The Journal of San Diego History
Winter 2003, Volume 49, Number 1
Gregg Hennessey, Editor

Book Review

Matthew F. Bokovoy, Book Review Editor

Spain in the Southwest: A Narrative History of Colonial New Mexico, Arizona, Texas and California.

By John L. Kessell. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2002. 100 b&w illustrations. 10 maps. xvii + 462pp. $45.00 cloth.

Reviewed by Edward J. Dudlo, Ph.D. candidate, Department of History, Southern Methodist University.

John Kessell’s finely crafted synthesis of the colonial histories of the present-day states of New Mexico, Arizona, Texas, and California is a welcome contribution to the historiography on the Spanish Borderlands. Utilizing a narrative structure and supplemented by numerous illustrations to chronicle the human dramas that played themselves out in these colonies, Spain in the Southwest is informative and thoroughly engaging. Kessell’s ability to capture personalities and reconstruct people’s stories with an economy of words clearly sets this work apart from previous syntheses. Skillfully blending the current scholarship in the field with the author’s own impressive body of work, this narrative offers one of the most balanced portraits of the people, both European and Native American, who shaped the history of the Hispanic colonization of the northern frontiers of New Spain.

Loosely organized around three significant phases of Hispanic exploration and colonization, Spain in the Southwest begins by chronicling the period from about 1540 to 1610. Here the reader is guided through the exploits of early conquistadores and missionaries whose economic losses and personal hardships all too frequently exceeded their triumphs, despite their official reports to the contrary. During the 1680s and 1690s, the quest for riches and souls took a backseat to concerns of imperial defense as Indian nations revolted against Spanish rule and Frenchmen challenged Spanish hegemony west of the Mississippi River. From the 1770s to the 1790s, Spanish explorers and reformers strove to protect New Spain’s claim from encroaching Russians, Englishmen, and Anglo-Americans. Moving beyond this periodization, the book concludes in 1821 with Mexico’s independence from Spain.

This outline does little justice to the complexity and intimacy of Kessell’s narrative. At the core of this synthesis is an attempt to move beyond traditional stereotypes of both Spaniards and American Indians while detailing with nuance the relationships between peoples who in the author’s opinion inherently knew one another. Spain in the Southwest is clearly at its best when Kessell treats his readers to an intimate look at the people populating the Spanish Borderlands. Avoiding stereotypes, the author portrays native peoples as well as every Hispanic missionary, soldier, and settler on the basis of their own words and actions. Consequently, overzealous missionaries and corrupt officials are disparaged, as opposed to the entire Spanish colonial project. Kind and compassionate Spaniards can be found throughout this narrative, as well as Indians just as brutal and arrogant as some of the Europeans who imposed themselves upon the landscape. What ultimately emerges is a remarkably balanced account of all the peoples who influenced the development of the colonial Southwest.

While this work synthesizes the available scholarship in the field, the author does not shy away from challenging historical interpretations, whether new or old. He challenges Ramón Gutiérrez’s assumption that sexual impropriety and cruelty was normative behavior among New Mexico’s seventeenth-century Franciscans. In easily the most controversial section of this book, Kessell makes the claim that the evidentiary record simply does not support the widely held assumption that Juan de Oñate’s punishment of severing a foot off of males slaves following the defeat of Acoma Pueblo in 1599 was ever carried out. This case has long been used as a prime example of Spanish cruelty and continues to be a source of contention within New Mexico today. While one wishes that Kessell would have spent more time justifying his doubts, he certainly raises the prospect for additional research into this episode.

Aside from this controversial stance and the occasional confusion created by populating the narrative with so many names and personalities, Spain in the Southwest is an immensely enjoyable read. Whether one is new to the history of the Spanish Borderlands or a seasoned veteran, there is much to mine from a narrative that chronicles the colonial histories of New Mexico, Arizona, Texas, and California without isolating them from each other or the larger Spanish world. Kessell does a remarkable job of reminding his readers that the northern frontier of New Spain was not defined along the current border between Mexico and the United States. In fact, the northern states of present-day Mexico clearly had a role in defining the nature and terms of the Hispanic colonization of the American Southwest. Moreover, one is constantly reminded that even on the most remote frontiers, relations between Spain and other world powers had significant ramifications for everyone, whether European or Native American. The colonial Southwest was filled with people who despite the interference of outsiders and themselves developed a rich history of cultural conflict and accommodation. Capturing and recreating this human drama with eloquence, Spain in the Southwest deserves to be on the bookshelf of anyone interested in the history of the Southwest.

Buy this book from
You get Amazon’s low price and the San Diego Historical Society gets credit when you buy through this link.