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On July 4, 1776, as several dozen sweating American colonists sat in the stuffy Pennsylvania State House wondering what would befall them for having dared to rebel against their king, a lone, hungry Spanish priest lay in the windswept stone plaza of a Hopi village wondering what would befall him for having dared to serve his own.

The cleric’s position was more precarious. The colonists might be hanged, as one of their number famously warned, but at least that misfortune, should it come about, lay in the future. The bearded, black-haired, black-eyed priest was surrounded by dozens of agitated warriors. He might not survive the hour.

Fr. Francisco Garcés’s Indian friends had begged him not to go to Oraibi, Arizona. The Hopis would kill him, they said. But Garcés had been undaunted. For months he had been traveling through the wilderness. Unarmed and hundreds of miles from the nearest Spanish soldier, he might be murdered at any moment. Still, by going to the Hopis’ principal village, he was courting even more danger than usual. Garcés was a Franciscan friar, and the history of his order’s interactions with the Hopis was not a happy one. In 1653, for example, one friar had taken a converted Hopi as his mistress. When a Hopi man began to rally the community against this transgression, the priest had him killed by two native officials. Fearing they would reveal his crimes, he then had those officials hanged. Some years later, another Franciscan drenched several Hopi men with turpentine and set them on fire. As one of his victims ran for a spring to douse the flames, the priest rode him down and killed him. In light of such crimes, it is not surprising that during the region-wide Pueblo Revolt of August 1680 the churches built by the Franciscans on the Hopi mesas were destroyed, and the four friars who served them slain.

Twenty years later, the Franciscans returned to the Hopi village of Awat’ovi. Surprisingly, dozens of the village’s residents accepted baptism and began incorporating Christian devotions into their sacred practices. This was not a development welcomed by their Hopi kin. Warriors from neighboring villages slaughtered Awat’ovi’s residents and laid waste their village. (The ruins can be visited today.) Since that tragedy, at least nine Franciscan priests had visited the Hopis’ homeland. None had succeeded in gaining a foothold for the church.

Francisco Garcés knew this history. But neither the prospect of failure nor that of physical danger had ever deterred him from action. During the previous eight years he had wandered on muleback and foot, often alone, two or three thousand miles through the deserts, highlands, meadows, and mountains of New Spain’s far-northern, unmapped frontier—today’s Sonora, Arizona, Nevada, and California. He had been the first European to enter what became Nevada; the first to descend to the village of Supai in the Grand Canyon; the first to cross the treacherous Colorado desert west of Yuma, Arizona; the first to describe the San Joaquin Valley and its inhabitants; the first to make contact with several Native American peoples; and now the first to enter Hopi territory from the west. In his travels he had unceasingly preached the gospel. He had just as unceasingly sought to serve the interests of his Spanish sovereign. To him, as to every Spaniard he knew, crown and cross were two sides of the same coin.

It was as a man in the service of both his earthly and eternal kings that Fr. Garcés thought his going to Moqui—as the Spanish called the region where the Hopis then lived, and still live—vitally important. It lay along the route from Santa Fe, the long-established Spanish capital of the province of New Mexico, to Monterey, soon to become the capital of the Californias. By July 1776, new Franciscan missions dangled southward from Monterey like a string of rosary beads.

Actually, a route from Santa Fe to Monterey did not yet exist; Garcés was in the midst of an arduous attempt to trace it. He knew that to establish a road from Alta California to New Mexico would be to expand upon the major strategic victory he had recently helped win for King Carlos III. Over the previous eighteen months, Garcés had provided crucial assistance in the finding of an overland trail across the uncharted, all but waterless desert from Sonora to California. He had then helped lead the first expedition of Spanish settlers across the same path. Those families were now beginning to settle a place the Spanish called San Francisco. Drawing a more direct line between that and other new settlements in California and the old ones in New Mexico would serve to expand New Spain’s northwestern frontier and solidify Mexico City’s always tenuous hold on this far-flung area.

