Book Review Herbert Eugene Bolton: Historian of the American Borderlands

Reviewed by Ronald D. Quinn

Most people interested in Juan Bautista de Anza know the work Herbert Eugene Bolton, California historian from the first half of the 20th Century. In 1930, he published Anza’s California Expeditions, four volumes of diaries and letters plus a fifth volume, which placed the events surrounding both of Anza’s California trips into a broad historical context.  These five books have been a touchstone for understanding Anza’s journeys to Alta California ever since.

Historian Albert L. Hurtado has written a vivid and comprehensive biography of Dr. Bolton, tracing his life from a Midwestern farm to becoming the most prominent Southwestern historian of his time. People interested in Juan Bautista de Anza and other early explorers of the Spanish Borderlands of the United States should enjoy learning more about Bolton, and how it was that he came to lay down the foundation for much of what we know about this era. Although we understand more about Anza now than we did three-quarters of a century ago, and historical perspectives change with the times, Bolton’s meticulous work, taken from primary sources, will always be valuable. The general reader will probably be interested in how energy and ambition carried a rural farm boy to the pinnacle of his chosen profession.

Dr. Hurtado reveals the whole man, portraying Bolton’s character as well as his
accomplishments. In particular, Bolton’s life long correspondence with his brother reveals the aspirations and disappointments that colored his busy life. Bolton very much enjoyed his extensive and thorough field studies, where he meticulously traced and mapped details of Anza routes and those of many other Spanish explorers. He had a vision of the Americas, including the United States, as being shaped by a galaxy of cultural, geographical and economic forces that are common to the Western Hemisphere. These he believed originated from all of the major European colonial nations, and in the case of the United States not just from Great Britain. He invented the term Spanish Borderlands to emphasize that Spain played an important role in molding the United States, particularly in the American Southwest, Texas, and Florida, former pieces of the Spanish Empire.

Dr. Bolton spent most of his career at the University of California, Berkeley, where as History Department Chair and educator of future historians he had an enormous influence over the way the history of the Spanish Borderlands was researched and taught in the western United States. The main secret of his success was steady, unrelenting hard work. He had a natural affability, patience, and the ability to read and effectively navigate the shifting winds of academic politics. He was Director of the Bancroft Library at the University of California, which contains one of the greatest collections of Spanish colonial documents in the world. This is the treasure trove he mined and refined for five decades of publications about the Spanish Borderlands. He became the best known historian in California, consulted by newspapers as well as academics, feted with honors from numerous other universities, the Roman Catholic Church, Mexico, and Spain. In addition to Anza, he wrote with equal passion and detail about explorers Coronado, Kino, Garcés, Crespí, and Dominguez-Escalante. Between 1900 and his death in 1953 he published 26 books, 4 textbooks, and more than 100 historical articles. He managed this by routinely working 12 hours a day, 7 days a week. He also mentored more than 400 graduate students, a quarter of whom earned doctorates. All this he did while teaching classes, attending to other academic duties, and with a wife and five children at home. He did much of his research and writing evenings and weekends in the Bancroft Library, where while sitting at his desk at age 82, he experienced the first of a series of strokes that ended his life.

Herbert Eugene Bolton: Historian of the American Borderlands. Albert L. Hurtado.
370 p. University of California Press, Berkeley, California, 2012. ISBN 978-0-520-27216-3 (cloth).