The Journal of San Diego History
Winter 1994, Volume 40, Numbers 1 & 2
Richard W. Crawford, Editor

Book Review

Richard Griswold del Castillo, Book Review Editor

Antigua California: Mission and Colony on the Peninsular Frontier, 1697-1768.

By Harry W. Crosby. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press with the University of Arizona Southwest Center and the Southwest Mission Research Center, 1994. Bibliography. Illustrations. Maps. Appendices. Glossary. Index. 544 pages. $37.50.

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

Harry W. Crosby is one of San Diego’s historical treasures. He is a former local high school teacher who has made a second career out of Baja California, which he has visited and loved since childhood. After serving as photographer for a 1968 Copley Press book on the 1769 Portola-Serra expedition, Crosby authored The King’s Highway in Baja California (1974), and The Cave Paintings of Baja California (1975), which, with his PBS television documentary, “The Mystic Murals of Baja California,” and his article in National Geographic, did much to introduce the world to the cave paintings of the region. In his next book, Last of the Californios (1981), Crosby investigated the lifestyle of contemporary Baja residents living in remote areas of the peninsula. He produced a significant book which was not adequately noted in the academic world (probably because of its Copley Press imprint), in which he advocates the thesis that those inhabitants probably live today much as their colonial ancestors had lived, and thus provide great insight into the history of early California.

With Antigua California: Mission and Colony on the Peninsular Frontier, 1697-1768, Crosby has published his magnum opus (at least to date—he is well into his next project). Antigua California departs from Crosby’s previous work in that it is a long book of heavy scholarship published by a university press with support from prestigious scholarly organizations. It is an excellent book which makes contributions at many levels; Antigua California is also a superb example of the bookmaker’s art.

The story of the Spanish settlement of Baja California revolves around the establishment of missions by the Jesuits. In the first third of his book, Crosby details the story of the Jesuits and their experiences, dreams, and plans for expanding their Northern New Spain missions into California. The key element in their enterprise was securing complete control for their missions (including control over the presidio and the soldiers) in return for their promise their missions would cost the crown nothing (which they reneged on pretty quickly). The Jesuits’ story is one of elite, crafty Jesuits operating at high levels of government and society, played against their incredibly difficult struggle to establish and support missions in a very hostile environment. This portion of the book provides marvelous insights into the nature of power and the administration of the Spanish empire.

Just as the reader begins to weary of the Jesuits, Crosby shifts to a topical/descriptive account of the missions, pueblo and presidio in Baja California. The middle third of Antigua California is one of the most satisfying parts of the book, and probably the most significant.

The description of the missions may be as good a description of California missions (Baja and Alta) as we have. Without advocacy or involving himself in the current rancorous debates over Spanish missions and Indians, Crosby has carefully described mission life. He deals with conversion (and the Jesuit concern over its shallowness), with organization and conduct of life in the missions (showing how all was structured for the purpose of conversion and meeting the temporal needs of the mission population), and how the system of control and labor was a de facto slavery. Crosby also notes Native American resistance, problems of control, health problems and declining population, the lack of natural resources, and the ultimate failure (by virtually any definition) of the mission system. At the same time, the author shows the Jesuit concern for their charges (even as they reflected their era’s negative view of the Natives); and the frequent indications of some neophyte’s affection and trust for missionaries. Crosby’s account of the missions in Baja California completely erodes the “Mission Myth.” The reasonableness of his presentation coupled with his extensive documentation makes his conclusions all the more credible.

Some may object to the fact that Crosby’s account of the missions is almost entirely from the Spanish point of view. The simple fact is that almost all of the sources are Hispanic, and in fact, most of them are Jesuit. In the absence of much archaeological investigation, oral history interviews of modern Indian descendants, and other sources from the Indians point of view, Crosby has done the best he can with what is available.

