Missionary who became the “First Cowboy”

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“One afternoon in the autumn…a solitary horseman, followed by a pack-mule, was pushing through an arid stretch of country ……

“The traveler dismounted, drew from his pocket a much worn book, and baring his head, knelt at the foot of the cruciform tree.

 “Under his buckskin riding-coat he wore a black vest and the cravat and collar of a churchman. A young priest, at his devotions…His bowed head was not that of an ordinary man – it was built for the seat of a fine intelligence. His brow was open, generous, reflective, his features handsome and somewhat severe. There was a singular elegance about the hands below the fringed cuffs of the buckskin jacket. Everything showed him to be a man of gentle birth – brave, sensitive, courteous. His manners, even when he was alone in the desert, were distinguished. He had a kind of courtesy toward himself, toward his beasts, toward the juniper tree before which he knelt, and the God whom he was addressing.”[1]

 The description could well have been of Eusebio Francisco Kino, “the most picturesque missionary pioneer of all North America – explorer, astronomer, cartographer, mission builder, ranchman, cattle king and defender of the frontier. His biography is not merely the life story of a remarkable individual; it illuminates the culture of a large part of the Western hemisphere in its pioneer stages”.[2]

 The man who poured out his energies under the scorching sun of the Arizona desert was born in 1645 amid the green valleys and snow-capped Alpine peaks of the Tyrol area straddling modern-day Austria and Italy. Eusebius Francis Kühn (in Spanish “Kino”) was a true Renaissance Man. He stood 5’6″ tall, had deep-set eyes, a prominent brow and wavy black hair and was solidly built. Gifted with a striking personality, he was a star student at the universities of Freiburg and Ingolstadt. Early on he was recognized as one of the most promising future astronomers in the German-speaking world. Ingolstadt offered him a prestigious professorship in mathematics, but his ardent soul was already given over to a higher calling, and at twenty years of age he began his priestly studies with the Society of Jesus.

Endurance Rider

The adventurous youth applied several times for an assignment to China but was refused: Mexico was to be his destination. Arriving there in 1681, two years later he set out with Governor Isidro Atondo on an expedition to establish a settlement in what is now known as Baja California.  For Europeans the area was still terra incognita [unexplored territory]: indeed the first known reference to California in the 1510 romance novel, Las Sergas de Esplandián, described it as an island – in fact, an island paradise.

Kino explored the area during 1684 and was the first European to cross the peninsula. There he met the local Native Americans for the first time and his noble heart developed a warm affection for them; it was therefore with intense disappointment that he heard of the decision by the political authorities not to establish a settlement and to return to the mainland in September 1685.

In March 1687, he set out again, this time for the region that would be his second homeland for twenty four years: northern Sonora and southern Arizona. It was then known as Pimería Alta and was the land of the Pimas, whose neighbors and long-standing enemies to the west were the Apaches. Few, if any, Europeans had settled there. He immediately established the mission of Nuestra Señora de los Dolores. This became the base from which he would ride northwards to establish new missions along the banks of the Rio Grande, the Colorado and the Gila.  Indeed, he may have discovered the sources of these rivers.

On his journeys from Sonora to the Gila River area in Arizona, he rode the aptly named El Camino del Diablo, under a relentless blistering sun, with temperatures in the summer time reaching 110 degrees (43 degrees Celsius) with the ground itself some 30 degrees hotter: to collapse from exhaustion on to the ground was to be roasted alive. Gazing around him he would have seen a vast expanse of desert with saguaro cactuses, wiry ocotillo plants and creosote bushes, rimmed by the mountains on the horizon.  Almost a lunar landscape and in fact it was to become the training ground for Neil Armstrong and the first astronauts. This was no land for the fainthearted. Indeed, after Arizona’s toughest explorer died, El Camino del Diablo fell into disuse, and was not frequented again until the discovery of gold in California in 1848 led starry-eyed gold-miners to travel it as a short-cut.

During twenty-four years, almost living in the saddle, the “Padre on horseback”  travelled some nineteen thousand miles (thirty thousand kilometers), crossing and recrossing  the length and breadth of  the arid lands of Pimería Alta, an area 200 miles (322 km) long and 250 miles (402 km) wide. He explored, mapped, founded farms and settlements and built twenty-four missions, among them San Xavier del Bac, ten miles south of what is now Tucson in Arizona.

