The Journal of San Diego History
Fall 1995, Volume 41, Number 4
Richard W. Crawford, Editor

Book Review

Yankees in Paradise: The Pacific Basin Frontier.

By Arrell Morgan Gibson. Completed with the assistance of John S. Whitehead. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1993. 495 pages. $37.50 cloth. $17.50 paper. Buy this book.

Reviewed by Ronald J. Quinn, Lecturer in the Department of History, San Diego State University, and State Historian for California Department of Parks and Recreation.

This monograph is the most recent addition to the Histories of the American Frontier Series initiated by Ray Billington in the late 1950s. Most of the chapters in the present volume were written by the late Professor Arnell Gibson. According to the author, the Pacific Basin extends from the tip of Alaska to the Antarctic circle and forms a triangle with the Asian mainland. It encompasses 70 million square miles and one-third of the earth. This comprehensive narrative details the evolution of the Pacific Rim economy from its origins, into the twentieth century, with, of course, the major focus being the rise of the United States in the area’s development.

The author follows a quite traditional Turnerian approach in which the occupation and dominance of the land of indigenous people is viewed as normal and matter of fact. There is no acknowledgment of the cultural and economic disruption wrought by European and American fortune seekers. Typical of Gibson’s attitude is his terse summary of Spanish intrusion into California: “Indians of Southern and Central California for the most part submitted peacefully to Spanish rule.” He characterizes the Hawaiian economy prior to European contact in a similarly chauvinist fashion: “These islanders fashioned an easy life based on horticulture.”

The strength of the book is its comprehensive and intricate description of the evolution of the Pacific Rime economy. Gibson was a real pioneer in understanding that the western frontier economy owed much of its success to factors beyond the continental United States. There is little new material here, but the author’s mastery of the published sources gives the reader a genuine confidence in the narrative. Gibson confidently shows that on the Pacific Coast the merchant was frequently a more significant player than the mountain man. The author sees United States extension to the West Coast, not as the completion of territorial expansion, but as the beginning of a new economic frontier that would extend to China. In this interpretation Gibson’s vision is broader than Turner, though his methodology is strikingly similar. He contends that from almost the beginning of the new American nation, the United States understood that entrenchment on the West Coast gave the country a competitive advantage over its European rivals.

Professor Gibson understands the intricacies and details of the Pacific economy. He knows what is being purchased, who is responsible for its inception, and the prices paid, and who benefited from the transactions. Gibson believes that although the United States entered into economic competition in the Pacific years after the British, Portuguese, Spanish, and Dutch, it was better positioned to gain a stronghold because it was less burdened by bloated mercantilist bureaucracy and archaic government monopolies. The French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars offered the United States a strong opportunity to gain a percentage of the Pacific trade, even to the extent of carrying oriental products directly into European markets. Who could have foreseen this phenomenon at the time of the Boston Tea Party?

The book provides a complete narrative of the Pacific economic evolution. Historians have investigated the sea otter trade, the rise of whaling empires, the growth of agriculture in Hawaii but Gibson, with his encyclopedic knowledge of the entire area, integrates all of these and many others into a meaningful synthesis. And despite the fact that some of this material first appeared in the author’s The West in the Life of the Nation, it is remarkable how much of it has still not been integrated into history curricula at the secondary and college levels.

Notwithstanding, the book has its limitations. It is too long. Identical material appears in more than one chapter. Gibson’s heavily latinized prose make the narrative ponderous and adds to the length of the monograph. By contrast, Whitehead’s chapters read smoothly. And again, the lack of awareness of native cultures is disturbing and weakens the book.

Nonetheless, Gibson was real pioneer in understanding the significance of the Pacific Rim economy and its relationship to the global one. San Diego readers will certainly have a much better understanding of this area’s economy, especially in the Spanish, Mexican, and early American periods, after trekking their way through these chapters.

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