The Journal of San Diego History
Fall 1996, Volume 42, Number 4
Richard W. Crawford, Editor

Book Review

Quest for Empire: Spanish Settlement in the Southwest.

By Donald Cutter and Iris Engstrand. Golden, Colorado: Fulcrum Publishing, 1996. Glossary. Bibliography. Index. 358 pages. $27.95 cloth. Buy this book.

Reviewed by Maria Gisela Butler, Lecturer in Mexican American Studies Department, San Diego State University.

The historiography of the Southwest has taken various twists and Donald Cutter’s and Iris Engstrand’s version narrows the focus of study to the far Southwest — California, New Mexico, and Arizona — stressing sixteenth-century Spanish expansion, and ending with the United States’ acquisition of the territory in 1848. The geographical descriptions of the rugged southwestern landscape give readers a sense of the hardships endured by those who migrated into the area, beginning with the earliest immigrants who crossed the Bering Strait. Their descendants, the Native American, were the first to encounter representatives of the Spanish world: the explorers, the missionaries, the soldiers, and the colonists. Though topography and space determined the uniqueness of each settlement pattern all colonizers were, nonetheless, bound by a Spanish colonial government, a Catholic religion, and a Spanish language. A cultural legacy which continues to permeate the Southwest today.

Anecdotes and biographies are sprinkled throughout the narrative, giving readers insight into notable incidents, and insight into the roles and accomplishments of many little known frontier personalities. Especially interesting are the stories about the foremost transformers of frontier culture, missionaries such as Kino, Garcés, and Serra. It was their energy and spirit, the authors maintain, which assisted in solidifying a Spanish empire. Changes in the monarchy brought about reorganization and consolidation of missions and presidio life, slowing the Spanish expansion process. With independence (1821) Mexico inherited frontier towns reflecting regional politics and an established economic system, which included ranching, agriculture, and commerce. Despite the hardships endured by the early pioneers, the fruits of their labor are today the cities of San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Tucson, and Santa Fe.

This work is rich in primary sources on Spanish documents and the diaries of regional expeditions. However, Native Americans and Chicanos might challenge these sources contending that Spanish documents and the works of historians such as Bolton and Bancroft reflect a Spanish worldview with an inclination to glorify frontier life. In reality Spanish and Mexican frontier policies were ruthless, particularly towards raiding groups. Therefore, in highlighting the friars’ undaunted devotion towards their neophytes rather than presenting a more balanced account, including contributions made by people of mixed heritages, these authors fail to bring to their work a new perspective or an unbiased position about the frontier. Overall, this is an interesting history geared for undergraduates and anyone wanting to understand the peopling of California, Arizona, and New Mexico.

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