The Journal of San Diego History
Winter 1991, Volume 37, Number 1
Richard W. Crawford, Editor

Book Review

Let There Be Towns: Spanish Municipal Origins in the American Southwest, 1610-1810.

By Gilbert R. Cruz. College Station: Texas A & M University Press, 1988. Bibliography. Illustrations. Maps. Index.-236 pages. $24.95.

Reviewed by Warren A. Beck, Professor of History, California State University, Fullerton, co-author of Atlas of the American West (1989) and numerous other works on the history of the West.

In order to superimpose Spanish civilization upon the new world, authorities in Madrid used three colonial institutions-the mission, the presidio (fortress), and the pueblo (town). This book is a study of how the municipalities, first developed in medieval Spain as the frontier was rolled back in the long war with the Moors, were brought to the northern Borderlands. In addition to the actual transplanting of the local government from Spain to America the operation of the political machinery was a powerful force helping to develop a distinctive way of life on what was frequently a remote frontier. The new lands were Christianized for the king, and the cabildo, or town council, taught a rough democracy as well as some concept of justice based on law. Truly, these pueblos or towns were oases of civilization in a primitive land.

This book is a study of the origins of the most important towns in the American Southwest, but also shows how these communities operated. Santa Fe, El Paso, San Antonio, Laredo, San Jose, and Los Angeles, are the towns covered in this work. The first chapter describes the origin of the municipal tradition in Iberia and how it evolved in New Spain. The next five chapters discuss the individual cities, stressing the factors leading to their founding, details of their development, and special problems they faced.

In the chapter “San Jose and Los Angeles: Town Settlements in California,” the author carefully relates the early exploration of the province and the final steps toward settlement. The establishment of San Jose and Los Angeles are treated in some detail with a description of how towns are laid out. There is even a listing of the subsidy the government provided each settler. In addition, Cruz explains how there were only two pueblos founded in California (plus the ill-fated Branciforte), but that missions and presidios also provided a nucleus around which towns sprang up and often evolved into major cities. Mission San Diego de Alcala and the presidio at San Diego would be one example of this process.

The two concluding chapters deal with the harsh life of the settler on the northern frontier in a land of hostile Indians and frequent drought. A list of the personal possessions of one pioneer tells much about the social history of the Spanish frontier. Attention is paid to the cabildo abierto or open town meeting. The cabildo or town council is discussed at even greater length as an example of Spanish democracy.

The mission and the presidio have been the subject of many scholarly studies; this book fills the need for a comparable treatment of the towns. The author has consulted the essential manuscript materials and his bibliograpby is more than adequate. There are excellent maps and worthwhile graphs. This is a most worthwhile addition to the literature of the Spanish Borderlands.