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  • Indian Population Decline: The Missions of Northwestern New Spain, 1687–1840
  • Richard H. Frost
Robert H. Jackson. Indian Population Decline: The Missions of Northwestern New Spain, 1687–1840. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1994. xii + 229 pp. Ill. $29.95.

From the time of Sherburne F. Cook’s pioneering demographic studies of California Indian history in the 1930s to the present, scholars have turned repeatedly to the effects of the establishment of missions upon the Indian populations of the Southwest in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and early nineteenth centuries. Robert H. Jackson, who has labored in this field for more than a decade, brings together his findings in Indian Population Decline. The title conveys his thesis, which has long been accepted among most historians, that the missions precipitated catastrophic decline in native populations because they became centers of epidemic diseases, including smallpox, measles, and cholera.

Jackson’s subtitle, “The Missions of Northwestern New Spain,” invites comment. This book is a demographic study of the Jesuit, Franciscan, and Dominican missions of California, Baja California, Sonora, and Arizona (that is, Pimería Alta, or Pima and O’Odham Indian country), from the time of Padre Eusebio Kino’s first efforts in Sonora in 1687 to the dissolution of the missions by Mexican authorities in all of these areas after Mexican independence in 1821. The book does not treat the Franciscan missions of the upper Rio Grande, which were also part of northwestern New Spain. Presumably the exclusion stems from the destruction of the mission records in that province, but the author does not address the question.

The Spanish purpose in assembling dispersed native populations into artificial communities was to baptize, catechize, teach agricultural and domestic skills, and exploit Indian labor for the missions. That such congregation was a death warrant for most neophytes seems never to have occurred to the authorities, who went on decade after decade recruiting replacement workers for the dead. The mortality rates were appalling. In contrast to European and Spanish Californian life-expectancy rates in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries of 30 or 40 years, the mission Indians of Pimería Alta and the Californias had life-expectancy rates that rarely exceeded 12 years and often were less than 2. In Baja California the mission population peaked early and went into irreversible decline in the 1790s because the natives were too sparse to sustain replacement levels. Elsewhere natives were added from distant tribes, creating a false sense of mission success. Jackson finds that in the missions of Alta California (San Diego to Sonoma), epidemic disease was less completely the cause of neophyte mortality than in Baja California and Pimería Alta. Epidemics reached Alta California less frequently than the missions farther south. But the dampness of the Alta California coastal missions, their crowded and insanitary quarters, inadequate diet, dysentery, and despair all contributed to make the death rates genocidal.

Indian Population Decline is replete with tables and graphs of vital statistics for dozens of missions. Some of the population figures were generated by the computer program “Populate,” but most of the data are collated from sacramental registers. The extent of demographic collapse outside the mission system is not the subject of this study. Within that system, the collapse was universal. In the [End Page 133] absence of native sources to interpret their condition, it is statistics that portray the Indians’ grim history.

Richard H. Frost
Colgate University

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