Look no further than the Ramona Pageant that draws tourists to Helmet, California, each spring to confirm the history of Spanish California as a chronicle richer in fabulation than fact. In place of romantic notions of the region—engendered in part by popular novelists such as Helen Hunt Jackson and Gertrude Atherton, furthered by railroad industry publications such as nineteenth-century Sunset Magazine and still maintained to a surprising degree today—Alta California: Peoples in Motion, Identities in Formation offers a well-argued and amply researched corrective. Published as part of the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West, this volume celebrates the completion of a project to publish online the multitudinous data offered by the mission system’s sacramental registers, whose record of baptisms, marriages, and burials, as editor Steven W. Hackel notes, has remained virtually intact despite the regime changes of the last three centuries.
Alta California is certainly not the first book to insist that the period of cultural contact between Europeans and Native Californians was one unsettled by conflict and competing claims of self-definition. In the last quarter century, a number of historians have published works that upend notions of early California as a place of party-giving dons and pitiable Indian peones. The efforts of these scholars are well documented in the bibliographic apparatus offered by the essayists represented here. Yet this volume’s representation of different voices (characters new to the historical record such as Luiseño scholar Pablo Tac and the choristers and instrumentalists of the San José and San Juan Bautista missions, among others) and its evidence-based approach offer readers an important resource and an excellent model for further research. The distinguished scholars published in the pages of Alta California, which include, among others, Rose Marie Beebe, Robert M. Senkewicz, Lisbeth Hass, Albert L. Hurtado, and the late David J. Weber, are insistent on linking contemporary theories about contested US spaces with the data provided by the mission system’s records now accessible as part of the Early California Population Project. In so doing, they confirm archival work as instrumental to their intellectual production.
Given the volume’s focus on the agency of Native peoples, some work might be done to gesture toward links with tribal communities in present-day California: to what extent are the strategies used by tribal people in the pre-statehood period congruent with contemporary self-expression, and how are they distinct? Nonetheless, the strength of this volume lies in the close attention it provides to what is often perceived [End Page 428] as merely the detritus of history: its facts. This insistence on the historical record helps to remedy a historiography that tends to be ideologically bipolar—one which, as Beebe and Senkewicz suggest of missionaries, often positions individuals either as “heroic agents of civilization or nefarious purveyors of destruction” (17).
By contrast, the portraits offered in these pages—from Junipero Serra to Herbert Bolton to Pablo Tac—are critically nuanced. Louise Pubols’s attention to the double-edged humor of the Californios, Lisbeth Haas’s reading of what resists translation in her study of Pablo Tac’s narrative, José Refugio de la Torre Curiel’s focus on the changing historical conditions to which missionaries, like it or not, “had to adapt”—all of these studies remain attentive to the shifting registers people use in the multiple social settings within which they find themselves. In the process, they open up Spanish California as culturally richer for being politically contested ground (65).