Twilight of the Mission Frontier: Shifting Interethnic Alliances and Social Organization in Sonora, 1768-1855

Twilight of the Mission Frontier: Shifting Interethnic Alliances and Social Organization in Sonora, 1768-1855

by Jose De la Torre Curiel

ISBN: 9780804785044

Publisher Stanford University Press

Published in Calendars/Movies

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Representing the Sonoran Landscape: Geographical Descriptions of Sonora in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries

In northwestern Mexico, between 27 and 33 degrees north latitude and 113 and 108 degrees longitude, a number of mountain ranges are covered with thin layers of snow in winter. Amid these cordilleras, streams and rivers have cut a series of fertile valleys of varying dimensions along the way to the Gulf of California. Then, beyond the foothills and descending toward the northeast, is the majestic and daunting desert.

Comprising the modern state of Sonora and southern Arizona, this area corresponds to what was known in the eighteenth and part of the nineteenth centuries as the provinces of Ostimuri and Sonora, which belonged to the Gobernación de Sonora. Located in the southeastern portion of what is now Sonora, the province of Ostimuri occupied the territory bordered to the north by the Yaqui River, to the south by the Mayo River and to the west by the Sierra Madre. It was in the southwestern section of the present state of Sonora, along the lower course of the Yaqui River, that the Yoeme (Yaqui) people lived, a group of cultivators who had successfully rebuffed the Spanish military advance in the sixteenth century and by the early seventeenth century determined the way in which the Jesuit missionaries would be admitted into their territory. Beyond the Yaqui River lay the vast expanse of the province of Sonora, bordered on the north by the Pima, Pápago, Cocomaricopa, and Yuma Indian nations inhabiting the alluvial plains of the Gila and the Colorado Rivers.

The southern limit of the province was clearly defined with the Yaqui River being recognized as a natural border, although during the colonial period there were different versions and conflicting opinions as to the exact location of the northern frontier of Sonora. Some people held that the province ended with the missions in Pimería Alta, while others argued that the territory included the settlements along the banks of the Gila River.

On the basis of this territory's characteristics, we can speak of two large geographical zones and five ecological niches north of the Yaqui River. Using a south–north division, to the west lies the arid zone of the desert composed of the Gulf Coast and the Lower Colorado Valley, and to the east, there is a second zone composed of the sierra, the Sonoran plains, and the Arizona highlands (or altiplano). In the following and later chapters, descriptions focus on the three latter areas.

The San Miguel, the Sonora, and the Oposura Rivers all descend from the Sierra Madre in Sonora to irrigate the Tacupeto, Mátape, and Oposura valleys, among others, during the rainy season. These rivers mark the transition from the region dominated by valleys to the foothills. In the valleys, the annual precipitation of 400 millimeters (15.8 inches) makes rain-fed agriculture possible; these conditions made the plains of Sonora the main site for the establishment of Spanish settlements in that region in the colonial period.

To the east of this river system, precipitation increases along with the elevation of the sierra, attaining a maximum of 600 millimeters (23.6 inches) in the highest places. In some places, such as Bacadehuachi in the easternmost part of Sonora, the sierra attains an altitude of 2,500 meters (8,200 feet) above sea level. In this forested zone, pasturelands are more abundant, and pine, oak, and poplar trees, as well as shrubs typical of temperate to cold climates are common. The variety of local fauna, including such species as deer, squirrel, rabbit, beaver, and bear, contributes to the richness of this biotic community.

Located at the northwestern edge of the Sonoran desert, the Arizona highlands offer a succession of streams and marshlands that allowed both the indigenous population and Spanish settlers to develop subsistence agriculture, despite the significant inconvenience of the region's freezing temperatures, which do not occur in other areas of the province.

The Lower Colorado Valley is the most arid, desert-like region of the area under study. Its most important features are the Altar Desert and the lowlands that border the Colorado River. In this desert area, rainfall and temperatures show the most drastic variations in all of Sonora. Annual precipitation fluctuates from 30 to 300 millimeters (1.2 to 11.8 inches), and temperatures are high during the day but very low at night. In spite of these conditions, at certain times it was possible to irrigate crops in the lowlands of the Altar River (Map 1.1).

