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A generation after the U.S. conquest of California, Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo set out to write the story of the land he knew so well. He aimed to dispel the romantic vision that wasbeginning to dominate the interpretation of the state’s history before the American conquest. To this end he spent more than a year and a half composing a five-volume history, which he titled Recuerdos. It is the most complete account of California before the gold rush written by someone who resided in California at the time. Rose Marie Beebe and Robert M. Senkewicz have translated Vallejo’s Recuerdos and after almost 150 years, it now has been published. Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo (1807–90) grew up in Spanish California, became a leading military and political figure in Mexican California, and participated in some of the founding events of U.S. California, such as the Monterey Constitutional Convention and the first legislature. Like many Mexican Californios he lost most of his land to squatter occupation and expensive legal proceedings during the first few decades of American rule. With his history project, undertaken in conjunction with historian and publisher Hubert Howe Bancroft, Vallejo sought to correct misrepresentations of California’s past, which dismissed as insignificant the pre–gold rush Spanish and Mexican periods, and conflated them into one “Mission era.” He sought to convince the new rulers of the land in which he had been born that the Mexican people, whom they generally disdained, had laid the indispensable foundation for the California in which they were now all living.
Vallejo’s history emphasized the role of the military and settlers in the Spanish colonization of California and argued that the missionaries after Junípero Serra, with their medieval ideas, had actually slowed down the development of California until secularization in the early 1830s. Culture, he contended, was of intense interest to the Californio people, as was the education of children. His accounts of Indigenous peoples, while often sympathetic, were also characteristic of his time. Vallejo maintained that he and other California military leaders had successfully subdued “hostile” Indians and established mutually beneficial relationships with others.
Out of keeping with Bancroft’s American triumphalism, Vallejo’s monumental project was consigned to the archives. With their deft translation and commentary, Beebe and Senkewicz—authors of a companion volume on Vallejo’s work—have brought to light a remarkable perspective, often firsthand, on important events in early California history. Their efforts restore a critical chapter to the story of California and the American West