives of Justiniano Roxas and the other Yokuts who lived in the Santa Cruz area as late as the 1860s and 1870s were just as indicative of different forms of adaptation as that of the horse raider Jose Jesus discussed by Hurtado (p. 43 and passim). Hurtado could have also documented the spatial and temporal origins of such common practices as the rental of Indian labor. Moreover, a comparison with mission demographic patterns could have given more validity to the author’s analysis of family structure and age/gender structure, and the causes of Indian demographic collapse. Hurtado, following Sherburne Cook, argues that the Indian populations experienced lowered birth rates, and that this caused massive population loss, in conjunction with increased mortality (p. 209 and passim). This superficially appears to be substantiated by the presentation of data on the rough age structure take from the 1860 federal census (p.196). The mission populations evidenced reasonable birth rates that varied, and the documented imbalance in the age structure occurred because children died at a very young age, which is demonstrated by very low net reproduction ratios (the proportional population change per generation). Similar patterns may have occurred in the Indian populations in those areas in California discussed by Hurtado. The explanation for Indian demographic collapse depends on an analysis of both fertility and mortality patterns.

These criticisms notwithstanding, Hurtado’s book is worth reading, and is a significant contribution to the literature which will hopefully stimulate new studies which will examine some of the ideas presented by the author. Future studies, however, should not be constrained by conventional temporal categories determined by changes in elite politics, or the separate fields of inquiry long ago established by the history profession. Anglo-American incursions into California may have speeded up the process of demographic, social, and cultural change among California Indian groups, but, many patterns had already been established as early as the 1760s and 1770s. The question of Indian adaptation to European colonization needs a synthetic approach that documents the process from initial sustained contact to the present, and with a strong foundation in the historical and anthropological literature of colonial Latin America and the Anglo-American West.