Constructing Lives at Mission San Francisco: Native Californians and Hispanic Colonists, 1776-1821 External link

By Quincy D. Newell


University of New Mexico Press

In 1957, Wilcomb Washburn published The Governor and the Rebel: A History of Bacon's Rebellion in Virginia. External link This work, which utilized new historical sources that re-introduced Native Americans into history, was arguably the first ethnohistorical monograph ever published. Many ethnohistorians followed Washburn’s groundbreaking book with works of their own that continued to re-imagine the American landscape by re-including indigenous people into the country’s historical narrative. Fifty-three years and hundreds of books later, some ethnohistorians wonder if the depths of their discipline have been mined. Ethnohistorical evidence has been incorporated into conventional history, they argue, and no new ‘special’ evidence—diaries written by indigenous people at the point of contact, for example—has been uncovered. Although conventional historians have adopted ethnohistorical evidence, the methodology is far from dead, as demonstrated by Quincy D. Newell’s marvelous new book, Constructing Lives at Mission San Francisco: Native Californians and Hispanic Colonists, 1776-1821 External link
Newell’s book explores life at Mission San Francisco, External link the sixth mission founded by Spanish priests in the Alta California mission chain. While the book focuses on indigenous peoples’ responses to the religious conversion rhetoric preached by the mission priests, it also details the life and culture of Native people who lived in and around San Francisco Bay and examines their forms of cultural resistance against colonial pressures as well as cultural accommodations toward new Hispanic life ways. It is a fine work of ethnohistory that relies not only on the historical record, but also draws heavily from ethnographic material.

Unlike some works of ethnohistory, Newell’s monograph provides a voice for indigenous people. She does this, not only through her source material—birth, death, and marriage records, in combination with published European accounts—but also through her unique use of these sources. Newell is able to read between the lines of the mission ledgers to provide her reader with a glimpse of the day-to-day life of Native Californians. For example, in chapter one, “Going to Church”, Newell introduces the reader to Pismote, an eighteen-year old Indian woman. Pismote entered the mission after her polygamous husband decided to marry his first wife, rather than her. This story, reconstructed from sparse ledger accounts, allows Newell to explain how a single female lived, worked, and attended church at the mission.

Newell’s work, however, goes beyond detailing everyday life at Mission San Francisco. By looking through the source material to uncover indigenous voices, and by incorporating ethnographic material into the work, she attempts to explain the motivations of indigenous people who entered California’s mission system. She postulates that many Native people chose baptism and mission life over continued residence in their traditional villages in order to enhance their spiritual power within their society and maintain the prestige of ever-weakening kinship networks. This interesting and thoughtful analysis lends new a perspective to the literature.

Constructing Lives at Mission San Francisco External linkis a well-researched, well-documented, well-written, and brilliantly indexed book that should become a classic in the field of ethnohistory. Newell’s unique talent for seeing evidence in a new light provides hope for the future of ethnohistory and her book creates a new standard with which to measure future ethnohistorical works.
Reviewed by Kelly K. Chaves, University of New Brunswick.

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