Iris Engstrand is an esteemed historian known for her work in defining and exploring the history of Spanish exploration and colonization of California and the American Southwest during the 1700s. She is the author of 21 books on Spain, California, and the American West, and has been extensively published, with dozens of book chapters, papers, and articles, including the Bolton Award-winning “Of Fish and Men: Spanish Marine Science during the Late Eighteenth Century” in 2000. Dr. Engstrand is considered an authority on many of the cultural and technological innovations of the period, and her books, including “San Diego: California’s Cornerstone” and “Spanish Scientists in the New World: The Eighteenth-Century Expeditions,” are widely regarded as groundbreaking cross-disciplinary analyses of a unique region and period in Spanish-American history.
Dr. Engstrand’s fascination with history began as a child. Born in Los Angeles and raised in Southern California, she spent her life steeped in the region’s culture and, as a naturally curious child, she began to investigate the stories behind the places she saw every day. She remembers visiting the 18th century San Juan and San Gabriel missions with her mother, sparking an interest in Spanish history that would come to define her academic life. A graduate of the University of Southern California, Dr. Engstrand completed her Bachelor of Arts in history in 1956, a Master of Arts in history in 1957, and her Doctor of Philosophy in 1962, after two years of research in Spain funded by a Del Amo Fellowship Award.
After being awarded a fellowship for travel in Spain by the American Philosophical Society in 1964, Dr. Engstrand joined the faculty of the University of San Diego in 1968 as a professor of history. Shortly after, she was asked by the institution’s president to organize a conference on San Diego history that became a catalyst for one of Dr. Engstrand’s most enduring research interests, and she is still considered one of the founders and premier experts in California history.
Dr. Engstrand has consulted on dozens of major studies and worked with museums and institutions around the world throughout her career. She has been a research associate of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County for over 30 years, is a trustee of the San Diego Natural History Museum, where she served as director between 2002 and 2008, and sits on the board of directors of the Maritime Museum of San Diego. She retains consulting roles with the Museum of the Vaquero, and media outlets including A&E, “The History Channel” and KPBS Public Television. Previously, Dr. Engstrand consulted for Rancho Los Cerritos, the Rancho Guajome Project and the Balboa Park Cultural Partnership, in addition to reviewing books for publications including the Journal of the Americas, Western Historical Quarterly, and the American Historical Review and serving as co-editor of the Journal of San Diego History for nearly 15 years.
In 2017, after 49 years of teaching at the University of San Diego, Dr. Engstrand was granted professor emerita status, and she considers her time working with students to be the highlight of her professional life. In recognition of her work in establishing and promoting Spanish-American and California history as major academic subspecialties, Dr. Engstrand was presented with the Royal Order of Isabel la Catolica by the king of Spain in 2007, has been inducted into the California Women’s Museum Hall of Fame, and is the recipient of a Women’s International Center Living Legacy Award and an Award of Merit from the Western History Association, in addition to dozens of academic grants and fellowships throughout her career. Dr. Engstrand is the former president of the Western History Association and the Pacific Coast branch of the American Historical Association. In her retirement, she enjoys sailing, kayaking, and spending time at the beach, as well as with her three children and six grandchildren.