- Vineyards and Vaqueros: Indian Labor and the Economic Expansion of Southern California, 1771–1877
George Harwood Phillips is the preeminent scholar of California Indian history and his latest book, Vineyards and Vaqueros, is an impressive addition to his extensive body of work on the topic. The first volume in a new series called Before Gold: California under Spain and Mexico, the book traces changing patterns of work and community among Los Angeles area Native peoples from the pre-contact period through the first decades of U.S. rule. Through exhaustive research in mission archives, municipal records, travelers’ accounts, and memoirs, Phillips reconstructs the working lives of Tongva (Gabrielino), Serrano, and Cahuilla peoples. Laboring on Los Angeles missions, farms, vineyards, and ranchos, these Native groups played crucial, and often overlooked, roles in the early economic development of what is now the West Coast’s largest city.
Much of the book focuses on Indians’ experiences under the mission system, particularly their responses to missionaries’ efforts to manage and control their labor. Phillips advocates moving away from romanticized accounts of mission life, which generally ignore Indian laborers, and more negative portrayals that cast mission Indians as victims of brutal labor exploitation and ethnocide. Both of these interpretations deny agency to Indians and obscure the importance of their economic contributions. Phillips seeks, instead, to examine Indians’ lives as workers and how they adapted indigenous craft skills, labor patterns, and subsistence strategies to the work regimes imposed by Spanish colonizers. Native peoples maintained pre-contact labor practices of food collection, hunting, construction, and basketry, and transferred these skills to their new agricultural, pastoral, and manufacturing duties in the missions. Indians thus retained a degree of cultural [End Page 213] autonomy in their daily work lives and became vital skilled laborers in the colonial economy.
Phillips’s greatest contribution to the literature on southern California Indian history is his analysis of Native workers’ responses to the secularization of the missions. Most scholars assert that secularization resulted in the dispossession, social disintegration, and dispersal of mission Indian communities and Indian labor exploitation by the rising ranchero class. Phillips, in contrast, documents a wide range of Native adaptations to the end of the mission system. Some Indian people moved to the pueblo of Los Angeles in search of wage work and did suffer from problems of alcohol abuse, violence, and crime. Others, however, maintained community continuity by successfully petitioning for grants of mission land or staying on to work for the missions’ secular administrators. Those who moved to the ranchos, moreover, did not necessarily endure unmitigated exploitation and hardship. Rancho workers maintained semi-autonomous villages on their employers’ land, where they enjoyed relative cultural freedom and sustained indigenous labor practices.
Students of California Indian history will appreciate Phillips’s rich, detailed narrative of Native people’s daily tasks and working conditions on the missions and ranchos. At times this detail overwhelms the analysis, especially because the author saves most of his conclusions for two excellent historiographic essays at the beginning and end of the book. Nonetheless, Vineyards and Vaqueros is a landmark study that recognizes Southern California Indians’ economic agency and restores them to the story of Los Angeles’s phenomenal growth.