A Note on the Identification of the Indian Groups In Sonora

A major problem posed by the geographic descriptions in the primary sources for this chapter is that European observers frequently misunderstood the spatial distribution of Indian groups and their ethnic affinities, which explains the plethora of names used to describe single groups such as the Pima (referred to as Gileños, Piatos, Soba, Sobaipuris, Pápagos, or Pimas Altos, depending on the location of their households). For clarity's sake it is necessary to explain the use of diverse tribal names in this work. Although some colonial manuscripts identify as Nevomes the aboriginal inhabitants of the territory located between the western margins of the Yaqui River and Seri country in the proximities of the Gulf of California, this name disappears after 1680 and the Indian residents of the area are referred to simply as Pima Bajos; for this reason, the Indians of that zone are identified in this work as Pima Bajos, and their territory is called Pimería Baja. Next to this area was the Ópata region or Opatería, the central and easternmost section of Sonora that was occupied by three separate yet closely related Indian groups (Ópatas, Eudeves, and Jovas) generally described as Ópatas due to the marked affinity among their languages and cultural traits. In this work, each individual group is mentioned using its own name; with regard to their territory, I adhere to the traditional practice of calling this area the "Opatería."

The vast region north of Cucurpe and south of the Gila River was generally identified in colonial records as Pimería Alta, while the western section of this territory, near the point where the Colorado River joins the Gulf of California, was called Papaguería. In both cases, the geographical regions involved were named after the Indian groups that occupied them. In the strict sense, both Pima Altos and Pápagos were members of the same Indian nation (Pima) and shared certain cultural features (e.g., language and religious views), but were differentiated because of their adaptation to the ecological zones of the Gila River and the Arizona Desert, respectively. Since the late seventeenth century, the Jesuits, and at a later date the Franciscans, directed their efforts to the Pima in the mission district of Pimería Alta. Pápago Indians visited the missions on a seasonal basis, but it was not until the late eighteenth century that the original Pima residents of the missions were replaced by the Pápagos due to high mortality rates of the aboriginal Pima population in the mission communities.

Since the mid-nineteenth century, and especially after the Gadsden Purchase (1853), the differences between these groups became accentuated due to the influence of two contrasting sets of neighbors. The territory of the Gila River people was on the route of gold prospectors, hunters, other groups of itinerant Americans, and American soldiers fighting the Apaches, all of which led the Pima population to adopt the language and other characteristics of American society. The Pápagos remained culturally attached to the Altar Desert and closely related to those of their kin living on the Mexican side of the border. As one author puts it, the Gila River people "adopted American names and clothing, and in 1871 they already attended an American school. Meanwhile, the Pápagos spoke Spanish if they had to speak a language other than theirs; they wore Mexican shawls, and considered the Altar Valley as the birthplace of their culture." In recent times, the Gila River people and the Pápagos have vindicated these historical processes by adopting official names consistent with them; thus, the former (historically identified as Pima Altos) refer to themselves as Akai O'odham (River People), while the Pápagos call themselves Tohono O'odham (Desert People). Throughout this work, the names Pima Altos and Pápagos are used as is consistent with the historical records.

The Creation of Space

The purpose of discussing the different ecological niches in Sonora is not just to present the setting in which the events analyzed in this study took place. As the title of this chapter suggests, narrated here is the story of a great transformation: the history of how, toward the end of the eighteenth century, the province of Sonora, an enormous expanse along the so-called "missionary frontier" of New Spain, became a zone distinguished by two contrasting landscapes—the dominions of the Spanish villas and ranches together with the towns of the more Hispanicized Indian peoples, and, in the northern reaches, the series of "frontier missions." In approaching this transformation from the perspective of territorial change, the purpose is to transcend the limits of classic geographical description and consider the Sonora territory as a set of changing scenarios in which the relations between people and their environment were in a process of constant redefinition. This, in the words of Esteban Barragán, leads us to acknowledge that the "spatial forms and social structures are amalgamated and changing: if the valorization of the elements—resources—contained in a geographical space change or are exhausted, the social structure, and the spatial valorization are transformed."

However, comprehending the constant redefinition of the Sonoran scenery presents the challenge of making sense out of the relationship between the location and the appropriation of a landscape, a relation that leads us to the debate between "place" and "space." In this attempt to capture the geography of Sonora through the written testimonies of bishops, missionaries, and functionaries of the Spanish Crown, many questions arise as to the object represented in the sources and the personal situation of those witnesses who walked upon the scenario described in their accounts. One recurring practice in the analysis of these chronicles, reports, and memoirs consisted of thinking about the territorial dimension as a multitude of independent fragments or as an imperfect mold into which these several parts have been joined, although without ever losing sight of the landscape itself as the setting of human events. It is important to separate the author's personal view from the idea of places as compartmentalized parts of space, and space as a frame containing networks of places because, like J.B. Jackson and William Taylor, the author is rather more inclined to approach the study of place and space by emphasizing the forms in which the interaction between people and environment is lived. It is this perspective that gives rise to the notion in which the landscape is seen as a consequence of the interaction between subject and environment, as a result of repeated experiences, or as a creation of the senses. It is as a human construct and a product of personal experience with the environment that the landscape must be understood, as W.J.T. Mitchell suggests, "not as an object to be seen, or a text to be read, but as a process by which social and subjective identities are formed." In this spirit, the chronicles and reports concerning Sonora gathered together in this chapter are analyzed not only as discursive expressions that look to legitimize a given situation, but also as cultural practices containing individuals' ways of appropriating, creating, disarticulating, and characterizing Sonora. In this respect, Sonora is here analyzed as an idea in transformation in order to explain why certain observers constructed their ideas about this region focusing on local people, settlements, or geography.

