The American West in the 19th Century
The American West
in the 19th Century
by John Grafton
Papago Indians
As described by J. Ross Browne in Adventures in the Apache Country, 1864

Papago Village at San Xavier del Bac
Nine miles from Tucson we came to the fine old mission of San Xavier del Bac, built by the Jesuits in 1668 [Browne's date is actually about a hundred years too early. Though Father Kino may have located a site for a church at the same location, the present building was begun about 1797 by Pedro Bojourquez under the direction of the Franciscan Fathers.] This is one of the most beautiful and picturesque edifices of the kind to be found on the North American continent. I was surprised to see such a splendid monument of civilization in the wilds of Arizona. The front is richly ornamented with fanciful decorations in masonry; a lofty bell-tower rises at each corner, one in an unfinished condition. Over the main chapel in the rear is also a large dome; and the walls are surmounted by massive cornices and ornaments appropriately designed. The material is principally brick, made, no doubt, on the spot. The style of architecture is Saracenic. The entire edifice is perfect in the harmony of its proportions. In every point of view the eye is satisfied. Mr. Mowry well observes, in his pamphlet on Arizona, that, "incredible as it may seem, the church of San Xavier, with its elaborate facade, its dome and spires, would today be an ornament to the architecture of New York."

Papago village at San Xavier del Bac, drawing by J. Ross Browne, 1864

A village of Papago Indians, numbering some two or three hundred souls, partially surrounds the mission. There are also a few Mexicans living among the Indians; but they are regarded with distrust, and complaint is made that they have intruded themselves against the wish of the tribe. Mr. Poston, upon investigation of the matter, ordered the Mexicans to leave.

As far back as our knowledge of the Papagoes extends they have been a peaceable, industrious, and friendly race. They live here, as they lived two centuries ago, by cultivating the low grounds in the vicinity, which they make wonderfully productive by a system of irrigation. Wheat, corn, pumpkins, and pomegranates are the principle articles of subsistence raised by these Indians; and they seem to enjoy an abundance of everything necessary for health and comfort. They profess the Catholic faith, and are apparently sincere converts. The Jesuit missionaries taught them those simple forms which they retain to this day, though of late years they have been utterly neglected. The women sing in the church with a degree of sweetness and harmony that quite surprised me. At the time of our visit two Padres from Santa Clara, California, who had come as far as Tucson with the command, had just taken up their quarters in the mission. From my acquaintance with them on the road, I judge them to be very sincere and estimable as well as intelligent men. We furnished them with a Pimo grammar, published by Mr. Buckingham Smith, late American Secretary of Legation to Spain; and they are now studying the language with a view of holding more advantageous intercourse with the Papagoes, who are originally a branch of the Pimos, and speak the same language. The reverend fathers entertained us during our sojourn with an enthusiastic account of their plans for the restoration of the mission and the instruction and advancement of the Indian tribes, with whom they were destined to be associated for some years to come.

Papagoes and Apaches
Subject as the Papagoes are to frequent encroachments from the Apaches, they are compelled to keep their cattle closely watched. At present they possess scarcely sufficient stock for the ordinary purposes of agriculture. Not more than five or six months ago a small band of Apaches made a foray within mile of the village, and carried away with them at a single swoop most of the stock then grazing in the pastures. Though naturally disposed to peaceful pursuits, the Papagoes are not deficient in courage. On one occasion, when the principal chiefs and braves were away gathering petayah [fruits of the cactus] in the desert, the old men and boys of the tribe kept at bay, and finally beat off, a band of over two hundred Apaches who made a descent upon the village. Frequently they pursue their hereditary enemies to the mountains, and in almost every engagement inflict upon them a severe chastisement.

Papagoes in northern Sonora
After recruiting at Sonoita for a week, we traveled through the country of the Papago Indians. This tribe is a branch of the Pima family which formerly inhabited the northern part of Sonora and the country along the Gila river, but having accepted the doctrine of Christianity from the Jesuit missionaries, and received the rite of baptism, they are now called Papagoes -- from Bapconia, which in the Pima language means baptized. They cut their hair short and adopt the customs, manners, and costume of civilization. They live in villages, have fine fat cattle, horses, mules, and poultry, and are docile, honest and industrious; more so in fact than their neighbors and former teachers, the Mexicans. Their country is barren and unproductive, but so salubrious that they could not be persuaded to leave it for any other part of the world.

Heading for the Papagoria
Mr. Poston had written down to San Xavier, to the Padre Messea, to send up these chiefs and warriors, in order that they might accompany us on our proposed tour through the region of the Papago villages lying west of the Baboquivori. We found their services very useful as scouts, guides, and interpreters. Captain Jose speaks good Spanish, and is a man of excellent character, remarkable for his sobriety and good sense. Of all the Papagoes he is perhaps the most reliable and intelligent.