To make the Spaniards’ use of this road feasible, Garcés first needed to win the friendship of the powerful Hopis, as he had done so far with every people with whom he had come into contact, not infrequently as the first European they had ever seen. But the Hopis rejected his overtures, refusing him food, shelter, and conversation. Garcés had spent two tense nights among them when, as the sun began to rise on the morning of July 4, flutes began to whistle, drums began to beat, warriors began to dance. Garcés was uneasy but not defeated. Summoning his resolve, he remained where he was and waited. Finally, seeing that he was indisposed to leave, four warriors approached him. “Why have you come here?” they asked. “Don’t stay. Go back to your own land.” Through signs, Spanish, and scraps of indigenous languages, Garcés communicated as best he could where he had come from, all the peoples he had seen, and how welcoming and open all had been. He told his audience, now growing large, that he cherished the Hopis, and for that reason had come to tell them about God and his crucifixion in the form of his son, the God-Man Jesus Christ.

An old man scowled. “No, no,” he thundered, his face displaying contempt for all the priest had said. It was the first time the friar’s narrative had ever been so decisively and disdainfully rejected. Perhaps the Hopis had not understood him. Or perhaps, he reflected, success would require a more holy messenger. In any case, it was obvious that if he valued his life, it was time to go. The Hopis’ evangelization would have to wait for another day. So too would Garcés’s martyrdom.

For their labors, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and their conspirators have received, at least until recent years, the pious reverence of succeeding generations. The primary monument to Francisco Garcés consists of a statue in a grimy Bakersfield traffic circle. Few people outside the specialized field of borderlands studies have heard of him. Yet Garcés’s multiple months-long treks into the unknown and dangerous wilderness make him one of the greatest pathfinders in American history. Scholars continue to unpack the anthropological and ethnological data Garcés gathered on his travels. His explorations facilitated the settling of California. If not for the friar’s exploits, San Francisco and Los Angeles might not have been established for many years, and a Spanish society might have failed to take root before the onslaught of the American Gold Rush, depriving California of a major component of its religious and cultural heritage.

Herbert E. Bolton (1870–1953), the pioneering scholar of Spanish-American history, longed to undertake, but never found time for, a biography of Francisco Garcés. To Bolton, as to nearly everyone else who has made Garcés’s acquaintance, the Franciscan priest was a particularly attractive figure. Bolton’s favorite adjective for Garcés, whom he called “the prince of lonely wanderers,” was “intrepid.” The Spanish military men, explorers, and missionaries who were Garcés’s contemporaries were hardly blushing violets, and even among them the priest stood out for his fearlessness. “No one,” wrote Bolton, “could surpass him in courage.”

The unintellectual but streetwise friar was as likable, tireless, and hardy as anyone who ever took on the American wild. Garcés built a rapport with the Indians of the Southwest more quickly than his peers. He intuited how important it was to eat what they ate, sit how they sat, converse in the way they wished to converse. He thereby came to exceed his Spanish compatriots in his sympathetic tolerance for and love of the peoples he encountered. The Hopis notwithstanding, his bravery, openness, and peaceable nature won him Indian affection and respect.

One still gets glimpses of Garcés in mainstream treatments of the history of the Southwest, but today, colonial-era missionaries—and the scholars like Bolton who admired them—generally command low esteem in scholarly circles. At best, Garcés emerges from the contemporary literature as a fascinating supporting actor. Often he is misportrayed as a maverick priest who bucked expectations and authority to serve the socially marginalized—a very Vatican II kind of friar. At worst, he is depicted as a participant in the genocide of which the Spanish empire is now commonly held to be guilty. The truth, of course, is more interesting.

Born in 1738 to a peasant family in Morata de Jalón, a tiny village near Zaragoza, Garcés entered the Order of Friars Minor at the age of fifteen. Eight years later, shortly after he was ordained to the priesthood, he was persuaded to come to New Spain by a recruiter from the Colegio de Santa Cruz in Querétaro, one of twenty-seven such Franciscan institutions to be established in the Americas.

