The Journal of San Diego History
Fall 1993, Volume 39, Number 4
Richard W. Crawford, Editor

Book Review

The Spanish Frontier in North America.

By David J. Weber. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992. Illustrations. Bibliography. Index. xx + 579 pages. $35.00 cloth.

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Reviewed by Professor Ross Frank, Ethnic Studies Department, University of California, San Diego; author of “Changing Pueblo Indian Pottery Tradition,” Journal of the Southwest and “The Cortes Letters: Inscribing the Conquest of Mexico,” Disporitio.

With a great breadth of scholarship David J. Weber has provided us with a truly impressive overview of the Spanish involvement in what is now the United States, from the first conquistador expeditions of the 16th century to the break from Spain in 1821 that created the Mexican state. Weber’s mastery of an enormous amount of information leads to a clear, narrative synthesis of the economic and geopolitical framework of the Spanish enterprise in the north of New Spain. For the first time in a work on the Spanish Frontier, Weber has integrated the early history of Florida, Georgia, and the area that now contains Louisiana and Alabama, along with the more traditional “borderlands,” (California, New Mexico, Arizona, and Texas) in the recounting of the Spanish enterprise in North America. To do so in clear and often elegant prose, in a volume that is thoughtfully illustrated as well as handsomely produced, deserves a history reader’s attention and high praise.

The work includes an extensive description of the reasons for founding the missions in Alta California, mounting the expeditions of Fray Junipero Serra and Gaspar de Portola, and the actions of their successors who worked to plant the new settlements on firmer ground (pp. 238-265). Weber also describes and explains the early history of San Diego (pp. 242-253), placed in the context of larger geopolitical events that resulted in the late colonial Spanish expansion into upper California (San Diego to San Francisco). Setting forth events such as these in a largely chronological, narrative style, anchored to the “big picture” of the Spanish colonization north of Chihuahua and Monterrey, represents one of the major achievements of this book.

The overarching political and economic events that occurred far away from the colonies along the North American frontier, but shaped them in important ways, forms the structure of Weber’s narrative, at the expense of the intricate strata of social history that lie within that framework. Such issues receive mention in passing, but then often in another author’s voice: “Critics of the missions have compared them to penal institutions and Indian neophytes to inmates…” (p. 121). Instead of exploring the conclusions of these aspects of social history — literature that Weber has clearly imbibed and absorbed — as a means of approaching the inner workings of the people on the Spanish frontier, he often seems to sublimate and smooth over areas of vigorous historical contention.

In a section concerning the Spanish settlement of California, for example, one might find it strange to pass so lightly over the coercive methods used by the Franciscans used to collect and retain the native Californians inside the missions. Weber accurately summarizes the mission conditions that led to the loss of life among Native Americans on a massive scale (judging by anything but the 1850-1880 period), but steers around controversy by emphasizing the relevant statistics (p. 263), rather than describing in more detail what produced those numbers. Explaining the different sides of an issue and elucidating their significance in the larger historical context could serve to locate Weber’s own assessment among the secondary works that he so ably summarizes and synthesizes. Instead, one feels that events become rounded by the narrative and lose their connection to the incisive actions of individuals who sought to direct their own lives in an unfamiliar environment, in contact and conflict with other cultures as well as forces within their own.

Discussion of the impact of the Spanish Colonial era on the people of the Northern Frontier appears in chapter 11, “Frontiers and Frontier Peoples Transformed.” Here Weber aims at exploring how the Native Americans and Spanish were changed during the period. The critical question of how these peoples accomplished the alteration of their colonial environment – as opposed to the expansion and retreat of the Spanish frontier or the building of towns and missions – remains largely unanswered. Integrating the admittedly sparse social history currently available with the political and institutional history would represent an important step towards addressing that issue. Recent scholarship, some of it mentioned in Weber’s extensive bibliography, suggests that colonial subjects living in settlements throughout New Spain engaged in a process of becoming something more than settlers in late eighteenth century. Just as the English colonists along the eastern seaboard began to redefine themselves through the process of remaking their habitat, so too did californios, nuevomexicanos, and those from the other Spanish regions, come to think of themselves as an unique regional variant of colonial society by the close of the 18th century. The development of colonial society and culture along the northern frontier of New Spain more easily explains the survival and relevance of things Spanish to much of the present United States. Even in California and the Southeastern portion of the United Sates, areas where 19th century Americans destroyed most thoroughly the historical continuity of the colonies planted by Spain, this historical fabric enriches our understanding of United States as a nation.

In contrast, Weber concludes that “because Spanish North America never moved beyond the frontier stage, and because it remained linked to a declining Spain, it stood vulnerable to its modernizing and predatory neighbor” (p. 334). From the post-1821 transformation, here prefigured, grew both the anglocentric, largely racist, depiction of Spanish America that characterized the last half of the 19th century (and beyond), and the “created” and “imagined” Spanish colonial flavor described by Weber in his last chapter “The Spanish Legacy and the Historical Imagination.” Neither this section, nor the introductory chapter (showing the general lack of understanding among Americans of the lasting Spanish historical presence) provide an adequate theoretical frame for the body of the book: the Spanish arrived to missionize and settle, and were not successful in winning the battle over empire with the French, then the English, and finally the Americans. Alternatively, the social and cultural history of the region would serve to forge a link between Weber’s narrative and the fuller meaning Spain’s colonial enterprise for the history of the United States. Weber chose an ambitious and monumental task in summarizing three centuries of change along a frontier that spanned the length of the continent and as far north as Alaska. “Much as an artist must foreshorten to fit a large scene on a canvas” (p. 10-11), he acknowledges choosing the shape of his story. In so doing in magisterial style, Weber has considerably eased the task for those who would attempt to fashion another.

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