The Papagoria
Captain Jose, chief of the Papagoes, drawing by J. Ross Browne, 1864The Papago Indians, of whom Captain Jose, our guide, was the principal chief, have been driven into the desert area known as the Papagoria, by the hostilities of the Mexicans on the south, and the Apaches on the north and east, yet even now they are not permitted to enjoy the peaceful possession of a country in which it is scarcely possible to sustain life upon the scanty product of the soil. The Mexicans in the pursuit of silver, which abounds in the mountains, drive them from their watering-places, and the Apaches steal their cattle from the limited patches of grazing land, so that they have great difficulty in procuring the means of subsistence. The only place in which they can enjoy comparative security is at San Xavier; and even at this point they are constantly imposed upon by Mexicans and renegade Americans. In a late report to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs (not yet published), Superintendent Poston, speaking of these interesting people, with whom he has been familiar for many years, says: "Their first and principal village is at San Xavier del Bac, a Mission Church erected by the Jesuits in 1668, where they have lived and planted and watched their flocks and herds ever since, resisting the barbarous Apaches, and assisting their Spanish, Mexican, and American protectors in many campaigns against the savage Indians. They raise wheat, corn, barley, beans, peas, melons and pumpkins, and are expert in the manufacture of pottery and willow ware. In harvest time they spread all over the country, as reapers and gleaners, returning with their wages of grain for the winter. They gather the fruit of the Cereus giganteus, which they call Petayah, and after expressing the juice for molasses, press the pulp in cakes for their winter stores. The ripening of this fruit is the Papago Carnival, when men, women and children go into ecstasies of delight. They have horses, cattle, sheep, poultry, and great numbers of dogs. As these Indians were found in possession of the soil they cultivate, and have maintained continuous possession ever since, it would seem equitable that their rights should be recognized by the government of the United States. They have guarded the grand old church of San Xavier del Bac with religious reverence, and naturally look upon it as their property, held in sacred trust. A square league around the Mission would include all the land they have in cultivation and the water necessary for its irrigation." (The Commissioner of Indian Affairs has since given the necessary authority, and a reservation at San Xavier has been set apart for these Indians.)

The estimated number of the Papago tribe is 6,800 souls, of whom at least three-fourths live in the Papagoria. Their villages are situated around the watering-places. They are a peaceful, simple-minded race, inoffensive in their habits, yet brave in the defense of their families and property against the devastations of their hereditary enemies, the Apaches. A large majority of them are sincere converts to the Catholic faith, which they acquired from the Jesuit fathers.

Excerpted from J. Ross Browne, Adventures in the Apache Country, 1864. This is one of the books of early Arizona journeys that is available for download as a free e-book. See the E-books page for complete information.

A Tourist at San Xavier del Bac, 1882
William Henry Bishop presents an 1882 view of the Mission of San Xavier del Bac and the Papago village in his article "Across Arizona" (Harper's Magazine, March 1883). Bishop traveled through Arizona on the Southern Pacific Railroad from Yuma to Benson and back, with a side trip to Tombstone. He was an art critic who was familiar with Italian and other European schools of art and has a unique perspective on the ancient mission church.

San Xavier del Bac
If Tucson be without historic remains of its own, it has one of the loveliest possible in its immediate vicinity, in the old mission church of San Xavier del Bac. San Xavier del Bac on the reservation of the Christian Papago Indians, in the Santa Cruz valley, ten miles to the southward, creates a new sensation even for him who arrives from Mexico with an impression that he has thoroughly gone through everything belonging to the peculiar school. It is not surpassed either in Mexico or elsewhere for the kind of quaintness, the qualities of form and color, and the gentle sentiment of melancholy that appeal to the artistic sense. The tread of Father Time has fallen heavily on the wooden balconies of the front, broken out their floors, and left parts of them dangling, with bits of the railings. The old bells, of a sweet tone, still hang in one of the towers. The space, terminating in a scrolled gable, between, is enriched with escutcheons, rampant lions wreathed in foliage, niches containing broken statues, and complicated pilasters flanking the doorway--all formed in stucco upon a basis of moulded brick.

San Xavier del Bac, 1882, Harper's magazine, March 1883

The designer, whoever he may have been, was inspired by Venetian-Byzantine traditions. The interior, with numerous simple domes and half domes, frescoed with angels and evangelists, especially the chancel end, almost covered with gilding, now stained and battered, and the painted and gilded lions on the chancel rails, recall to the least observant Saint Mark's at Venice. This style is not consistently carried out, however. A rococo decoration, so exuberant that it might be taken for the vagaries of East Indian work, mingles with and overrides it. A Henri II faience candlestick might give a certain idea of the fashion of the interior columns. The date has disappeared from the church itself, but it is believed that it should be about 1768, and that the present edifice was built upon the ruins of a former one, going back much nearer to the year 1654, when the mission to the Papagos was begun. Large angels holding bannerets, with draperies formed in papier mache or gummed muslin, are attached to the main chancel piers; and a painted and gilded Virgin, with a long face and hair brushed back from a high forehead, in the manner of the French Jean Goujon, looks down from a high central niche.

All this, within, is of the true medieval richness and obscurity. Without, in the broad sunshine, is the peaceful old Papago hamlet, where a few old men trudge about their bake-ovens and water jars and strings of dried squash, and some women pass carrying tall loads of hay or other produce in a queer contrivance of sticks and netting fastened on their backs, which they call the kijo. Nobody concerns himself about the visitors, except the foolishly smiling boy Domingo, who has brought us the key. To be at San Xavier del Bac, and to have come to it from that spasm of aggressive modernism, Tombstone, could contrast further go?

Excerpted from William Henry Bishop, "Across Arizona" from Harper's New Monthly Magazine, March 1883. This is one of the books of early Arizona journeys that is available for download as a free e-book. See the E-books page for complete information.