Albert L. Hurtado. Intimate Frontiers: Sex, Gender, and Culture in Old California. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1999. xxix + + 173 pp. $39.95 (cloth), ISBN 0-8263-1953-X $17.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8263-1954-8.
Reviewed by Anne Marie Woo-Sam (Stanford University, Introduction to the Humanities Program)
Published on H-California (October, 1999)
Intimate Frontiers is an engaging survey of the intersection of sex, gender, and culture to Old California. In this book aimed at the general reader, Albert Hurtado explores the interaction of Native American, Hispanic, Anglo-American, and Chinese residents of the state. Hurtado does so by focusing on the heterosexual activities that determined the relationship between men and women and diverse cultures and led to family formation. The nature of these unions, Hurtado argues, were significant because they decided who would control California.
As part of the Histories of the American Frontier Series, Intimate Frontiers draws on an intermixture of secondary sources, personal papers and primary sources to offer innovative interpretations of characters and events familiar to scholars of Old California. The Donner Party, Olive Oatman and Dame Shirley are reinterpreted. Hurtado also makes substantial use of the interpretative frameworks offered by Foucault's History of Sexuality, Ramon Gutierrez's When Jesus Came, The Corn Mothers Went Away, Estelle B. Freedman and John B. D'Emilio's Intimate Matters, and Richard Slotkin's Fatal Environment, among others, to reinterpret the past in a way that highlights the influence of ideas about sex, culture and gender on California's frontier society. The book surveys the influence of these ideas from the pre-contact period through Spanish and Mexican rule to the arrival of Anglo-Americans and other immigrants during the Gold Rush era.
Three themes figure prominently in Intimate Frontiers. The first is the alternative past lost in the failure of the multicultural experiment possible in a highly cosmopolitan Old California. In his introduction to Intimate Frontiers, Hurtado suggests that one of the biological consequences of multicultural contact was the formation of links between families and outside groups that should have promoted mutual understanding between cultures. The "should have" is crucial in this sentence. Much of Intimate Frontiers retreats from this positive attitude to offer evidence of the "unfair exchange" involved in these interactions and the limited possibilities of multicultural unions in the context of nineteenth-century racial thought.
Second, throughout his work, Hurtado also makes it clear that patriarchy was privileged in Hispanic, Mexican, and American societies. Women "were a minority in frontier populations and were politically powerless." Laws regarding divorce, rape, prostitution and abortion prescribed the legal limits to their control of their own bodies (p. xxiii). While under Spanish and Mexican civil law women had rights to wages and property their rights were not significantly greater than Anglo women (p. xxiii). To describe the societies that emerged under these conditions, Hurtado elaborates on the status of women under these various regimes. Third, Hurtado suggests that sex, gender and culture in Old California are very much about power. Hurtado draws upon Foucault to discuss the contributions of the state, the church, and science in public discourses about sexuality to sustain the state and its structures of power. He argues that "sex within marriage [was important because it] produced legitimate children who were most likely to contribute to the economy, pay taxes, staff the military, and support the state" and illustrates his point most poignantly on the efforts of Spanish missionary efforts to control Native Americans (p. xxiv). The clash between Native American ideas about sexuality: an acceptance of polygamy, divorce, arranged marriages and the practice of the bride price, with the traditions of the Catholic church, are well illustrated. Hurtado shows how the churches' prohibition of premarital sex and faithlessness, its emphasis on monogamy and its imposition of obstacles to divorce created conflict and misunderstanding between the two groups. At the same time, however, Hurtado makes clear the Spanish interest in and belief in the possibility of the conversion of Native Americans to their own ideals. His most telling example is Father Serra's provision of subsidies for mixed Native American and Spanish couples in order to promote the church's power (pp. 3-4, 6).
Intimate Frontiers proceeds chronologically to detail the impact of ideas about sex, gender and culture on Old California. Hurtado's discussion of Native American traditions is followed by a look at the interaction between the Spanish church and Native Americans and Spanish soldiers and Native Americans. In agreement with the literature, Hurtado notes both the church's interest in multicultural unions as a means of extending their spiritual influence and the number of subjects for the Crown and the problem of forcing soldiers to live up to the church's injunctions, especially in relation to Native Americans. Hurtado follows this section with a discussion of Mexican era marriages between European Americans and the Californio elite and between members of the Californio elite where he emphasizes the dominance of patriarchal ideas (pp. 24-27). Then Hurtado turns to an exploration of the interaction of Americans, Native Americans and Chinese immigrants and Mexican immigrants during the Gold Rush era to round out the story. He ends with a discussion of the story of Amelia Kuchinsky, an immigrant servant, whose story points to the limits certain women faced during the American period when their whiteness was called into question by their class position.
