Tracking the Hispanic Roots of California


Harry Crosby, author, historian and photographer, has a mission--to give the Hispanic people of California a sense of their background.

“There were probably 1,500 Hispanic people in Baja California in the 18th Century, and today if you look in the phone book of San Diego, for example, you’ll see names of people whose roots can be traced to these pioneers,” Crosby said.

“There are 200,000 people in Alta California (present-day California) who are descended from 18th-Century Hispanic settlers. I want to provide a real story of their ancestors--who they were, where they came from, what they were up to.”


Crosby has written four books that concentrate on Baja California (and is working on his fifth); has traveled extensively on the peninsula by pack mule, camping and living with the mountain people, and has spent untold hours in archives from Mexico to those run by the Mormon Church, trying to piece together a forgotten, little-recorded period in history.

It may seem unlikely that this Seattle-born former chemistry teacher (he has taught at Memorial Junior High, Mission Bay High and La Jolla High, his alma mater) should be drawn to such a path. But then Crosby is a man of several interests, each of which he pursues in depth. He grows hundreds of hybrid orchids in a fully equipped greenhouse and has collected the church music of J.S. Bach for the last 30 years.

Crosby is proud of the creative successes of his own family. His son is a member of Ratt, a popular rock group. His wife, Joanne, is an accomplished watercolorist whose work has been exhibited. One daughter, Ristin, also a painter, did the murals over the entrance to the Agua Caliente race track in Tijuana and the mural at the Twin Dolphin Hotel in Cabo San Lucas.

To hear Crosby tell the story of his venture into 18th-Century California, it just happened naturally.

He worked as a commercial photographer for three years after retiring early from teaching, and some of his photographs drew enough attention that he was summoned by the Commission of the Californias to photograph and write about the mission road, El Camino Real, from Loreto to San Francisco. (The resulting book, “The Call to California,” was published in 1969 by Copley Press.)

Crosby had travelled some in Mexico, so the idea appealed to him. He imagined, however, that the historical road would be clearly discernible. He found out that was not the case; it often took complicated investigation to determine or discover the famous path. But with perseverance and experienced local guides, Crosby was able to track the trail, although in places it was only a two-yard-wide dirt path strewn with leaves, twigs and rocks.

For three months, Crosby along with Paul Ganster, now director of the Institute for Regional Studies of California at San Diego State University but then a graduate student at UCLA, traveled 600 miles in Baja California by mule, camping along the way. The two discovered more than the trail. They came across cave paintings set in cliff sides--giant panoramas not seen by modern man. And Crosby found that he was intrigued and also affected by the people he met along the way.

Highway Became Freeway

As he followed the trail into Alta California, he said, the experience became quite different. Wilderness guides were no longer necessary or appropriate. Most exploration was done by car or by walking. The King’s Highway was now part freeway--overcrowded, congested, paved over. Part of the trail goes through Vandenberg Air Force Base, and, in that area, Crosby did have an escort.

But it was the Baja California experience that stayed with him. “When I came back,” he said, “I was curious about the people I’d seen, and the cave paintings.”

Crosby tried to learn more by simply visiting the downtown library. “In those days I thought the California Room at the downtown library could answer my questions, satisfying my need for knowledge,” he said. “But I soon realized how little information about the region was available.”

For the next three years, from 1967 to 1970, Crosby did research at Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley, and at UCSD. After a while, though, he said, “I realized I wasn’t going to get my questions answered.”

The history of the Hispanic people in early California was fragmentary at best, he found.

‘Incomplete Representation’

“The history of California we were all taught in high school tells us about the missionaries and the Indians,” said Crosby, “but there were numerous Hispanic people who worked at or near the missions as soldiers, sailors, blacksmiths, cowboys, carpenters.” It is these individuals whose descendants constitute a sizable population in many California cities today.

“This whole business of seeing the first century of California as only a mission period is an incomplete representation.

