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Journal of Interdisciplinary History 33.1 (2002) 133-134

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From Settler to Citizen:
New Mexican Economic Development and the Creation of Vecino Society, 1750-1820

From Settler to Citizen: New Mexican Economic Development and the Creation of Vecino Society, 1750-1820. By Ross Frank (Berkeley, University of California Press, 2001) 329 pp. $45.00

From Settler to Citizen is a welcome addition to the historiography of late colonial New Spain (Mexico) and, in particular, the northern frontier. Frank's carefully researched study focuses on the vecinos—the Hispanic population of New Mexico—and their crafting of a distinct identity through a period of economic growth during the late eighteenth century. Pueblo and plains Indians are significant in Frank's narrative as traders, laborers, conjugal partners, and enemies at war, but the author's [End Page 133] primary subject is the development of vecino society. His argument rests on the intersection of Bourbon (late colonial administration) policies oriented to the need for frontier defense against nomadic raiders and internal processes of change in New Mexico. Bourbon investments in presidial defenses and trade goods for Apache and Comanche peace encampments stimulated trade and vecino craft production in textiles for export, religious imagery, and furniture for the newly prosperous elite of New Mexico.

Socially and culturally, the economic ascendancy of the vecinos brought a hardening of racial lines and separation between the vecinos and Pueblos, especially after 1780. Frank's narrative sequence distinguishes two major periods: the 1760s and 1770s, characterized by heavy Comanche raiding and droughts, and culminating in a "defensive crisis" that underscored the vecinos' dependence on Pueblo agrarian villages; and the 1780s and 1790s, following the defeat of one of the principal Comanche chiefs (1779), a devastating smallpox epidemic (1780-81), and the peace agreement of 1786. During this second period, the vecinos outnumbered the Pueblos, the value of their assets (in sheep) increased, and they controlled the long-distance trade to the mining provinces of Nueva Vizcaya and Sonora, depriving the Pueblo artisan weavers of direct access to the colonial market.

Frank's study is interdisciplinary in that it combines history and art history—more particularly, economic history and material culture. For the most part, these two threads of historical analysis work well together, integrating quantitative discussions of differential prices and currencies with the author's engaging descriptions of craft production. The book's strengths are the clarity of Frank's argument, his thoughtful comparative references, and excellent historical documentation. At times, however, his innovative revisionist hypotheses are not fully supported by the evidence that he presents, as in the vecinos' use of "imaginary money" (pesos of different denominations) to integrate internal bartered trade with export commerce based on coinage and promissory notes. At certain points in Frank's discussion of the distinctiveness of vecino culture, he appears to mirror conventional presentations of New Mexican exceptionalism in art, architecture, and Hispanic identity. Pueblos' responses are portrayed as reactions to vecino cultural and economic assertions rather than as processes in their own right. Nor is the incipient class structure among the vecinos explained as fully as the evidence would allow. The author's transition to the nineteenth century is abrupt; his references to the Santa Fe trail and linkages to the emerging United States economy appear obliquely in the conclusions. These observations point not so much to weaknesses in the book as to points for further reflection among the scholars of art history, ethnohistory, and anthropology whose work enriches the increasingly complex field of borderlands studies.


Cynthia Radding
University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign



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