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The Catholic Historical Review 89.2 (2003) 344-346
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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. Pp. xvii, 462. $45.00.)
Herbert Eugene Bolton, before and during his tenure in the history department at the University of California from 1911 until his death in 1953, initiated the serious study of the areas in the United States colonized by Spain. In 1921 the publication of his book, The Spanish Borderlands: A Chronicle of Old Florida and the Southwest, provided Spanish colonial North America with the name it has been associated with ever since. For much of the first three-quarters of the twentieth century, Bolton and his students dominated the field of Spanish Borderlands studies, producing an outpouring of hundreds of scholarly articles and books on three hundred years of Spanish activities from California to Florida. For the most part, the Boltonians stressed the heroic achievements of individual Spaniards and the positive contributions of Hispanic institutions and culture. The exploits of intrepid Spanish explorers and priests were particularly [End Page 344] emphasized by these historians. Influenced by Frederick Jackson Turner's frontier thesis, Bolton characterized the Franciscan mission as the most representative—read "civilizing"—frontier institution in the Spanish Borderlands. In 1963 one of Bolton's students, John Francis Bannon, a Jesuit, published The Spanish Borderlands Frontier, 1513-1821, which summed up the work of the Bolton school, paying particular attention to the priests who strove to spread the gospel to the heathen Indians.
Beginning in the 1960's, however, a new group of Borderlands scholars emerged, now emphasizing the fact that the society of northern New Spain had been essentially mestizo or Mexican. Therefore, they paid more attention to the common Hispanic settlers than the heroic Spaniards. They also stressed the viewpoint of the region's Native Americans, emphasizing the disastrous effect the Franciscan missions had upon the Indians' population and culture. This new group of historians also used the term "frontier" in a different way. Rather than seeing the frontier as a line between civilization and savagery as the Boltonians had, they understood the frontier as a zone of interaction between two different cultures. In 1992 David J. Weber published The Spanish Frontier in North America, a product of the new Borderlands studies, which paid as much attention to the natives of the region as to the Spanish invaders with whom the Indians were forced to contend. One of Weber's major themes was that the Indians and Spaniards who met on North American frontiers failed to understand one another, for they came from different worlds. Weber's monumental study has influenced virtually all scholarly work on the Spanish Borderlands that has appeared in the past decade.
That is, until the publication of John L. Kessell's, Spain in the Southwest. Kessell, professor emeritus at the University of New Mexico, is the author of numerous books on the Southwestern Borderlands—most notably, Kiva, Cross, and Crown: The Pecos Indians and New Mexico, 1540-1840 (1979)—as well as being the editor of the Vargas Project, a multivolume collection of the papers of Diego de Vargas, who reconquered New Mexico following the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. In the preface, Kessell confronts Weber's thesis by stating that, "even though Europeans and Native Americans were from worlds far apart geographically...I think they understood each other very well" (p. xi). Despite this pronouncement, Kessell's work, which narrates the history of the Borderlands sans Florida or Spanish Louisiana, focuses almost exclusively upon the Spaniards and their exploits, neglecting to explain the Indians' strategies or responses to the invaders in any serious way.
Actually, Spain in the Southwest does not refute The Spanish Frontier in North America as much as it ignores it. It seems as if Kessell began work on this project before the publication of Weber's book and he decided not to pay any attention to it. Although unstated, it...