These colleges were elite missionary-training centers. They prepared their friars to wage and win spiritual battle, whether in urban centers, in outlying villages, or on distant frontiers. On the frontiers, winning did not come easily. When Garcés arrived, Santa Cruz was struggling to make headway among the Apaches and Comanches of Texas. King Carlos III’s expulsion of the Jesuits from his dominions in 1767 cleared the way for the colegio to try its hand in northwestern New Spain by replacing the exiled Jesuits there.

Garcés was one of fifteen missionaries selected for this effort. He was assigned to the most isolated outpost possible: San Xavier del Bac, located a few miles south of the Pima village we now know as Tucson. Founded by the Jesuit Eusebio Kino in 1692, San Xavier was situated—to use a phrase coined by one of the few missionaries to have lived there—at the rim of Christendom. There were no Spanish settlers, and the nearest Spanish presidio, the one theoretically responsible for San Xavier del Bac’s protection, lay forty miles to the south in Tubac. Only two or three soldiers resided at the mission itself, which had few possessions, a leaky mud-roofed church (the beautiful structure that stands there now was not built until the 1780s), hostile Apache neighbors, and a few dozen genial Pima families who were almost completely ignorant of Christian doctrine.

Garcés took their measure, built friendly relations, and largely decided to leave them alone. In theory he could force the baptized to attend Mass and other devotions, but the sternness required to do so was not in him. In Querétaro he had been called the “children’s padre” because of the affection that arose between him and the city’s urchins. He decided therefore to concentrate on the aspect of his instructions that appealed to him most: to explore and evangelize the unknown, unmapped desert that lay all around him.

Within a few weeks of his arrival, he gladly accepted an invitation to visit the O’odham—as the Indians whom the Spanish knew as Papagos and Pimas called themselves—who lived between San Xavier and the Gila River to its north. Already this was to stretch the boundaries of Spanish knowledge, for very few Spaniards had traveled as far as the Gila. Fascinated by the people he met, all of whom treated the solitary friar with great friendliness, Garcés made a longer entrada to, and down, the Gila River in 1770. On this trip he not only gathered precious ethnographical data but became interested in finding a land route from San Xavier to California and New Mexico, thereby linking these highly isolated frontier regions. This project became Garcés’s life’s work. If successful, it would mean new missions, expansion of the Spanish empire, and thousands of souls won for heaven.

The next year, traveling in the Sonoran Desert’s searing August heat, Garcés picked his way from San Xavier to Yuma along the parched, arduous trail that would later be known, with good reason, as El Camino del Diablo—The Devil’s Road. At Yuma he befriended an impressive Quechan headman known as Salvador Palma, explored the lower Colorado River, and crossed the forbidding desert that lay to the river’s west. A land route to California had been found, he reported to the Spanish authorities. An expedition could secure it.

On none of these journeys did Garcés travel with another European or with arms of any kind. He often rode without food, relying on the generosity of those he met along the way. His guilelessness and simplicity never failed to charm his indigenous hosts. He was amused when, confused by his habit, they asked him whether he was a man or a woman; he was surprised when, out of compassion, they carried his worn-out mule to a water hole; he was dismayed, but not offended, when they offered him women for a night’s companionship. For hours, Garcés would sit with them around a fire, patiently preaching as well as he could about God and answering his audience’s many questions about the king and about seemingly magical objects like his compass. In his diaries he rarely complains about or criticizes the Indians he meets. Among his contemporaries this was unusual; they often candidly described their disgust at native habits, customs, and smells. Garcés, by contrast, as his friend Fr. Pedro Font wrote, “is so well suited to getting along with the Indians and going among them that he seems to be very much like an Indian himself.”

Thanks in part to Garcés’s acquaintance Junípero Serra, the authorities finally got around to approving an overland expedition to California in late 1773. In early 1774, Captain Juan Bautista de Anza, Garcés, and a couple dozen others successfully traveled El Camino del Diablo to the Gila–Colorado junction, barely survived the treacherous desert lying west of that junction, and finally stumbled into the impoverished San Gabriel mission just east of modern Los Angeles. Serra and his California co-laborers were thrilled. They could now more easily be supplied with food, tools, and settlers. Garcés had served his two majesties well.

