This is a book of interest to a pretty limited audience, of which yours truly is one of the rarified members. Not only is it Mission California history, but it is history of that period through the eyes of a number of women who were not so much selected as grudgingly chosen for interviews by men who were really waiting to interview other men. The noted historian H.H. Bancroft started everything in the mind 1870’s by sending out his minions to gather papers and narratives for his work on the history of California. They dispersed far and wide looking for material and found plenty. Only thing was, they sometimes had to wait for the gentleman they’d come to interview. Sometimes the guy didn’t show at all, this being an era when it was pretty hard to phone ahead. Once in a while, then, they had to take the next best thing, which was the wife, mother, or female friend. These accounts have been pretty neglected because, of course, women weren’t the generals or governors, so what did they know or what could they have to do with what was really happening? As it turns out, quite a lot. They confronted politicians, hid fugitive revolutionaries in their homes, clandestinely brought food and supplies to the front lines, and manipulated relationships through marriage and courting.
We get multiple pov’s on the various revolutions among the Californios and their Spaniard and (after 1822) Mexican masters. And, of course, we hear a lot about the good and bad of the coming of the Americans.
We find out that the women’s judgments depended a great deal on how invading men comported themselves. The Bear Flag guys, for example, were universally despised, along with their leader, Mr. Fremont, as an ill-mannered, foul-mouthed group who cared nothing for life, limb, or property. Later Americans were generally taken to be a much more savory group who cared quite a lot about the niceties even if they were there to take away everything.
We get fine picture of the deterioration of an entire civilization. The horrible conditions for Indians in the Missions, the horrible conditions for Indians and priests alike that followed the secularization of the Missions. Women tended to do better in some ways under the Americans, particularly in terms of education, but that didn’t make up for the loss of civilization and morality for these older women.
We learn quite a lot about the trouble it took to gather all this information. A flamboyant Mr. Henri Cerruti is particularly entertaining in his accounts of trying to pry documents, artifacts, and stories from his charges with liquor and charm (it often worked.) Mr. Thomas Savage talks mostly about what a horrible time he had with broken promises, bad weather, reluctant priests, and God knows what all. A dour and unhappy man, Mr. Savage, though if I’d had his job under his conditions, I’d have been ready for a clinical psychiatrist, which I would have had a hard time finding. However, Cerruti had all the same problems Savage did. Just goes to show that some folks are happy and others aren’t.
Rose Marie Beebe and Robert M. Senkewicz are to be commended for taking this project on, and Heday books of Berkeley for publishing it. I wonder why two scholarly types show up on this book jacket smiling and cuddling a lap dog. Maybe it’s to prove you can be an historian without being stuffy. Anyway, I’m glad they did it. I doubt many of us readers would make it all the way through and no one would think the worse of them, but I made it. And enjoyed it. Go figure.