As notable as Crosby’s coverage of Baja mission life is, his account of the presidio and pueblo is perhaps even more important. In this portion of Antigua California he looks at the people who, in fact, form the basis of the permanent settlements of California. These are also the people who ultimate erode the Jesuit vision for Baja California. Crosby traces the geographical, ethnic and racial origins of the settlers, their occupations, living conditions, culture, and their lifestyle. This and the final section of the book also give good insight into the various positions, posts, titles, and regulations of secular life in Spanish California. In the process, Crosby also introduces many colorful and significant figures—Estaban and Bernardo Rodriguez, Pedro de la Riva, Fernando Javier Rivera y Moncada, for example—who not only help the reader understand the history of Baja California, but also provide important background for the history of San Diego and Alta California. It is likely that Crosby’s concerns with the secular peoples of Baja at least partly grows out of the author’s acquaintance with and affection for the modern people of Backcountry Baja whom he dealt with in Last of the Californios.

The final section of Antigua California, “The Decline and Fall of Jesuit California,” covers much more than the title might indicate. Although at the end Crosby does tell of the expulsion of the Jesuits from Antigua California, his focus is the growing secular population and the way in which it eroded the Jesuit’s tight control of the peninsula. Most of secular California was controlled by several famililies, often intermarried (usually via descendants of Estaban Rodriguez whose economic ambitions led to the development of mining, ranching, commerce, and other enterprises which challenged the Jesuits and perhaps contributed to their downfall.

Because of the work of these Californios, by the time the Jesuits were expelled, they may not have cared too much. In the end it has to be said that the Jesuit mission enterprise in Baja California was not very successful. But, as Crosby has pointed out in what is clearly a major contribution of his book, their missions did lead to a population of civilian entrepreneurs which did permanently take root in this extremely forbidding part of the Spanish empire.

Crosby has based his story on a solid scholarly foundation. He has done extensive research in primary and secondary sources, and his nearly one hundred pages of footnotes are full of both citations and scholarly miniessays on those sources. Many of the sources are Jesuit in origin, and the author is well aware of the limitations that puts on them. Hence he makes special efforts to make allowances for the Jesuit point of view, or to go beyond those sources to cover topics, such as the secular population, which the Jesuits would not think to cover, or would purposely minimize.

There are only a few problems with the book. The author sometimes generalizes without evidence, as on page 288 where he says that superior ability of gente de razon to resist disease gave them confirmation of their superiority over the Indians. At other times, Crosby speculates, but properly qualifies it, as on page 332 where he notes that the appointment of twenty-six year old Rivera as commander “surely” caused “surprise, chagrin, and disappointment.” Even when Crosby generalizes without specific evidence, his evaluations are invariably reasonable and consistent with the total pattern. The only other problem is that sometimes the organization is a little confusing. That probably is magnified by the use of subheadings as a substitute for good transition sentences. Otherwise, the book is very well written.

As fine as text of the book is, the scholarly apparatus may be even finer. In addition to the previously mentioned endnotes (which alone would make the book a cornerstone of Baja California studies), Crosby has included appendices listing and describing all the Jesuits who were in Baja California, lists of Spanish officials, an annotated list of the founders of Peninsular families, plus a glossary of Spanish terms as they would have been understood in Jesuit California. The list of families will be of special interest to San Diego readers, as they are also the roots of some local families. The whole is supplemented with excellent maps, figures and illustrations (some by his wife Joanne Crosby), which help advance the story. These aspects of the book make Antigua California a “must” reference work for every serious scholar concerned with the history of the northern frontier of New Spain, or the roots of San Diego and modern California history.

Beyond its importance for scholars, Crosby’s book, while not a casual entertainment, is highly recommended for anyone interested in reading about Spanish colonial history, the history of California (Baja and/or Alta); or for anyone interested in the general process of transplanting a culture into a frontier environment, with a special focus on the interaction of native and imperial cultures. This is a major book, of high scholarship, much substance, and broad appeal.