Pacific Views: Early California Population Project

I think about #VastEarlyAmerica a lot, and I’ve returned many times to Steve Hackel’s work on early California.  When Steve’s book, Children of Coyote, Missionaries of St. Francis:  Indian-Spanish Relations in Colonial California, 1769-1850 was published in 2004, among Omohundro Institute books only James Brooks’s 2002 Captives and Cousins:  Slavery, Kinship and Community in the Southwest Borderlands had ventured west of the Mississippi.  Of course the scholarship of Juliana Bar, Ned Blackhawk, Elizabeth Fenn, Pakka Häcmäläinen, Paul Mapp and many others, as well as James and Steve’s ongoing work and recent books, means that the geographical myopia of east coast-ism is pretty indefensible.  My own work focuses on British America, and I wouldn’t ever say that British America is unimportant–it’s quite important.  It’s just that it exists –must self-consciously exist–within a much broader early American framework.

Steve was also been long involved in developing an important digital project with the Huntington Library (with support from the NEH, EMSI and others), the Early California Population Project.  The ECPP “provides public access to all the information contained in California’s historic mission registers, records that are of unique and vital importance to the study of California, the American Southwest, and colonial America.”   The search protocols are complex and the interface reflects the early design of this digital project, but the material is incredibly rich.  The project database has records for  “more than 101,000 baptisms, 27,000 marriages, and 71,000 burials performed in California between 1769 and 1850. No other region of colonial America that became part of the United States has a database of such an extensive set of vital records.”

It was great to see the project as a key evidentiary base for a recent essay by Erika Pérez on “Family, Spiritual Kinship, and Social Hierarchy in Early California” (in a great new issue of Early American Studies edited by Brian Connolly and Dawn Peterson that I recommend highly and will muse about in another post).

Here’s the abstract for Pérez’s article:

The study of kinship offers a rich opportunity for historians of early America to examine impositions of colonial power, subtle acts of resistance, and cultural adaptations evident in quotidian encounters between indigenous peoples and European American colonists. In Spanish and Mexican Alta California, colonial implementation of compadrazgo (Catholic godparentage) and the use of family metaphors, as well as the presence of Christian Indian auxiliaries from previously colonized regions, reveal colonial social hierarchies and evolving constructions of race, ethnicity, and class. While colonists and indigenous Californians both invested significant meaning in consanguineal and affective bonds, including spiritual kinship, Native peoples struggled to preserve and express precontact family values that included more fluid practices in marriage. Spanish-Mexican settlers and Franciscan missionaries attempted to impose a kinship system that would further goals of conquest and acculturate indigenous peoples by eradicating such fluidity. Spanish Mexican settlers, however, also exhibited an expansive understanding of kinship and family obligations, invoking them to function as a social safety net, as needed, and incorporating newcomers into existing networks. Thus, kinship is a useful measure of social relations and economic conditions and helpful for unraveling the scope and limitations of colonial rule in Alta California.

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