The Journal of San Diego History
Spring 1996, Volume 42, Number 2
Richard W. Crawford, Editor

Book Review

A History of Alta California: A Memoir of Mexican California.

By Antonio Maria Osio. Trans. ed., Rose Mari Beebe and Robert Senkewicz. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1996). Notes. Biographical sketches. Glossary. Index. 387 pages.

Reviewed by Richard Griswold del Castillo, Professor of Mexican American Studies, San Diego State University. Author of The Los Angeles Barrio, La Familia, The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and coauthor of Cesar Chavez: A Triumph of the Spirit.

There are very few published histories of Mexican California written by the Californios, the Spanish speaking residents before 1848. This text is a rare and very important document because its author produced it independently of the historical project of Herbert Howe Bancroft and as such it offers an alternative vision of this period produced by a person who lived through it.

This history is framed as a letter not a formal history, but it is a letter that lasts for more than 300 pages and is undoubtedly the most complete historical account by a Californio that has been published thus far, replete with many social and political reminiscences as observations. Osio, a norte¤o, was connected by marriage to many of the key historical figures of the Mexican era, 1821-1848. His historical vision is preoccupied with explaining the political upheavals and factional politics during this period. He contributes a wealth of original information and detail not found in Bancroft’s five volume history of California.

Osio left California soon after the American take-over and lived in exile in Mexico for the remainder of his life. It was in Mexico that he wrote his history. For that reason his account of the Mexican War is one critical of the American motives and actions. We learn for example of some of the brutalities committed by the American troops, for example the attempted rape of women by Fremont’s soldiers. Osio’s view of the Bear Flag rebellion is that of a Californio loyalist: the Bear Flaggers were simply trying to acquire California for the United States by military takeover. Other accounts of the war period are intriguing, such as the role played by dogs in sending messages between the California ranchos. For Osio, most of the Californios in San Diego were traitors since they sided with the Americans. He gives a new perspective on the Battle of San Pascual, particularly in the motives of General Andr‚s Pico.

Written in straight forward prose without the usual Victorian embellishments, Osio’s account is also a personal reminiscence of a time long gone by. But his view is not clouded by romanticism or the need to glorify the Californios. It is a truly unusual history whose timely publication should be welcomed by all Californians interested in authenticating the past.