Book Review

Baja California Missions: In the Footsteps of the Padres.

Text by David Burckhalter. Photographs by David Burckhalter and Mina Sedgwick. Foreword by Bernard L. Fontana. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 2013. Photographs, maps, and plans. 166 pp. $24.95 paper.

Reviewed by Vladimir Guerrero, Independent Scholar, Davis, CA.

Assumed to be an island when first discovered in the 1530s, the peninsula was named California after a fictional “island west of the Indies” in a popular Spanish novel of the time. It would be a decade or two before it was known that the Sea of Cortés was a long and narrow gulf and the presumed island an enormous peninsula, but it would be almost two centuries before this fact was generally accepted. After all, because of its length of a thousand kilometers, during the entire colonial period the peninsula would almost exclusively be accessed from the mainland by sea, in a one- to two-week crossing fraught with danger and discomfort. And once there, travelers found the mythical California to be desert- dry, rocky, and mountainous, lacking in pasture, forest, or precious metals, and sparsely populated. For these reasons colonization would not get under way until the end of the seventeenth century, and few settlers wished to accompany the devout churchmen bringing the word of God to the natives.

But it was the work of these devout men that is the reason for this book, an introduction to the missions of Baja California based on the eight restored churches of the twenty two established during the Jesuit presence in the province. Through their connections and perseverance, the order obtained private financial support for their apostolate, as well as vice-regal authority to appoint and direct the king’s military personnel, making them for seventy years the de-facto rulers of the land. It was precisely their world-wide success that made them a threat. The Jesuits were too powerful and autonomous for their monarchs and in 1767 were banned by Spain (and earlier by France and Portugal) from all its territories and colonies. The consequences for peninsular California were significant. Spanish colonial officials had to transfer the existing missions to the Franciscan order while at the same time organizing the impending colonization beyond the 30th parallel, to the New California in the north. That it all took place in the space of two short years and was successfully carried out with the limited manpower and resources available is a credit to the administration of New Spain.

David Burckhalter and Mina Sedgwick’s Baja California Missions: In the Footsteps of the Padres is a photographic presentation of the surviving eighteenth century missions. The main section of the book (120 pages) presents each one of them accompanied by a short text and an architectural plan-view sketch. The text is part travel advice (location, geography, driving directions, local lodging or camping, annual celebrations, etc.) and part a description of the architectural detail and/ or art-work pictured, cross-referenced to the sketch. This enables the reader to visualize complete interior and exterior views of the mission complex with the images in correct relationship to each other. Unfortunately the orientation of the plan sketches is inconsistent (the North is seldom at the top of the page), which makes the visualization more awkward and slower than it should be. For the persevering student, however, the reward is well worth the effort.

The introductory section of the book (30 pages) includes a short historical narrative, a list of all 34 missions eventually established in Baja California, and two excellent maps giving their location and current condition. While the presentation is adequate for someone familiar with the historical connection between the two Californias, for the uninitiated it fails to do justice to the excellent photographic record that follows. Perhaps linking this chain of missions to those of Alta California that began with the 1769 Portolá expedition would have made the images come alive with meaning. After all, from Loreto to Santa María (on the 26th and 30th parallels) these missions were the mileposts for the expedition. North of Santa María to the future San Diego and Monterey (on the 32nd and 36th parallels) Portolá was breaking ground and laying the foundation for a New California.

The sparseness of its historical context notwithstanding, Baja California Missions: In the Footsteps of the Padres remains true to its objective of being a beautiful visual introduction to the subject. And as a Spanish Jesuit might have phrased it: “one does not ask the elm tree for pears.”

The Real World of Mission San Luis Rey.

By Jim Downs. Oceanside, CA: Liebfrinck, 2015. 200 pp. $19.95 paper.

Reviewed by Ryan Jordan, Lecturer, Department of History, University of San Diego.

Mission San Luis Rey, known as the “King of the Missions,” was by many measures the most successful Spanish-era Franciscan mission in Alta California. But this mission has lacked significant academic attention: the last scholarly book on San Luis Rey was written by Father Zephyrin Engelhardt in 1921. Jim Downs’s The Real World of Mission San Luis Rey is therefore a welcome addition to the literature on California’s mission past. Drawing from many scholarly secondary sources, as well as from published primary sources, Downs’s book will no doubt remain the definitive treatment of Mission San Luis Rey for many years to come.

Controlling an area of nearly one million acres that included present-day Oceanside, Escondido, Camp Pendleton, Pala, Palomar Mountain, and Temecula, many contemporaries viewed San Luis Rey as the wealthiest mission in terms of livestock and agricultural output. Early nineteenth-century travel reports also claimed that the natives of San Luis Rey – the Luiseños – lived longer and better than many others in California, especially under the direction of Father Antonio Peyri, whose departure from San Luis Rey in 1832 marked the end of relatively harmonious relations between Europeans and Native Americans in the region.

