Stephen A. Colston, Book Review Editor
California in 1792: A Spanish Naval Visit.
Translated and edited by Donald C. Cutter. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1990. (The American Exploration and Travel Series, v. 71.) Bibliography. Illustrations. Notes. xv + 176 pages. $12.95 (paper).
Originally published as a hardcover in 1990, and reprinted as a paperback in 1995, this book is the narrative of the last official Spanish voyage to the Northwest Coast. Two schooners (goletas), the Sutil and the Mexicana, commanded respectively by Dionisio Alcala Galiano and Cayetano Valdes, sailed from Acapulco in March 1792. The primary mission of this small naval expedition was to ascertain the validity of the perennial rumor about the existence of a strait connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The expedition sailed as far north as present-day British Columbia and returned eight months later to San Blas.
From late September to late October, the Sutil and Mexicana plied the water of Alta (Upper) California. A journal of the expedition’s California sojourn, which was most likely written by Alcala Galiano, not only provides important first-hand accounts of the coastal settlements but of the flora, fauna, and human resources of adjacent interior regions as well. The journal is particularly valuable for the information it provides on California’s military installations and natural resources, as well as on the native cultures in the vicinity of the Carmel River. The text is enhanced by black-and-white reproductions of illustrations drawn by (and, in some instances, attributed to) the expedition’s artist, Jose Cardero.
Working from an original manuscript in the archives of Madrid’s Museo Naval, Donald Cutter has rendered a highly readable translation of a important late eighteenth-century journal about California. But Cutter’s editorial scholarship is no less distinguished than his skill as a translator. Fully sixty percent of this book is comprised of his masterful commentary about the journal, the commanders and crews of the goletas, and the California of the 1790s which the two vessels visited. Cutter’s volume, as both a primary and a secondary source, merits reading by students of the history of Spanish maritime exploration and the history of early California.