Intimate Frontiers is a clearly written narrative that synthesizes a vast amount of material by drawing on representative moments and personalities to make its points. These qualities make it a good potential choice for a lower-division class on California or the West. Its footnotes and bibliography, reflecting the pioneering nature of the work, are not extensive. At the same time, however, Intimate Frontiers raises good questions and offers a sound starting point for much research.
The first area of research might be a closer examination of the extent to which multicultural unions in California promoted mutual understanding. Hurtado's example of the marriages between Anglo traders and the Californio elite offer a bright picture; his other pairings seem might be the subject of more investigation. Despite Father Serra's efforts to promote interracial unions, Hurtado notes later that inter-racial marriages between Spanish and Mexican residents and Native Americans made up no more than 4.4 percent of all marriages between 1770 and 1854, hardly a significant enough number to promote mutual understanding between the two cultures. The evidence for multicultural understanding is limited in the following eras as well. Hurtado notes that racial insults like "squaw-man" and "half-breed" were hurled at the members of mixed Anglo families and that their marriages were often more alliances of convenience constituted to produce friends, laborers, and allies than love matches. Discussing Olive Oatman, a captive of two Native American tribes, Hurtado also notes that the border crossing that occured in California, rather than facilitating understanding, allowed immigrants to "pause", "take stock" and "confirm" their own identity (pp. 25, 41-42, 46). During the American period, Hurtado finds that "outcast women-especially Indians and Chinese-bore the mark of color and exotic cultures. Men who extravagantly praised the supposed worth to California society of bourgeois white women and defended their virtue paid scant attention to the lot of a poor Indian woman" (p. 132). If women of color were seen as "racially inferior" and thus "acceptable only for transient sexual gratification" it is highly doubtful that such liasions created greater understanding (p. 87). It can be assumed that very little respect resulted from such encounters. Hurtado's conclusion reinforces this theme when he states that "each newcomer transformed California the exotic into California the familiar" (p. 133). In other words from the evidence presented, we can assume that it was only when exotic women were replaced by white women that families could be established; men made families only with women who were familiar, ensuring that the control of Old California resided in Anglo families. Inter-racial marriages remained the exception rather than the norm. "In the end, the frontiers of the heart and mind reinforced California's frontiers of difference, no matter how strong ran the currents of passion, longing, and desire" (p. 141). Additional investigation could confirm this perspective or add a different perspective.
On a political level, the case for sexual relationships reducing racial friction and violence in California should be examined in a broader historical context. California's frontier era coincided with the national debate over slavery and ideas about African Americans place in society were taken and applied to California in part. Native Americans and Asian Americans joined African Americans in a subordinate position before the law which hardly promoted the softening influence of interactions between these groups and the dominant society. Like African-Americans these two groups became invisible in courts where they were prohibited from testifying against Anglo-Americans. The same hostility towards miscegenation that had motivated even the champions of abolition to call for the colonization of African Americans once freed, led to anti-miscegenation statutes in California targeting Asian-Americans beginning in the 1880s. These statutes were not repealed until the California Supreme Court declared them unconstitutional in 1948. The Page Law, the first law restricting the immigration of Chinese, was aimed at Chinese prostitutes. Chinese women, in this case could hardly be expected to become vehicles of understanding. School segregation, often seen as a means to prevent inter-racial marriage, was as prominent issue in the West. The existence of precedents to these laws might be explored.
The political consequences of a particular type of family formation or the lack of family formation might also be examined more closely. The unbalanced sex ratio characteristic of all of these periods may have contributed to lawlessness and the failure to use political remedies rather than extra-legal vigilante measures to control California society. Phillip Ethington's Public City, for example, suggests that the most important predictor of a man's likelihood to participate in public life and to vote was not their economic status, but rather whether they were married or not. The lack of family formation then, might be seen as contributing to vigilantism rather than an interest in seeking remedies through the political process.