“Considered quantitatively alone, his work of exploration was astounding. During his twenty-four years of residence at the mission of Dolores, between 1687 and 1711, he made more than fifty journeys inland, an average of more than two per year. These journeys varied from a hundred to nearly a thousand miles in length. They were all made either on foot or on horseback, chiefly the latter. In the course of them he crossed and recrossed repeatedly, and at varying angles, all of the two hundred miles of country between the Magdalena and the Gila and the two hundred and fifty miles between the San Pedro and the Colorado.

“When he first opened them nearly all his trails were either absolutely untrod by civilized man or had been altogether forgotten. They were made through countries inhabited by unknown tribes who might, but fortunately did not, offer him personal violence, though they sometimes proved too threatening for the nerve of his companions. One of his routes was over a forbidding, waterless waste, which has since become the graveyard of scores of travelers who have died of thirst because they lacked Father Kino’s pioneering skill. I refer to the Camino del Diablo, or Devil’s Highway, from Sonoita to the Gila. In the prosecution of these journeys Kino’s energy and hardihood were almost beyond belief.”[4]

Cattle King, Breeder of Mustangs, Defender of the Frontier

As a master mathematician, astronomer and cartographer, Eusebio Kino was the first to draw thirty-one accurate maps of the Gulf of California, Baja California and Pimería Alta, the latter a region of 50,000 square miles (130,000 kms²). It would take 150 years for his map of Pimería Alta to be surpassed. One of his mapping expeditions was to the summit of the Santa Clara volcano:

 “In the year 1698,”  Kino notes in his journal, “at thirty-five degrees latitude, and at one hundred and five leagues by a northwest course from Nuestra Señora de los Dolores, on the very high hill or ancient volcano of Santa Clara, I saw most plainly both with a telescope and without a telescope the junction of these lands of New Spain with those of California, the head of this Sea of California, 33’, and the land passage which was there at thirty-five degrees latitude.”[6]

 He followed up this discovery with six expeditions from 1699 to 1701 seeking the land passage to Baja California.  His expedition of 1706 conclusively put an end to the old myth about the “island of California” showing Baja California to be a peninsula.  It was he who recommended that the peninsula be named “Baja California” and the area above it “Alta California”.

All this exploration and cartography was not simply a dilettante’s exercise in curiosity. It all fitted into the big picture, and the big picture was about man and God and eternal souls. It was the dream of a young heart, a keen mind and an undaunted will, offering in the most effective way possible the greatest gift someone can give to another: the Catholic Faith in all its purity. The maps and the astrolabe that always accompanied Kino for measuring the height of the sun at twenty-two to thirty-five degrees were tools: they were all about guiding his brother-priests along the best and quickest routes connecting one mission to another.  If Eusebio Kino dove into water holes all over the desert, it wasn’t only for a refreshing swim after a bone-wearying journey, but also to classify their depth and quality – such water supplies were vital to the desert traveler who needed two to three gallons a day in summer time just to stay alive. Likewise with his efforts to confirm that Baja California was a peninsula and not an island:  it was for the sake of sending cattle and grain overland to his brother priests, Salvatierra and Piccolo, at their missions at San Xavier Biaundo and Loreto.

Eusebio Kino’s missionary goal was in line with that of the great Catholic missionaries of North America: to give to the Native Americans Christ, who gives everything that ennobles man, and takes away nothing genuinely human in any culture. The method was straightforward:  the Native Americans were his spiritual sons and daughters; they took the place of all those children that we can be sure this vibrant man would have desired to have, back home amid the Tyrolean Alps, if he had opted for marriage instead of priesthood. It was therefore a matter of being “all things to all men, that I might by all means save some” (1 Cor 9:21). That of course was not a task for the frail since it implied a lifetime of rugged self-giving, as the priest was well aware. As he wrote on one occasion:

“This is neither well nor sufficiently achieved when one sits perched on his chair, ordering subordinates or Indian officials to do what we should be doing personally, by sitting down time and again with them on earthen floors or on a rock.[7]

And that is exactly what Eusebio Kino did. Firstly he kept at bay some of the trouble-making Spaniards who wanted the natives as forced labor in the colony’s silver mines. Then he created complex infra-structures that simply astonish, that made the Pimas materially self-sufficient, with a quality of life unknown hitherto. He taught farming methods, how to grow European grains and have winter wheat; he planted new types of seeds and is said to have introduced the Zinfandel grape and the “Mission Fig” from cuttings transported from Europe. He also brought in new farm animals: he literally drove the first twenty cattle into Pimería Alta, built nineteen rancherias (ranch-villages) in six river valleys and saw his herd grow to 70,000. In this way he made ranching a viable economic enterprise in Pimería Alta. No wonder that in Arizona they call him “Cattle-King” and “First Cowboy”.[8]

In the midst of all this Eusebio Kino seems to have burned more than a little midnight oil writing books on the Faith and on astronomy, with titles such as Favores Celestiales and  Exposición Astronómica del Cometa (an account of the comet of 1680-1681). He also carved model ships out of wood, possibly miniatures of the vessel he planned to build, haul across the Sonoran desert and use in the Gulf of California.