He wasn’t done. In autumn 1775 he accompanied a much larger Anza expedition as far as Yuma. This was the expedition that led to the founding of San Francisco. Garcés parted from it at the Colorado River, seeking to link the California missions with Sonora by a better road—and with New Mexico by a reasonably direct one. He needed also to discern which native groups were well disposed to receive missionaries, and which were not. Once again, he set out on his own.

This 1775–76 journey was truly epic—no other adjective will do. Wandering down the Colorado River to its mouth, upriver to where Laughlin, Nevada, is today; across the Mojave Desert to the Pacific coast; across the Tehachapi into California’s Central Valley; back across the Mojave to the Colorado; and eastward from there to Oraibi, Garcés traveled nearly two thousand miles over a ten-month period. For only a few weeks was he present at even the most ragged outpost of European civilization. After he left the main body of the Anza expedition in December 1775, he never traveled again with another Spaniard. Usually, he was accompanied only by two or three Indian guides. Sometimes he was completely alone. His supplies were limited to what he could carry on his mule.

There are few comparable achievements in the annals of American exploration. Lewis and Clark had with them forty-five comparatively well-supplied members. The journey of Jacques Marquette and Louis Jolliet down the Mississippi included seven Europeans. The famed mountain men and trappers operating in the American interior made impressive solo journeys. But they had guns, and unlike Garcés, they did not add much by their travels to our ethnological understanding.

Once he reached the Hopis, Garcés knew he had accomplished his end. The road from there to New Mexico was well-known, and he now knew how to get from there to the central California coast. His report on his travels, as well as a map made for him by Fr. Font, impressed the authorities, who decided to found new missions on the Colorado at Yuma. But partly because Spain was in cost-saving mode, and partly because Enlightened reformers wished to reduce missionary influence, the temporal authority of these missions was restricted. With the Quechans having become restless, Garcés had misgivings. But he had argued for similar reforms himself, so he agreed to take charge of the new missions in late 1779.

Things went badly from the start. The Quechans and their neighbors, among whom Garcés had previously brokered peace deals, began to fight again. Many of the natives living near the missions, upset that they had not received promised food and gifts, were surly and uncooperative. Supplies soon became as short as tempers. Garcés, who believed wholeheartedly in the missionary effort and had met with nothing but success in his own relations with Indians, struggled to understand how things had taken such a bad turn. Characteristically, he blamed himself.

When a large group of Spanish settlers arrived and their animals began to destroy the natives’ fields, the dam broke. On July 17, 1781, the Quechans attacked the two missions, killing all the men they could and taking women and children captive. Garcés and his companion Fr. Juan Antonio de Barreneche were saying Mass when the battle started. After helping the people within the church escape, the priests were taken in by a Christian native before being discovered by the rebels. One of the group’s leaders stepped into the hut to find the friars sipping hot chocolate. “Stop drinking that,” he demanded. “We’re going to kill you.” Garcés was not often witty or wry, but on this occasion, he found within himself a vein of black humor. “We’d like to finish our chocolate first,” he replied. “Just leave it!” was the warrior’s irritated response. The two priests rose, commended themselves to God, and followed him out the door. As soon as they stepped outside, they were viciously clubbed to death. A captive named María Gertrudis Cantú watched the horrible scene unfold. She could hear the friars’ “piteous moans as they lay dying.”

Conventional wisdom holds that the Franciscan missionary effort in northern Sonora and today’s Arizona failed. Garcés and his companions performed fewer than one thousand baptisms between 1768 and 1795. The Franciscans’ presence introduced more disease than it did effective medicine, and the friars’ efforts led to no lasting strategic victories for their country. The last friar who maintained a connection to the Spanish missionary effort left the region in 1843. For more than fifty years, no Catholic missionaries worked among those O’odham who lived north of the international boundary. With the exception, at times, of San Xavier del Bac, there were no established churches at which regular services were held.

