Gringo Gazette Review, October 2013

By Jeannine Perez, Owner El Caballo Blanco book store

Baja Legends, the Historic Characters, Events, and Locations That Put Baja California on the Map, by Greg Niemann.  Sunbelt Publishing Company, San Diego, California. 2002. 3rd Printing 2009. 260 pp.$17.95.

This very readable and popular book has something to interest everyone!   It combines history, ancient and modern legends with countless anecdotes of Baja’s craziest and most interesting characters.  Written after much research and many interviews, each bit of information becomes a quickly read vignette.  No matter what subject is of interest, you’ll likely find it here; pirates, descriptions of Baja’s hotels and resorts, rumors and gossip, mysterious ancient art, villains and angels…. even Steve McQueen’s quest for a Baja cure for cancer….it’s all here.

Baja Legends, and articles written in Baja periodicals, are written by Greg Niemann (born in 1939, and currently living in California and Cantamar Baja).  He’s also an interesting character, and one of the most popular author/signers visiting our bookstore.  Having traveled Baja for more than fifty years, his book is full of information and surprises.  The introduction explains the importance and uses of these legends, and also history of our peninsular, from ancient beginnings to the colonization of upper and lower California in Mexico and the U. S. (he also describes earlier attempts at colonization that failed miserably).  Currently he sees a  growing importance of Baja to both countries.  It covers all happenings, past and present of Baja, from Tijuana to El Rosario, and south to the Cape, and is dedicated in part, to the Flying Doctors/Samaritans. Nine old or current maps are dispersed throughout the text.  He begins his saga by describing Baja as 800 miles of desert, a narrow land mass between the Sea of Cortez and the Pacific Ocean.

I’m fascinated by Baja’s unique Cave Art, and so it was the first section I read. It’s accompanied by photos, maps and drawings. I knew that Erle Stanley Gardner (author of the Perry Mason books) and Harry Crosby (the Cave Painting Book), have done the most research on these ancient paintings (said to be the finest in the Western hemisphere), but never realized they were virtually unknown to the outside world until the last fifty years.  Niemann ends this section by telling us we can ignore the Louvre and other famous museums and art galleries, because, “…the cave paintings of Baja are wonderfully displayed in nature’s own magnificent art gallery , the Museums of the Mountains.”  I agree.

The mountain oasis of San Javier and its history is covered with more detail than I’ve read before. Niemann tells us the story of one of the first padres; Padre Juan de Ugarte, called ‘the Paul Bunyan of Baja’. He relates the innovations Ugarte made and reasons why he’s considered the most productive of the padres, and also a tale of how he swayed hostile natives with brute strength and daring. I’ll leave that story for you to discover on your own (pages 24-29).  .

Loreto, celebrating three hundred years of Baja existence in 1997, is noted for being birthplace of California and of course, it also holds the first mission built (completed in 1704),  in all the Californias, and the first permanent settlement from Europe to Baja. Our Loreto Mission has been almost destroyed by hurricanes and an earthquake, and Niemann also describes the “luck of the padre” winning the national lottery of 500,000 pesos which he used to restore the mission. Loreto has its own unique history. The author describes our Hotel Oasis (begun in 1963 and still called ‘fisherman's paradise’), a blend of seaside beaches and tropical gardens. Two families (Benziger and Davis) built the original two rooms (there are now forty rooms).

In La Paz and perlas (pearls); we learn bits of information about the famous black pearls harvested until 1874 by free diving, which  drew the interest of pirates and padres, and influenced Steinbeck’s classic book The Pearl.  Pearls were harvested in that area for more than four hundred years, before oyster fields were ruined by over-harvesting and an oyster killing virus.

Baja is one of the world’s youngest tourist destinations.  Niemann writes many pages about the East Cape, and Los Cabos.   Hollywood friends, including John Wayne, Errol Flynn, and Bing Crosby were influenced to visit the Baja in the 1950s by a cinematographer Gil Powell (related to actor William Powell), and entertained on his Rancho Leonero in Cabo.   That ranch soon became the ‘in-place’ for relaxation and good fishing to these Hollywood stars. The first commercial air in 1975, and the area chosen in 1978 by Fonatur for tourist development, meant our young peninsular (as mountains and terrain go), was rediscovered;  this time for great fishing, fine beaches, otherworld scenery, rather than gold, silver, and pearls.

Several sections contain pirate tales.  Pirates are romanticized in children’s books, songs, operas, and of course in the "Talk like a Pirate Day". Say the word "pirates",  and I visualize Johnny Depp! However, reality wasn’t that handsome, sweet-smelling, or romantic, and it’s doubtful you’d really want to take a pirate home with you for dinner!  Baja attracted pirates from many countries, and was vital as ships stopped there for water and food following sea routes around the cape to the Philippines and then to the Orient. Big Spanish galleons loaded with treasures sailed back  around the Cape, from Asia to Acapulco.  And for many years, pirates hid and waited for them. The Spanish following the sea route had worked up a good trade, of cocoa, cochineal, and copper for silks, ivory, jade, china, pearls, gold, diamonds and other jewels, and in 1565, pirates started looting their ships. Soon after, encouraged by their queen, English pirates took up the challenge.  Dutch pirates joined in attacking the Spanish ships, and Chilean Bay (between Cabo san Lucas and San Jose de Cabo became the place for Chilean pirates.  It’s rumored, there’s treasure still buried there.  Some of the more famous pirates were Sir Francis Drake (called Scourge of God) and Thomas Cavendish (who claimed to have burned 119 ships and bragged about his many other heinous crimes).  Of course, there was also Pichilingue, the insulting name given Dutch pirates by the Spanish.  Today a ferry goes by the name of those pirates who hid and attacked Spanish ships from bays, hidden coves, and shelters.

The final pages of Baja Legends offer the author’s view of the legacy of people in Baja, beginning with the unknowns (including the Painters), natives found here by the first padres, and Europeans who influenced the primitive cultures already present.  The six page bibliography at the end is of great value to anyone seeking to do even more of a search for history of the Baja.

This is a book to read, and reread, and each time the reader will discover another story or legend to ponder and explore.   I don’t have words enough left to mention rattleless rattlesnakes, green angels, open door prisons, and alien boojums. Read about them all in Baja Legends.

Baja Legends, by Greg Niemann.  Sunbelt Publishing Company, San Diego, California. 2002. 260 pp.$17.95, is available at El Caballo Blanco Bookstore in Loreto, BCS.



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