“The Indians have to a great extent been absorbed into American society. Many lost their names. And most of the missions are long gone. The descendants of the Hispanics, though, make up a significant part of our society.

“This information is not a fairy story. In myths popular among today’s Hispanic Californians, they are descended from Spanish noblemen or a French princess. But I want people to realize they had family--that they had hard-working real ancestors doing what actual people had to do to make their lives on a difficult remote frontier--not just vapid fairy story people.”

When the archival research on which Crosby had embarked did not prove fruitful enough, “I started doing field work,” he said. “I went back to explore. I didn’t just ride through places. But I stayed longer, sometimes living in an area a week at a time.”

On this excursion, in the early ‘70s, Crosby not only photographed families and settings, natural and man-made, but also taped conversations. And out of this field research came “The Cave Paintings of Baja California” (1975) and some of the groundwork for “Last of the Californios” (1981).

“Then I came home to do the background part, the archival work.”

Now, from these earlier books, a new book is growing, with a more scholarly approach, he said.

In order to tell the story of the early Spaniards in Baja, Crosby is focusing on a man named Xavier Aquilar, who was born in 1743, during the mission period. Aquilar traveled with the Spanish explorer Portola to Monterey in 1769, had a hand in founding missions and presidios, and died in 1821, five days before Mexican independence.

Crosby was and is especially drawn to Aquilar. “I found letters to and from him, and was impressed with their matter-of-factness, their day-to-day trivia,” he said. “That kind of document is so rare. He wrote, for example, about two guys in a fight. He wrote about troubles in life, and always dealt with facts, not generalizations. And once I started collecting documents on and by him, I discovered he was everywhere.

“Also, he was a bit of a troublemaker, but he knew which side his bread was buttered on.

“And he lived a long time, too, and did wonderful things--like retiring three times. The last time he was in his 70s on a pension, but he felt his government needed him.” (He resumed his military duties during the Mexican Revolution.)

“When he finally retired, he was 76, and it was two years before his death. He was nearly blind and couldn’t hear. But,” said Crosby, “I can’t find out all I’d like to know. We have a record of his birth and then nothing for 25 years until he enlisted in the army.

“This whole period is lacking in documents. The mission records became sparse after 1800. People were poorly educated and wrote little. There are only very primitive records of those times.

“Two generations were lost between the close of the mission period and the inception of Mexican municipal records that got under way in the 1850s or ‘60s. Descendants weren’t left recorded thoughts about who these people were or where they came from. Oral history typically covers 150 years or less. It rarely goes back further than the great-grandparents of living people.”

So Crosby has become a kind of historical sleuth, poring over documents (not books) in libraries and records in Mexico City; Berkeley; La Paz, Mexico, and the Mormon Archives collecting bits of relevant information.

A payroll record of 1718, for example, gives information about each soldier’s marital status. A Notice of Nomination in 1731 offers information about the man proposed to represent the Inquisition in California. The payroll of a mine in 1768 lists the workers’ names, what they did, names of mule drivers and those who cut firewood.

Microfilm, Books

Crosby’s office in his La Jolla home is filled with a small library of books on California history. A computer and a microfilm reader wait nearby for his needs. (One reel of microfilm may take two or three days to scan.) He is collecting his research into large ledger-like books. One is of chronology, a sort of time line from 1730 to 1768.

“This book has every fact I can lay my hands on that is significant,” he said. He has sections on agriculture, alcohol, arms, climate, shipping, private property and social activities. Another file contains information about every person he has discovered in his search.

For example, there is the story of a hero, Fernando de Rivera, who was killed in 1781 while saving 80 colonists in Yuma. Rivera stayed with a small band to fight off 2,000 Indians, allowing colonists headed for Alta California to escape.

Another entry tells of the only known proxy wedding in California in the 18th Century.

Much of what Crosby is finding, he said, shows the “small world” nature of California.

