In this study Miller treats one of early California’s most interesting figures—Juan Alvarado. Although categorized as a biography, this book is better considered a concise résumé of the nineteenth-century history of California, an area that began the century as a remote colonial province of Spain’s widespread empire and wound up as a vigorous part of an expanded United States. Sandwiched in between was the hectic Mexican period, which concluded with the cession of California to the United States. Because Alvarado’s life spanned three sovereignties, his story has previously fallen between the cracks.
Miller’s picture of Alvarado is that of an unusual man caught in a strange series of problems that greatly conditioned his life. Because the protagonist became a friend and a source for the prolific amateur regional historians Hubert Howe Bancroft and Theodore H. Hittell, much of Alvarado’s participation was recorded, and favorably so, in his own version of events. His 1,250-page manuscript history is somewhat counterbalanced by other contemporary sources, which reveal Alvarado to have been an example of the very cultural and political change with which he was hard-pressed to cope.
By weight of documentary evidence, by his six-year period as governor, and by his association with important men and events of the time, he stands out. He is especially important because he played a key role in the disposition of Franciscan-controlled lands and in the final secularization of the California missions. Biographers frequently overemphasize their subject’s contributions while minimizing their weaknesses and mistakes. Miller is not a typical biographer and much of his book is the story of this neglected northwestern department of Mexico, with Alvarado as a skeletal framework for treatment of that turbulent period. Only the final two of the book’s eight chapters, those involving Alvarado’s legacy, can be considered biographically oriented. This is not a complaint, but rather an explanation.
At times Alvarado seems lost among events at which he was a bystander, while at other times he emerges as a central figure. Because biographical treatment often depends on personal papers and government documents, and because Alvarado for so long remained an important figure, albeit as an impoverished rancho owner, his life and contributions can be approached from various angles. He is viewed as a leading military figure, although his lack of combat experience is notable, leading to an implication of lack of bravery. He does fit nicely into the opéra-bouffe atmosphere of California’s almost bloodless revolutions and counterrevolutions. He is categorized as generous in making a very great number of the land grants that later plagued California. Alvarado, as a California patriot, was not happy with the successive Mexican regimes, but at the same time he opposed the efforts of foreign powers, especially the United States, to take over California. Notwithstanding, Alvarado liked Americans as individuals (with the notable exception of John C. Fremont).
Alvarado was characterized by contemporary observers as an able and dedicated public figure, and his increasing propensity for alcoholic beverages was almost universally overlooked or excused. His inability to manage both his own personal affairs and his lands contributed to a much reduced legacy that was left to his considerable progeny.
Although much of the book concerns familiar events, Miller does not unduly digress, and he keeps his focus. The final result is an objective view of a turbulent period and of one of its key figures, a balance that makes this a book well worth reading.