Thursday, March 30, 2006

The Spanish among the Pimas: Part 2. The Killing of Saeta

Some notes before you read on:

1. This article is a continuation my post last month The Spanish Among the Pimas: Part 1. On Matters Spiritual and Temporal

2. Both Part 1 and Part 2 deal with the Spanish period in northern Mexico (the Sonora province) and southern Arizona, in the late 1600s. Two important and primary references for both articles are: Kino’s Favores Celestiales (Historical Memoir of Pimeria Alta; translation by Herbert Bolton); and Manje’s work Luz de Tierra Incognita (Unknown Arizona and Sonora; translation by Harry Karns).

3. Part 2 is mostly about the events of one specific week: March 28-April 2 in 1695. It's interesting that I've posted this article in the same week of this year, exactly 311 years later. I did not arrange this coincidence. I realized this myself only recently.

4. The maps showing the region in the late 1600s are from Edward Spicer’s Cycles of Conquest, an excellent book that examines the different ways in which the tribes of northern Mexico and the American Southwest responded to and changed after European incursions. The scanned picture of Kino’s drawing of the killing of Saeta is from Kino’s Biography of Saeta (translated by Charles W Polzer; original Spanish text edited by Ernest J Burrus).

5. There is a prevalence of usages of the type “might have”, “would have”, “in all likelihood”, “most probably” in this article. This is because I have tried to construct things based on very meager facts stated in Kino and Manje’s works.


It might seem from Kino’s writings that the Pimas were a docile people, easily giving in to Christianity and the needs of the Spanish. And though this is partly true, there are indications, in some of Kino’s passages, of the dissent that seethed beneath the surface. The slow northward march of the Spanish into the Sonoran desert had dramatically transformed communities in its wake. The world of the Pimas was changing fast, and the suddenness of the change would have been traumatic for many.

As they began their conquest of the Pimas, the Spanish brought with them – for help and labor – Indians from the tribes to the south. Like pollen that get dispersed in unexpected places, Indians from various backgrounds were scattered around by the forces and upheavals of the Spanish conquest. A number of these Indians were Opatas who had not been on friendly terms with the Pimas before the advent of the Spanish. This unexpected juxtaposition of people traditionally hostile to one another brought its own tensions to the mission villages and towns of the time.

Francis Xavier was one such alien Indian among the Pimas. He was most likely a Seri Indian from Ures (not on the map; Ures is further south of the region shown). In the 1660s, around the time that Xavier might have been born, the Spanish had decimated a particularly resistant tribe of two to three hundred people near Ures. The orphans spared of this slaughter were distributed in the villages and towns of the region. Xavier might have even been one of these orphans; at the very least, he might have come to know of the calamities that people around him had been through. Somehow, Xavier picked his way through the difficulties of the time, became a Christian, learnt the Castilian language, retained knowledge of Indian ways, and made himself valuable to the very people who had thrown his lot into tumult.

Due to his skill in languages, Xavier was a much sought-after interpreter; his job took him to the frontier Pima villages of the north. From the experience of his travels and from his knowledge of Spanish and various Indian cultures – the Seri Indian culture that he came from, and the Pima Indian culture that he came to know during his work as an interpreter – Xavier would have developed a unique perspective. But nothing of his perspective is known; in Kino and Manje’s accounts, Xavier is mentioned just once or twice; like all other people not Spanish, he recedes into the background and lingers there as a servile presence.

During his travels, Xavier met and married a Pima girl named Lucia. While Xavier had lifted himself to a position of some importance, Lucia had just been through an immense tragedy. She was from Mututicachi, a village just northeast of Dolores. At one point Mututicachi had had nearly 200 Pimas. In the 1680s, there had been many thefts in the region, of mostly cattle and horses. Spanish understanding of the differences between the tribes of the region was poor. The Jocomes and the Apaches were responsible for these thefts (for many nomadic tribes of the time raiding was a means of sustenance) but the Pimas were blamed for it.

For punishment, the Spanish took all the Pimas of Mututicachi as captives – Lucia was one of them – and some of them were sent off to work in a mining town. Fifty people were beaten to death; many of them might have been Lucia’s relatives. In just a few years, a whole community had been uprooted and brought to the brink of annihilation. But at the end of it all, there was redemption of a sort: the Spanish realized their folly and the captives were released. Lucia then went to Dolores where Kino had his mission. In all likelihood, she found solace and comfort in Kino’s mission, and was baptized there; and Kino probably gave her the name Lucia. It was also in Dolores, sometime in the early 1690s, that Lucia married the interpreter Francis Xavier. The hope of beginning a new life might have helped her assuage the wounds of her past.


In 1695, Francis Xavier was in Caborca (west of Dolores). He was working as an interpreter for a young missionary, Saeta, who was in the process of establishing a mission.

Caborca in 1695 would have consisted of a hundred or so Pimas. Most of them lived in simple shelters that had matted roofs supported by wooden poles. Dirt roads connected Caborca with other villages, and messengers and servants constantly traveled these trails, carrying sacks of wheat or maize or cattle or other important trade items, and facilitating written exchanges between missionaries, soldiers and Spanish officials. As news spread that a mission was being established, more people began to move closer to Caborca to avail the temporal benefits – farms, cattle, better clothing – attendant to the presence of a mission. Saeta, the missionary, lived in a small adobe house that also had an altar for worship and other religious items. Outside the house, Saeta had begun a field of wheat and a small vegetable garden.

Not all of Xavier’s work would have involved interpreting. Servants of Saeta worked in the field, herded cattle, maintained the horses, and helped in renovating the only adobe house in the village.