In the mid-nineteenth century, the area once comprising the mission witnessed several traumatic changes associated with the transition from Mexican to American rule, including the Battle of San Pasqual during the US-Mexican War, the Garra Revolt of 1851, and the removal of the Cupenos from Warner’s Ranch in 1903. Several notable figures in the history of California lived on or wrote about the lands formerly part of Mission San Luis Rey, including the Luiseño native Pablo Tac, the last governor of Alta California, Pio Pico, the Mexican-era Luiseño tribal leader Pablo Apis, Native American advocate Helen Hunt Jackson, and twentieth- century film star Leo Carrillo.

In his book, Downs ably contextualizes the story of the San Luis Rey mission within the larger history of California. For example, Downs examines several travel accounts of foreigners to San Luis Rey as a reflection on the history of Native American life generally in Alta California before 1848. Elsewhere in his book, Downs describes the area’s involvement in the political squabbles during the terms of Mexican-era governors José María de Echeandía, José Figueroa, Juan Bautista de Alvarado, and Pio Pico. Downs ends his book with an examination of the efforts in the twentieth century to preserve and restore Mission San Luis Rey. This portion of the book considers the contributions of priests such as Jeremiah O’Keefe, the noted American journalist Charles Fletcher Lummis, locals including John Steiger and Mel Vernon, and Catholic groups such as the Sisters of the Precious Blood.

A central concern for Downs is correcting what he sees as unfair academic criticism directed at Franciscan treatment of the Luiseño Indians at the mission. While acknowledging the damage done to native society by European intrusion, Downs reminds the reader that native life prior to the arrival of the Franciscans was far from idyllic. The author also explains how, apart from the diseases that killed so many California natives, Franciscan treatment of natives was far better than that of the Mexicans or Americans in later periods. Throughout his book, Downs provides a balanced account of the many struggles facing the Luiseño natives by explaining different scholarly opinion regarding the contentious issue of European-Native relations. As a highly accessible overview of the history of Mission San Luis Rey and its relationship with two centuries of regional history, Downs’s book will be appreciated by those with an interest both in the “King of the Missions” as well as in the broader California past.

California Native Plants in the 1830s: The Collections of Thomas Coulter, Thomas Nuttall, and H.M.S.

Sulphur with George Barclay and Richard Hinds. By James Lightner. San Diego: San Diego Flora, 2014. Tables, maps, photographs, and notes. 54 pp. $9.95 cloth.

Parry’s California Notebooks, 1849-51 with Letters to John Torrey.

By Charles C. Perry. Transcribed, edited, and annotated by James Lightner. San Diego: San Diego Flora, 2014. Maps, drawings, photographs, appendices, notes, bibliography, and index. vi + 170 pp. $24.95 cloth.

Reviewed by Theodore A. Strathman, Lecturer, Department of History, California State University San Marcos.

James Lightner, a local writer and authority on San Diego native plants, has produced two books that will be of significant value to those interested in the history of scientific discovery in nineteenth-century California. The common theme that runs through the two works is the effort of botanists to catalogue the flora of California in the years immediately surrounding the American acquisition of the territory. While California Native Plants in the 1830s will most likely appeal especially to those interested in California’s aboriginal flora, Parry’s California Notebooks will provide rich rewards to those more generally concerned with the state’s early history.

The latter work, the more substantial of the two, consists of Lightner’s transcription of the notebooks of Charles C. Parry, a young botanist who served on the Mexican Boundary Survey as it fixed the international border in the wake of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Lightner has also included in the book letters from Parry to John Torrey, the eminent botanist after whom Parry named the Torrey Pine. These letters, incorporated in chronological fashion among Parry’s notebook entries, contribute significantly to the book by reinforcing and in some cases clarifying Parry’s narrative of his travels and observations. Also included are photographs of herbarium sheets of several plants collected by Parry in California. Lightner’s annotations reflect his expertise and extensive research while offering important discussions of, among other things, plant characteristics and historical figures.