In addition, the categories that Hurtado uses might also be scrutinized. In Intimate Frontiers Hurtado posits one set of rules for women of color and another for white women. Yet, late eighteenth-century and early nineteenth-century racial thought posited a complicated hierarchy of races under which certain multicultural alliances were privileged. For example, Ronald Takaki notes that Revolutionary era thinkers like Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Rush were believers in the possibility of absorbing Native-Americans into Anglo culture through inter-marriage, especially as the numbers of Native Americans dwindled. Jefferson, despite rumors of his liaison with his slave Sally Hemings, was violently opposed to inter-marriage with African-Americans. If, as Takaki notes Chinese were "negroized" in popular culture, then there is a possibility that marriage between Native Americans and whites and Chinese-Americans and whites had different levels of acceptance in Old California.
A comparison with the works of Foucault, D'Emilio and Freedman suggests even more possibilities if the issue of sexuality was explored in more depth. Future scholars might explore how ideas about the relationship between parents and children, teachers and pupils, masters and servants and physicians and their clients changed or clashed during these periods. They might look at how institutions like architecture reflected the ideas of each group about sex, gender and culture. Or they might investigate the role that homosexuality played in each of these societies. In this last case, Native American berdaches, individuals who were considered neither men nor a women and were prized for their spiritual power, might receive more attention.
Overall, Intimate Frontiers, is a compelling book that raises good questions in reflecting upon the problems that prevented a multicultural California from developing. As a story about sex, gender, and culture in California it offers a good synthesis of the material and suggests many trails which have to be blazed in order to create a fuller understanding of how California's society was shaped by such ideas and how these ideas in turn produced certain relations of power.
. Michel Foucault, History of Sexuality, Volume 1 (New York: Vintage Books, 1990); John D'Emilio and Estelle Freedman, Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America (New York: Harper & Row, 1988); Ramon Gutierez, When Jesus Came the Corn Mothers Went Away: Marriage, Sexuality, and Power in New Mexico, 1500-1846 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1991); and Richard Slokin, The Fatal Environment: The Myth of the Frontier in the Age of Industrialization, 1800-1890 (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1985). Gutierrez's work significantly established the precedent for an extensive application of the literature on the role of marriage in structuring inequality to the American West.
. In part, Intimate Frontiers is the culmination of Hurtado's efforts to look at this idea in comparative context. Hurtado's earlier "When Strangers Met: Sex and Gender on Three Frontiers" explores the way in which the cosmopolitan Western frontier of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries led both to misunderstanding and mistrust and to close association between Hispanos, Anglos and Indians. In this forceful and highly engaging article, Hurtado argues that sexual relationships "may have partially caused the weakening of racial friction and violence that prevailed in the frontier" and illustrates three possibilities using the comparative frontiers approach. See Albert L. Hurtado, "When Strangers Met: Sex and Gender on Three Frontiers," Frontiers 17, 3 (September-December 1996): 52 and Albert L. Hurtado, "Sex, Gender, Culture, and a Great Event: The California Gold Rush," Pacific Historical Review 68, 1 (February 1999), and Hurtado, Intimate Frontiers, xxiii.
. Sucheng Chan, Asian Americans: An Interpretive History (Boston: Twayne, 1991), 59-61.
. Philip J. Ethington, The Public City: The Political Construction of Urban Life in San Francisco, 1850-1900 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994).
. Ronald Takaki, Iron Cages: Race and Culture in Nineteenth-century America (New York: Knopf, 1979).
. See Douglas Monroy, "The Creation and Re-creation of Californio Society," 173-195 in Contested Eden: California before the Gold Rush (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), edited by Ramon Gutierrez and Richard Orsi, especially pp.186-187 on the way in which architecture reflected gender relations and was used to defend the honor of Native American and California women.
Copyright (c) 1999 by H-Net, all rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational use if proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact H-Net@h-net.msu.edu.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-california.
Anne Marie Woo-Sam. Review of Hurtado, Albert L., Intimate Frontiers: Sex, Gender, and Culture in Old California.
H-California, H-Net Reviews.
Copyright © 1999 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits the redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit, educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online. For any other proposed use, contact the Reviews editorial staff at email@example.com.