On the morning of April 2, 1695 – it was the Saturday of the Easter weekend – Xavier would have been busy with some such work at the mission, when a band of Pimas, full of aggression, stormed into Caborca with war-like cries. Xavier might have seen them enter the adobe house and slay Saeta; he would have sensed that they would come after him as well. But so sudden and unexpected was the attack that he wouldn’t have had the time to escape or even think clearly. Xavier was killed – probably impaled with arrows – for he was an Indian not of Pima origin, and because he worked for the mission. The band of Pimas also killed other servants of the mission. In all five people died in Caborca that morning.

It is not known if Lucia was also at Caborca. If she was, she most likely saw her husband being killed. Yet again forces beyond her control had played their hand; yet again she found herself surrounded by gloom and tragedy.


The angry group that had burst upon the idyll of that morning was not from Caborca. The trouble had started five days earlier in the village of Tubutuma, northeast of Caborca. The Pimas of Tubutuma had felt particularly oppressed by the manner in which the few Opata Indians working at the mission had been treating them.

It is fair to state that the Indians who worked or were connected to a mission, or were servants of a missionary, had a certain amount of privilege. These Indians wore Spanish clothes – which would have had great prestige value – they could travel with the missionary to other villages and receive gifts; they had access to cattle and horses and to fields of wheat and corn; and they felt secure in the knowledge that the might of the much-feared Spanish army was always there to protect missions.

But the privilege also meant that it could be misused. At Tubutuma, there was an Opata servant at the mission named Antonio. He was known for being particularly harsh. His conduct rankled the Pimas all the more as he was an outsider and a condescending overseer of the village. On the Monday of the holy week of Easter in 1695 – five days before the incident in Caborca – Antonio furiously assaulted a Pima foreman on the farm of the mission. He kicked him with spurs in the ribs and the flanks and left the foreman half dead.

It is difficult to piece together exactly what happened at the time, but a crowd of shocked Pimas must have gathered to watch, resentment of Antonio increasing all the time. According to Kino, who got the story from others, the foreman shouted to the crowd: “Look my brothers; this Opata is killing me, protect me! Defend me!” This moved some of the watching Pimas into action: they fired arrows at Antonio and wounded him, and though he tried to escape on a horse they caught up with him and killed him. Two other Opata Indians in Tubutuma were also killed. Suddenly, the Pimas of Tubutuma who had been humiliated under the Spanish and the Opata Indians had found a violent expression to their suppressed rage: over the next few days in Tubutuma and neighboring villages adobe houses that served as churches were burned and looted, sheep were skinned, sacred vestments were profaned and more people killed.

It was this rage – the rage of a discontented people who had been subjugated by others in their own lands – that consumed Francisco Xavier, the Seri Indian interpreter from Ures.


In that manic week of 1695, the Spanish could have lost many missionaries. But luckily none of them happened to be in the villages they were posted in. The only missionary, and indeed the only Spaniard, killed that week was the Sicilian missionary Saeta. Saeta, too, was unwittingly swept away by forces he must have only begun to fathom. He had started the mission in Caborca only in the later months of 1694 when Kino and other established missionaries had provided him with servants, cattle and other necessary items.

Both Kino and Manje have written in detail on Saeta’s death. In contrast, the other deaths are mentioned in a sentence or two. This is not a surprising thing: Saeta was Spanish missionary, and by writing mostly about him, Kino and Manje were writing of the concerns of their own group; Kino, in particular, was writing about a fellow missionary who, before his death, had been in a position Kino himself would have been in at the start of his mission in Dolores eight years ago in 1687.

The description of Saeta’s death is dramatic. The image that comes to mind is that of a fatally injured Saeta dressed in a long, formal missionary robe; the arrows that have pierced him – in Manje’s account there are 22 arrows – are still in place; blood is dripping from his wounds, and poison from the tips of the arrows is slowly taking its toll. He is kneeling in front of the makeshift altar in his adobe house. Firmly clasped in his hands is a beautiful cross, made of a special transparent and elastic material, a cross that Saeta had brought from Europe.

Since no one went close to the mission for days after the attack, the dead bodies rotted away. In the end, a Pima messenger Kino had sent ahead found the dead bodies and burned them in the Pima custom. The messenger also found the special cross that Saeta had held in his dying moments. Perhaps to save such a precious thing from being stolen, he hid the cross in the field of wheat that Saeta had begun a few months ago.

A beautiful cross hidden in a field of wheat: it was a chance occurrence, but there is much symbolism one can draw from this if one wishes to.


After Saeta’s death, Kino set about documenting what had happened and ultimately went on to write a biography of Saeta. He also made a drawing that depicted the killing of Saeta. The drawing was made on a map of the region. Caborca at the time was known by its full name La Concepcion de Caborca. The meandering black line shown in the map is the San Ignacio river (it should actually be the Magdalena river; there seems to be a discrepancy here) running into the sea. Indeed Caborca wasn’t too far away from the coast.


The Pima rebellion did not last long. There was no united front; what had happened seemed only to have been a spontaneous, violent reaction of perhaps a hundred or so Pimas. Soon after the news of the rebellion spread, the villages were deserted for most of the Pimas, innocent and guilty, had fled to the hills fearing the Spanish response.

The Spanish reprisal was quick and brutal. Many innocent Pimas were killed in the hostilities that ensued. During their search for the perpetrators of the rebellion, the Spanish military aided by allies from Indian tribes, found a few Pimas who for some reason had been unable to flee to the hills. They interrogated these people, and killed a few here and there. In one case they found a woman, and took her as a prisoner. After questioning her, in Kino’s words “they catechized the woman, baptized her, and flogged her.” Forced conversion, and then the lash of a whip: a glimpse of the cruelties that went on.

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