The Journal of San Diego History
Summer 1991, Volume 37, Number 3
Richard W. Crawford, Editor

Book Review

Columbian Consequences: Volume 1. Archaeological and Historical Perspectives on the Spanish Borderlands West.

Edited by David Hurst Thomas. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989. Illustrations. Maps. Charts. Notes. 503 pages. $49.95.

Reviewed by Raymond Starr, Professor of History at San Diego State University, and author of San Diego: A Pictorial History.

This is the first of a projected three volume series to be called Columbian Consequences. The objective of the work will be to examine the nature of European-Native American contact along the Spanish Borderlands from Florida to California. The project has been generated in observance of the Columbian Quincentenary, and its purpose is to provide new assessments of the subject, especially with fresh insights and information provided by contemporary archaeology. The editor also hopes that the volumes will be free of the traditional historical and ethnohistorical approaches, which have tended to adopt either a pro-Indian or pro-Spanish point of view. It is the objective of Columbian Consequences to rise above this and to offer fresh perspectives. This first volume focuses on Texas, the Southwest, and California. Although the pieces on Texas and the Southwest have much to offer, it is the section devoted to California which most readers of the Journal of San Diego History will be interested in. The California section covers almost two hundred pages, and includes a number of articles by the scholars you would expect — Julia Costello, David Hornbeck, Roberta Greenwood, Norman Neuerburg, and Robert Hoover, for example. Since most of the articles are based upon published sources, and are primarily a synthesis of knowledge and theory as of this point, it is assumed that the book is aimed at a general reader. Indeed, the general reader will find the chapters provide excellent overviews of a number of aspects of the Native American, Spanish, and Mexican eras of California’s history.

The California section begins with an overview by Costello and Hornbeck of Spanish contact with Indians in Alta California, which gives a good summary of Spanish penetration into the area, the Native Americans who were living there at the time, and some of the high points of contact. Following this article, the reader will find an explanation of the impact of contact on vegetation, upon the health of the Indians, and an especially good piece by Ed Costillo on the Native American response to Europeans. This article stresses Indian resistance and provides a good antidote to the old mission myths. A key point he makes, for instance, is that ninety percent of the crimes the Indians were accused of were against Spanish authority, which says much about Native American acquiescence to European conquest. Several other articles focus on the mission system, which was, of course, the major means of Spanish-Indian contact. Robert Hoover offers a look at acculturation in the missions, which he points out was dominated by Indian acceptance of aspects of the more powerful Spaniards’ lifestyle, but which did also include Spanish acceptance of some aspects of Indian culture. Both David Hornbeck and Julia Costello study the economics of mission life, with Hornbeck emphasizing the change in the missions over time, and Costello exploring the variations from mission to mission. The California section is rounded out with articles on the ranchos (which mostly highlights how little archaeological work has been done on rancho sites), on Native American artists, and a piece on the Russians in the northern part of Alta California.

Taken as a whole, the articles provide a sensible, professional and effective summary of the current state of knowledge of contact in Alta California as seen primarily by archaeologists. It is a good a place to get either an introduction to the topic, or a good summary of the current state of scholarship. There is one important observation to be made about the total package, and that is that it shows the limitations of relying primarily on archaeological findings or quantitative data to study a topic. In some cases, there is verbal material available which could have been blended with the artifactual and statistical to give a much fuller and more accurate picture of the topic. These selections again prove the obvious — to study Spanish-Native contact in California, and its significance, historians and archaeologists have to work together and utilize each other’s findings extensively, as neither group can, by itself, tell the whole story.

There is one other major criticism of the book, but it is aimed at the publisher and not at the scholars. It is absurd that this book has to be priced at nearly fifty dollars. This is a book designed to disseminate the latest findings on a topic: the price is designed to do the opposite — to impede dissemination! It is hoped that the publisher will bring out a more reasonably priced edition, and also that the publisher might note that the California material would by itself make a nice two hundred page paperback. These criticisms aside, this is an important book and it is highly recommended to virtually anyone interested in California Native Americans, Spanish missions, ranchos, and the interaction of each these elements.