The interests and convictions of these documents' authors determine the quality of the information presented and the choice of words and tonalities that obscure or give color to their accounts. In this context, these sources do not allow a reliable reconstruction of the cultural expressions of those groups who left no written records concerning their past. Hence, in this section the history of the Indians and the anonymous settlers of Sonora are not addressed. The analysis of complementary sources in later chapters will present a more complete framework of the participation of these groups in the transformation of the society of New Spain. Addressed here, in contrast, is the way in which the prejudices and personal affectations filling so many pages of reports and geographical descriptions can be used to document the discursive transformation of the "idea of Sonora."

For ecclesiastical writers (in this case, bishops and Jesuit and Franciscan missionaries), as well as for the soldiers and officials of the Crown, Sonora meant distinct realities over time, which can be seen in the various representations of that province penned by such a vast array of authors. The inhabitants, settlements, geography, climate, and economic activities, as well as the forms of coexistence of diverse human groups, are recurring themes in these descriptions and reports. What is by no means uniform, however, is the agency that these aspects take on in one epoch or another, or what these informants have to say about it. Thus, for example, the fears and concerns of the Jesuits with respect to the magical and supernatural universe that distinguished the indigenous populations are not echoed in the descriptions elaborated later by the Franciscan missionaries, as they were more concerned with attacks by the Apaches and expansion into new missionary territories. By the same token, the wealth of notes about the people who lived in the sierras and valleys found in early descriptions of Sonora were the precursors of serious reflections from later epochs concerning the problems of the layout of the places in which those people lived.

In this thematic diversity, four aspects can be clearly identified because they appear often in practically all testimonies evaluated here. They will serve as the guiding axes of this analysis: (1) the characterization of the Sonoran settlers, (2) the criteria for regionalization and division of the province, (3) the influence of geographical conditions (climate, soil erosion, fluctuations in precipitation) on the planning and permanence of populations, and (4) the nature of the coexistence of the colonists there. To better appreciate the ways in which both the representations of the Sonoran landscape and the province itself changed, available testimonies are grouped into three periods: from the early eighteenth century to the Indian uprisings of 1740, from the recomposition of Sonora to the expulsion of the Jesuits in 1767, and from the reorganization of the ecclesiastical jurisdictions to the final days of the Franciscan administration.

The Early Eighteenth Century

In 1687, missionaries of the Society of Jesus succeeded in gaining a foothold in Pimería Alta when they established New Spain's northernmost missions (Map 1.2). Their arrival in Pimería Alta marked the culmination of an important phase of expansion that allowed them to establish colleges and missions under their auspices from the villa of San Felipe and Santiago in Sinaloa as far north as Tucson. To ensure a better spiritual and material administration of their mission establishments, the Jesuits organized this territory into four rectorates or administrative units. Each one came under the direction of a priest-rector who, in turn, answered to the authority of the father provincial . During the early years of mission organization in Sonora, it was a common practice for the Jesuits themselves, or a visiting priest on his triennial inspection, to send reports back to their superior in Mexico City concerning the condition or status of those missions. However, after 1721, the general of the Jesuits in Rome decreed that such reports be remitted to Rome by a father visitor every six years, together with more detailed news on the state of the missions and the number of settlers, among other matters deemed sufficiently important to be included.

Following these orders, the priests Daniel Januske (1723) and Cristóbal de Cañas (1730) drafted voluminous descriptions of Sonora that highlight different aspects of the province, according to the experiences of each author. These records provide the source for the following descriptions of Sonora.

Excerpted from "Twilight of the Mission Frontier: Shifting Interethnic Alliances and Social Organization in Sonora, 1768-1855" by Jose De la Torre Curiel. Copyright © 2013 by Jose De la Torre Curiel. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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