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Tracking the Hispanic Roots of California

April 12, 1987|KAREN KENYON

SAN DIEGO — Harry Crosby, author, historian and photographer, has a mission--to give the Hispanic people of California a sense of their background.

"There were probably 1,500 Hispanic people in Baja California in the 18th Century, and today if you look in the phone book of San Diego, for example, you'll see names of people whose roots can be traced to these pioneers," Crosby said.

"There are 200,000 people in Alta California (present-day California) who are descended from 18th-Century Hispanic settlers. I want to provide a real story of their ancestors--who they were, where they came from, what they were up to."

Crosby has written four books that concentrate on Baja California (and is working on his fifth); has traveled extensively on the peninsula by pack mule, camping and living with the mountain people, and has spent untold hours in archives from Mexico to those run by the Mormon Church, trying to piece together a forgotten, little-recorded period in history.

It may seem unlikely that this Seattle-born former chemistry teacher (he has taught at Memorial Junior High, Mission Bay High and La Jolla High, his alma mater) should be drawn to such a path. But then Crosby is a man of several interests, each of which he pursues in depth. He grows hundreds of hybrid orchids in a fully equipped greenhouse and has collected the church music of J.S. Bach for the last 30 years.

Crosby is proud of the creative successes of his own family. His son is a member of Ratt, a popular rock group. His wife, Joanne, is an accomplished watercolorist whose work has been exhibited. One daughter, Ristin, also a painter, did the murals over the entrance to the Agua Caliente race track in Tijuana and the mural at the Twin Dolphin Hotel in Cabo San Lucas.

To hear Crosby tell the story of his venture into 18th-Century California, it just happened naturally.

He worked as a commercial photographer for three years after retiring early from teaching, and some of his photographs drew enough attention that he was summoned by the Commission of the Californias to photograph and write about the mission road, El Camino Real, from Loreto to San Francisco. (The resulting book, "The Call to California," was published in 1969 by Copley Press.)

Crosby had travelled some in Mexico, so the idea appealed to him. He imagined, however, that the historical road would be clearly discernible. He found out that was not the case; it often took complicated investigation to determine or discover the famous path. But with perseverance and experienced local guides, Crosby was able to track the trail, although in places it was only a two-yard-wide dirt path strewn with leaves, twigs and rocks.

For three months, Crosby along with Paul Ganster, now director of the Institute for Regional Studies of California at San Diego State University but then a graduate student at UCLA, traveled 600 miles in Baja California by mule, camping along the way. The two discovered more than the trail. They came across cave paintings set in cliff sides--giant panoramas not seen by modern man. And Crosby found that he was intrigued and also affected by the people he met along the way.

Highway Became Freeway

As he followed the trail into Alta California, he said, the experience became quite different. Wilderness guides were no longer necessary or appropriate. Most exploration was done by car or by walking. The King's Highway was now part freeway--overcrowded, congested, paved over. Part of the trail goes through Vandenberg Air Force Base, and, in that area, Crosby did have an escort.

But it was the Baja California experience that stayed with him. "When I came back," he said, "I was curious about the people I'd seen, and the cave paintings."

Crosby tried to learn more by simply visiting the downtown library. "In those days I thought the California Room at the downtown library could answer my questions, satisfying my need for knowledge," he said. "But I soon realized how little information about the region was available."

For the next three years, from 1967 to 1970, Crosby did research at Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley, and at UCSD. After a while, though, he said, "I realized I wasn't going to get my questions answered."

The history of the Hispanic people in early California was fragmentary at best, he found.

'Incomplete Representation'

"The history of California we were all taught in high school tells us about the missionaries and the Indians," said Crosby, "but there were numerous Hispanic people who worked at or near the missions as soldiers, sailors, blacksmiths, cowboys, carpenters." It is these individuals whose descendants constitute a sizable population in many California cities today.

"This whole business of seeing the first century of California as only a mission period is an incomplete representation.

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