If Christianity exerted no attraction for the O’odham, it should have died among them. But it didn’t. The O’odham themselves kept the friars’ faith alive. They built chapels in many of their villages, in which they practiced a kind of folk Catholicism called santo himdag—the saint way. They kept in memory the prayers taught to them by long-gone friars. They even held in safekeeping many of their sacred vessels.

Such surprises greeted the Franciscans upon their order’s return to Arizona in 1895. As they filtered into the desert from their base in Phoenix, they found themselves welcomed by many Papagos and Pimas. In some of their villages, Catholic chapels had been erected. In others, the friars worked with the O’odham to build them. By 1976, thirty-six of these tiny, brilliantly whitewashed churches had been erected. The vast majority remain standing and are in use today.

This flowering of Catholic culture was accomplished without soldiers, terror, threats, or violence—in other words, in a highly Garcésian manner. The friars’ way of thinking about missions had changed drastically over the previous 150 years, and better results followed. Garcés anticipated many of these changes, intuiting that effective evangelization required submersion in, imaginative identification with, and respect for other cultures, as much as Christian doctrine could allow. The missiological concept of what Joseph Ratzinger would later call “interculturality”—the idea that all cultures are to various degrees open to “the truth about God and reality as a whole”—was not and could not have been articulated by Garcés, but he exemplified the ideal in action more than any other missionary of his time—indeed, of most times.

I recently had lunch with Fr. Anthony Tinker, pastor of St. John the Baptist mission in the Akimel O’odham town of Komatke. Fr. Tinker estimated that more than 90 percent of Akimel O’odham—or Gila River Pimas—identify as Christian, with somewhere between 50 and 80 percent of those identifying as Catholic. (Many others, thanks largely to the efforts of a missionary named Charles H. Cook, are Protestant.) A few are syncretists, using rites, ceremonies, and pastoral leaders that combine elements of traditional O’odham beliefs, but not many. Syncretism among the Tohono O’odham—or Papagos—is more popular, Fr. Tinker told me, but even among them he believed only 10 percent or so to be syncretists. Nearly all the O’odham, he said, tend to be attracted to St. Kateri Tekakwitha and Nicholas Black Elk, whose lives and examples are perceived as meaningful and empowering.

Fr. Tinker’s approximations appear to be accurate; Catholic Extension estimates that 11,000 residents of the Tohono O’odham Nation are Catholic, or about 85 percent of the total population. In other words, the O’odham—the descendants of those to whom Fr. Garcés once ministered—are significantly more Christian than their surrounding societies, and the Tohono O’odham Nation is one of the most Catholic areas in the United States.

Almost no one knows that. Thanks in part to the Black Legend, the story of how European civilization came to America is told from the Protestant east, not the Catholic southwest. A missionary like Garcés—an unembarrassed representative of the old Christendom, whose zeal for the faith inspired a kind of openness and flexibility that made him a successful figure of cultural mediation—hardly fits a narrative that positions Enlightenment deists as heroes. Nor does he fit comfortably into the tale told by contemporary anti-colonialists. As we approach the 250th anniversaries of both the Declaration of Independence and the Anza expedition, those who seek to write a truer, fuller national story will perhaps make room for figures like Garcés and the traditions he stood for. Or rather, stood in.

In the meantime, a few desert Southwest priests, having encountered and been inspired by Garcés, are seeking to advance the cause of his canonization. Whether or not that effort succeeds, the legacy of this wandering friar and his co-laborers—past and present, European and indigenous—will continue to be made manifest in those sunbaked, stark-white churches that stand in hamlets scattered across the Sonoran Desert.

Jeremy Beer is the author of Beyond the Devil’s Road: Francisco Garcés and the Spanish Encounter with the American Southwest, from which this essay is drawn.

Image by Kern County Historical Museum on Wikimedia Commons, in the public domain. Image cropped. 

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