A Life to Expand “the Rim of Christendom”[9]

His great achievements, headed by the baptism of some four thousand Native Americans, had been made in the shadow of the cross. Not just the fatigue and sweat of unceasing toil, but the searing pain and loneliness when some of the natives had killed his dearest soul-friend in that desert, the man with whom he had shared so many plans for so much good in the Pimería Alta, his Sicilian brother-priest, Francisco Xavier Saeta. The day was Holy Tuesday, April 2, 1695.

For himself he had asked nothing. In the gruff tones and understatement typical of a rough soldier who masks his admiration, Captain, later General, Juan Mange, who had accompanied Eusebio Kino on several journeys between 1694 and 1701, summarized the character of the priest: “To discover lands and convert souls, these are the virtues of Father Kino.  He prays often and is without vice, does not take either tobacco or snuff, or to the bed, or to the bottle.” All who knew him saw that he possessed only what he needed in order to live, and for Eusebio Kino to live was to love God and the Native Americans with purity as white and fragrant as the Edelweiss of his native Alps.[10]

 He ate little. He slept little. His fellow missionary for the last eight years of his life, Father Luis Velarde, narrated his death shortly after midnight on March 15th, 1711 during a visit to his mission at Santa Magdalena:

” He died as he had lived, with extreme humility and poverty…His deathbed, as his bed had always been, consisted of two calfskins for a mattress, two blankets such as the Indians use for covers, and a pack-saddle for a pillow.”

He must have died serenely, knowing that he had expanded “the rim of Christendom” by living always ad majorem Dei gloriam.

He had lived as a true priest, loving all, whether Pimas or colonists, even dreaming one day of going among the Apaches. Records show a man tender with others but rough with himself, so necessary in order to preserve supernatural love in a fallen nature.

Instances of this are myriad: on the arduous 1,250 mile journey to Mexico City in November and December of 1695, as he rode across desert and mountains, not for a single day did he neglect to offer the Sacrifice of the Mass. His heart was in Heaven, which is not only the final destination but the ultimate level of reality here on earth.  As he had once written in the journal of the year 1700: “On the first of May, in the afternoon and at nightfall, we talked a great part of the night before, in regard to the eternal salvation of all those nations…”  [11]

In the United States Capitol, representing Arizona, there is a statue of the priest who has often been called the “Father of Arizona”. In Mexico two towns have been named in his honor: Magdalena de Kino and Bahía Kino in Sonora.

[1] Description of the hero, Father Jean-Marie Latour, in the novel by WILLA CATHAR, Death comes for the Archbishop, Virago Press, 1981, p. 19. His character is modeled on that of Father Jean-Baptiste Lamy, who became the first bishop of Santa Fe, New Mexico.

[2] From Rim of Christendom, the 644 page biography of the “Knight of the Cross” written by the American historian, Herbert E. Bolton.

[3] Mural in Segno, Italy, made by the Mexican-born artist, Nereo de la Pena.

[4] Herbert E. Bolton, Kino’s Historical Memoir of Pimeria Alta, a Contemporary Account of the Beginnings of California, Sonora, and Arizona, University of California Press, 1948, p. 22.

[5] Eusebio Kino (Drawing by Francis O’Brian)

[6]Idem, p. 229.

[7] EUSEBIO FRANCISCO KINO, Kino’s Life of Xavier Saeta (translated and with an epilogue by Charles W. Polzer, S.J. and original Spanish transcription by Ernest J. Burrus, S.J),  Jesuit Historical Institute, Rome and Saint Louis, 1971, p. 187.

[8] Attributed to him by Professor Peter Horwath of the State University of Arizona.

[9] Poster for the movie The Father Kino Story

[10]  Father Eusebio Kino, bronze sculpture in the Capitol, Washington DC, where his statue is one of two representing the state of Arizona.

[11] HERBERT EUGENE BOLTON, Kino’s Historical Memoir of Pimeria Alta, University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1948, pp.235-238.