The Journal of San Diego History
Winter 1985, Volume 31, Number 1
Thomas L. Scharf, Editor

Book Review

Raymond Starr, Book Review Editor

Water in the Hispanic Southwest A Social and Legal History 1550-1850. By Michael C. Meyer. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 1984. Preface. Bibliography. Illustrations. Maps. Index. 119 Pages.

Reviewed by Lawrence B. Lee, Professor Emeritus, San Jose State University, author of Kansas and the Homestead Act (1979) and Reclaiming the American West (1980).

The author, a distinguished Hispanic-American scholar and director of the University of Arizona’s Latin American Center, developed his authoritative knowledge and enthusiasm for environmental history as an expert in water rights litigation involving Spanish colonial water law. His purpose in composing this attractive and informative volume is to describe the role of water in shaping the institutions of a discrete region he calls the Hispanic Southwest. This vast arid region-including the Northern Frontier of New Spain and, after independence, portions of Mexico and the future states of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California-became the setting for a clash of cultures between 1550 and 1850. The author concludes the real acculturation did not take place here as it had in the Valley of Mexico and Yucatan. The principal reason for this was the arid environment’s effect on the merging society, a process the author depicts with the term, enculturation. Both Spanish and native populations were caught in the same struggle for survival in their dependency on water and always at great risk in “this delicate desert ecosystem.” They never did mitigate nature’s backlash which came in the guise of floods and prolonged droughts.

Another conflict, one between races, also occurred in this domain. It did not take the dominant race long to realize that institutions to control the distribution of water served also as a means of social control. The Spanish institutions of the mission, the pueblo, the presidio, and the mine and hacienda led to the concentration of Indian populations and their reliance on the superior water works and Spanish system of granting water rights. Conflicts over water were exacerbated because of new agricultural crops and practices introduced by the conquerors and the extensive demands on water sources by their mines and gristmills. The reader will profit exceedingly from the author’s detailed explication of the special relationship between land grants and accompanying water rights and systems for acquiring water rights and their adjudication. The evidence presented from the working out of actual court cases and the administrative decisions demonstrates how the privatization (the author’s term) of water grants discriminated against Indians. Still the Indians received a surprisingly balanced treatment from the judges and magistrates who enforced the precepts of the Spanish code called the Recopilación (1681) or handed down court decisions whose purport was protection of the Indians.

This study plows new ground with its examination of Spanish colonial water law, as prior research dealt with land policy and concentrated on the heartland of New Spain. Valuable is the exposition of the sources of this water law as well as the running commentary on the types of water grants. The work will appeal to the general reader as well as the expert. Perhaps the author might have pointed out meaningful contrasts between Spanish colonial practices and Anglo-American water law where the two institutional forms blended in the American southwestern states.