Raymond Starr, Book Review Editor
José Velasquez: Saga of a Borderland Soldier. By Ronald L. Ives. Tucson: Southwestern Mission Research Center, 1984. Bibliography. Illustrations. Maps. Index. 248 Pages. Price Unavailable.
Reviewed by Donald Chaput, curator of history at the Natural History Museum, Los Angeles, and a frequent writer on military, mining, and exploration history of the Southwest.
Ronald Ives was a prolific, well known Borderlands writer, and although he wrote hundreds of articles and reviews, this is his only book-length study. After his death the decision was made to publish the Velasquez saga; most of the organizational problems seem to have been caused by the publisher. For example, the bibliographic citations are incomplete or con-fusing, there is considerable repetition, and the publication deserved tightening up and a sharper focus.
But the result? A smashing success; a most useful work for anyone interested in the early history of the Californias and Arizona. Velásquez, a native of Sonora, was a minor figure, an alferez (an army rank under lieu-tenant). He is first noticed as part of the Loreto garrison in 1751 as a humble soldier. Through dedication, a modest amount of talent, and the ability to read and write, Velásquez became a sergeant in 1771, an alferez in 1783. He died at San Gabriel in 1785.
For almost four decades Velásquez saw service at such points as Loreto, San Fernando de Velicatá, and San Diego. He was a participant in, and sometimes a diarist for, such events as the aftermath of the Yuma massacre, the founding of Monterey, the settlement of San Diego, several exploring expeditions in northern Baja California, and the search for decent routes from San Diego to the Colorado.
By following Velásquez we learn much about the lower echelon military, as well as missionary-military relations, problems of settlement in a harsh land, the subtleties of Indian relations, and the difficulty of command so far from Mexico City. From the Velásquez and other contemporary accounts, Ives has created a narrative about a frontier soldier that provides new information, as well as insights not normally found in military history.
Velásquez was not a hero, but he handled himself well in touchy negotiations, in warfare, and on many expeditions. Ives points out that after the founding of Monterey, Velásquez carried the news on horseback, from Monterey to Todos Santos, over 1400 miles, in 49 days, in the heat of summer. This impresses even modern Californians.
Ives had a tendency to exaggeration, and a sense of humor that may grate on some readers. California was not just bad, it was anus mundi; Captain Rivera had “as much influence as a brass magnet”; the morals of soldiers would be “regarded as deficient even in Port Said.” Ives had a lifelong interest in topography, and this book has dozens of comments on mapping, directions, and questions of best-or-worst route. There are six appendices, a few of them gems, others of questionable value. The bibliography is solid, but it is evident that Ives completed the bulk of the work more than ten years ago.
In spite of some editorial problems, and even though Ives did not live to see this book through press, José Velásquez is a major contribution to the history of the Southwest, to military history, and towards a clearer understanding of Jesuit-Franciscan-Dominican relations in the early years of the Californians.