Sources Spotty

“There were only a few hundred Hispanic people in the area at that time,” he said. “And they were much interrelated by marriage and godparenthood. I want to tell about specific people and incidents. There is no big picture.”

His major frustration, he said, is that the sources are spotty--"often I find one aspect of a person’s life and then nothing else.”

Crosby, a handsome, angular man of 60, leans back in his chair. “Some of the world I recorded in Baja California has already changed,” he said. “Roads have been built; the ranch world is changing. I’m glad to have captured and recorded what I did.”

Death, too, has taken its toll. Loreto Arce, whose family and ranch Crosby featured in “Last of the Californios,” has died. So has Tacho Arce, Crosby’s guide through most of his peninsula adventures.

But for Crosby, the search is on, and he is deep into his expedition, an exploration in the jungles of genealogy and ancient paper work. The excitement of discovery and connection with people whose lives have passed into the dust still continues. In compiling their names, their descriptions, their actions, Crosby is giving them a new spark of life.


“When I go to the Mormon Archive to do research, I see genealogists looking for one name in their family history,” he said. “But I look and see all kinds of things--cross-connections. It is the genealogy of a whole people, and it can be a lot more interesting than just your own family.”

Part of Crosby’s mission is, as he puts it, “to overcome the bad habit we all have of separating California into our California and their California. We think information has to be after the 18th Century and on our side of the border to be important. If it is below the border, and pre-19th Century, it’s seen as not important.

“But we are talking about an imaginary line that didn’t come into being until recently. I want to overcome that.

“The whole of California was a unit, an entity, in the 18th Century. There is a continuity of history which starts south and comes north.

“I wrote about California’s first millionaire, Manuel de Ocio, who lived 1700 to 1771. But the minute people find out he lived south of the (what is now the border), they lose interest. But Baja California is a later concept that didn’t exist at that time.”

‘A Real Pioneer’

Ken Hedges, curator of ethnology and archeology at the Museum of Man, says of Crosby: “His books are personal narratives which grab you up and carry you through the experience. They introduce you to the country and the people, and he’s given good credit to the ranches he has written about. His book on rock art is the Baja California bible for people interested in that.

“It took the work of one dedicated photographer-explorer to reveal the extent of the peninsula’s painted rock shelters. He’s a real pioneer. He’s done more than any single person to make that area known.”

Therese Muranaka, an archeologist who has done work recently in Baja California, says, “He has outstripped any avocational historian/archeologist. He is a professional.

“Many archeologists and historians stop at the border. But he has crossed the border confidently and made good friends of the residents of Mexico and Baja. He shows common courtesy toward the people of Baja. And this is not necessarily common for tourists or for scholars. He treats the people with respect and is doing scholarly work, and he is a thoroughly pleasant individual who is even willing to share his information. If he can help, he will.”

The sheer volume of data Crosby has accumulated and put in order is a major work in itself. “Someday, when I’m through with this, I’ll donate it to the San Diego Historical Society or to the UCSD Baja collection,” he said.

“I got into all of this because there was an opportunity to discover something. It’s not a new field, but something was bypassed. It’s just that no one thought it was worthwhile to write up the community of Hispanic people in California in the 18th Century.

“I simply want to be among those setting the record straight.”

Originally, California’s Hispanic people were selected as servants for the Jesuit missionaries; they were not a random group of volunteer colonists in a new land. In isolated California, they were little exposed to the changing styles and practices found in larger centers closer to the mother culture. . . . Since their area offered no opportunities for great or profitable land holdings, no haciendas were developed, as they were in most other parts of New Spain. As a result, there were no grandees and no peons; their class system did not encompass that great gulf between master and man. By the time Mexico had liberated itself from Spain, most Californios occupied what we would call “lower middle class”; they were poor but independent, a combination not common elsewhere in their new nation.

From “The Last of the Californios” 1981 by Harry W. Crosby, Published by Copley Books