The Journal of San Diego History
Summer 1992, Volume 38, Number 3
Richard W. Crawford, Editor

Book Review

California in 1792: A Spanish Naval Visit.

By Donald C. Cutter. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1990. bibliography. Illustrations. Maps. Index. 176 pages. $24.95.

Reviewed by Miguel Dominguez, Professor of Spanish and Director of Mexican American Studies, California State University at Dominguez Hills. Editor of MAS Monographs and coordinator of the docent training program for the Rancho Dominguez Adobe.

It is not well known that Spain eventually explored the entire western North American coast far beyond California. Southern Alaska has a significant number of Spanish toponyms. Spain established a military outpost in 1789 at Santa Cruz de Nutka on Vancouver Island and, around that time, a second one of ephemeral duration at Nunez Gaona at Neah Bay in Northwestern Washington State.

In 1792, two ships, the “Sutil” and the “Mexicana”, inspected the area from Vancouver Island to Monterey Bay. Spain’s claims in the northern latitudes faced a British challenge, and naval sojourns describing and naming places, sought to solidify Spanish presence. California in 1792: A Spanish Naval Visit contains the first translation to English of the journal or chronicle of the expedition of the “Sutil” and the “Mexicana”.

Apart from its literary merits (after all “la cronica” is studied in Spanish literature), this book has an appeal for people in other disciplines. Anthropologists and ethnographers will find that the journal itself is a bounty of new data on the language and culture of the now-gone Runsien and Esselen peoples around Monterey. The description of these natives, taking up fully one third of the account, includes drawings and a glossary of some Runsien and Esselen words regarding numbers, the flora and fauna, and parts of the body.

Donald C. Cutter is a recognized expert on early California history, with a particular forte in eighteenth-century Spanish manuscripts. Historians will be glad that in this work he decided to present much more than a translation of a journal which encompasses Part Two (or about one third of the book). Part One includes the necessary introductory narrative and other material that make it a noteworthy resource unto itself. Cutter’s expertise and writing ability is evident in Part One’s chapter on California in the early 1790s where he presents new information on the presidio and mission systems with insights into the important California personalities of the times. As well, he offers valuable data on the demographic and economic growth of California, focusing on the north but also including the San Diego area. He strongly hints as to why Spain never got into the lucrative fur trade business: a centralist governing style with a very large bureaucracy and the fact that fur as clothing did not appeal to the Mediterranean cultures as it did to the Nordic and Germanic ones.

California in 1792 is a must in the library of serious students of early California history, anthropology, and ethnic studies. We are indebted to Cutter’s translation, quite good and augmented with valuable footnotes, and his essays that give us rare glimpses into early California’s past.