Lightner also enhances the notebooks by providing a table of contents that serves as a sketch of Parry’s itinerary during his time in California. This feature is especially important given the absence of a map designating Parry’s travels, the inclusion of which would have made it easier for the reader to keep track of the botanist’s peregrinations. This minor reservation notwithstanding, Parry’s account of his travels makes for interesting reading. One is struck by several themes. First, Parry’s observations suggest the real hazards that accompanied life in frontier California. Especially as acting surgeon during the Boundary Survey’s journey from San Diego to the Colorado River, Parry catalogued the injuries, sicknesses (including several cases of syphilis), and deaths (most notably four drownings when a canoe overturned near the confluence of the Colorado and Gila Rivers) among the party. Second, Parry in several places observed the effects of the Gold Rush, even in then-remote San Diego: some soldiers deserted their posts to travel to the Sierra foothills, prices for food, labor, and livestock had increased, and the government increased salaries, a move designed, according to Parry, “to keep us from running away to the mines” (p. 7). Third, Parry evoked the social and economic transformations that had swept California over the past two decades. His visits to several missions led him to comment on the physical destruction of property that accompanied secularization, and he also observed several signs of the impending decline of the Californios, as when he noted John Forster’s acquisition of the Rancho Santa Margarita y las Flores as payment for a debt owed him by Pio Pico. In remarking on such social developments, Parry was something of a “[Richard Henry] Dana with a microscope and a mule,” as Lightner describes him (p. vi). As Lightner himself notes, though, Parry was hardly an impartial judge, and his discussion of the mission padres contains 

some of the disdain that characterized the observations of Dana. Nevertheless, some of Parry’s observations are of real value; for example, he provided a detailed account of agriculture among the Yuma.

California Native Plants in the 1830s describes the visits to San Diego of four naturalists from the United Kingdom and discusses the plant specimens they collected in the region. Like the other book reviewed here, this publication includes high-quality photographs and extensive notes. Lightner has also compiled a list of plants collected by these four men. While this book will be of most use to those interested in the botany and natural history of the region, Lightner has written a brief but well-researched section that provides important context, including a discussion of changes in local flora caused by Spanish and Mexican settlement in the region and a sketch of secularization and its impacts. A similar introductory essay would be a welcome addition to Parry’s California Notebooks, which includes only a brief preface.

James Lightner has performed an important service in producing these two works. His knowledge of – and passion for – his topic is evident in the care he has taken to shed light on these relatively little-known figures. For students of California history, Lightner’s books are enlightening accounts of the opening of the territory in the years between Mexican independence and the first years of American rule. The end of Spanish trading restrictions helped bring figures like Coulter and Nuttall to California, while Parry’s sojourns remind us that the gold rush-era emigration included not just prospectors and merchants but others intent on mining the region’s less salable resources.


Before L.A.: Race, Space, and Municipal Power in Los Angeles, 1781–1894. Lamar Series in Western History. By David Samuel Torres-Rouff. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013. Illustrations, maps, notes, and index. xiii + 361 pp. $65.00 cloth. David Torres-Rouf explores the history of Los Angeles from its founding as a Spanish pueblo to the late nineteenth century with a focus on how shifting relations among ethno-racial groups led to spatial arrangements in the city. In the second half of the nineteenth century, previous patterns of cooperation between Anglo Americans and the ethnic Mexican population broke down, and the latter group (along with the local Chinese American population) found itself increasingly relegated to spatially distinct parts of the city that lacked the basic amenities and services that characterized other sections of the metropolis.

Death Valley National Park: A History. By Hal K. Rothman and Char Miller. Reno: University of Nevada Press, 2013. Illustrations, maps, notes, and index. xv + 185 pp. $24.95 paper. Before his death in 2007, Hal Rothman had contracted with the University of Nevada Press to publish a history of Death Valley National Park. Char Miller of Pomona College has revised and completed the unfinished manuscript, which was based on a previous history written by Rothman for the National Park Service.

Global West, American Frontier: Travel, Empire, and Exceptionalism from Manifest Destiny to the Great Depression. By David M. Wrobel. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2013. xv + 312 pp. $39.95 cloth. This monograph examines travel writing from the mid-nineteenth century to the 1930s and how both American and foreign visitors to the West understood the region. Wrobel also considers American writers’ encounters with frontier regions outside the United States. One of book’s central themes is how travelers reflected upon ideas of American exceptionalism; some reflected this vein of thinking while others challenged it.

Latinos at the Golden Gate: Creating Community and Identity in San Francisco. By Tomás F. Summers Sandoval, Jr. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013. Illustrations, maps, table, notes, bibliography, and index. xv + 237 pp. $39.95 cloth. Tomás Summers Sandoval’s book charts the development of San Francisco’s Latino population from the era of the Gold Rush to the late 1960s. The author pays special attention to Latinos’ efforts to forge community through political activism, from church-based efforts to promote unity among Spanish-speakers to student protest at San Francisco State.

Mercury and the Making of California: Mining, Landscape, and Race, 1840–1890. Mining the American West Series. By Andrew Scott Johnston. Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2013. Illustrations, maps, charts, tables, notes, bibliography, and index. xi + 284 pp. $45.00 cloth. This book explores the impact of the mercury- mining industry on California. Mercury extraction was a necessary component of successful gold and silver mining in California and the West, and Johnston examines how the industry created a unique built environment as well as divisions among the various ethnic groups who constituted the workforce.