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Studying the history of southern Arizona and Sonora is a fascinating activity, as is trying to understand the eighteenth-century mind. Rudo Ensayo offers a unique blend of both. The work may be read to gain knowledge of the history of the region, the quest for metals, fauna and flora, and missionary work among the Indians, to mention just a few subjects. But even more than these, the work offers an interesting view of eighteenth-century thinking. Father Juan Nentvig's manuscript was written in a century of exploration when people were willing to believe that far-off lands were filled with incredible mysteries; it is crammed with information interlaced with colorful but impossible tales.

Nentvig writes of a double-headed eagle with a casual matter-of-factness. He speaks of the spasm herb that relieves tension in man or beast, and describes how animals recuperate immediately following its administration. He writes of jojoba nuts, their power to treat arrow wounds, and includes a personal testimonial, describing how he was cured instantly of a sharp pain in his rib cage. He tells of a palm frond that can make barren women fertile and fumes of a cocoon that will cure malaria.

Furthermore, one is astounded by his account of a tarantula biting off the hoof of a horse as the animal gallops by, and a description of a rock with a liquid center. There is an amazing story of the curative powers of the roots of the jaramatraca tree. Declaring himself an eyewitness, Nentvig discloses that a cowboy was restored to health overnight after being trampled by a horse. His face mangled with bones exposed, he received treatment consisting of a poultice made

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from this wondrous plant and was healed by the next day. Just as astonishing, Nentvig refers to a mining site so rich in silver that rocks found there will flatten when struck with a hammer. And he tells of an old man who discovered a vein of silver so rich he merely had to cut off the amount he wanted with a knife.

Then, too, Father Nentvig takes us on an imaginary flight over the province of Sonora, pointing out the mission stations, the mining towns, reales de minas, Indian villages, and Spanish settlements of the 1760s. His geographical description is amazingly accurate, and his close attention to detail sets the work above other writings covering the period and area. His is the best of the eighteenth-century histories of Sonora and southern Arizona—an account by a learned European who had a keen sense of responsibility and was capable of judging rather impartially, describing life in Sonora thoroughly and systematically.

We also follow Father Nentvig's frustrations as he tries to force a European lifestyle on the Pimas, Seris, and the Opatas, whom he praises as the best Christians and most loyal allies, and on the wily Apaches, whom he condemns as the most hostile and uncontrollable enemy. He rebukes the Indians for their failure to follow the ways of the Spaniard and is awed by the natives' ability to survive and excel in the tortuous desert and rugged mountains.

Nentvig quotes an old-time Sonoran missionary as saying that “there are no Christians in the world who recite the catechism more often and know it less than these Indians.” Nentvig points with pride at a group of natives that insists upon hearing mass more often than required, and he fails to realize that these natives come primarily to be fed and only tolerate the spiritual enlightenment as the price they have to pay for the priest's gift of food.

Dealing in some detail with the customs of the Indians, Nentvig offers insights into tribal life. He admires the patience of Indian women who wouldn't accept modern weaving methods and continued using their slow way, which he describes minutely, with extraordinary results. The image here is of an independent people who long to live in the old ways and survive with the ancient traditions. The idealistic German priest refers to them as his “spiritual children” and encourages them to till the soil and live more industriously.

Almost killed in an Indian rebellion only a year after he arrived in

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Sonora, Nentvig survived a siege in a small mission church and struggled onward in keeping with the tenets of his faith—opposing the Indians where he had to, supporting them against the government when necessary, and always spreading the word of God wherever he went. His chapters dealing with the Indians are among the finest ever written.

Present-day scholars are indebted both to a Franciscan friar, probably Manuel de la Vega, who was commissary general for the Indies in 1770, for gathering a number of manuscripts, and to an illustrious viceroy of New Spain, Juan Vicente Güemes-Pacheco y Padilla, who on February 21, 1790, decreed the collection of all manuscripts pertaining to New Spain and appointed another Franciscan friar, Francisco García Figueroa, a prominent member of his order, to accomplish the task. In less than three years García Figueroa amassed 32 volumes, over 1,000 folios, of precious documents. In the Franciscan archives among the de la Vega papers the Descripción de Sonora was found.

As for the title Rudo Ensayo, meaning rough essay, it was not literally part of the original manuscript but was applied by Buckingham Smith, who was the first to publish the work in the United States. Perhaps Smith coined the phrase after reading Nentvig's inscription on the final page of the Mexico City manuscript, which reads: “Descripción Geográfica, Natural y Curiosa de la Provincia de Sonora por un amigo de el servicio de Dios y de el Rey Nuestro Señor. Año de 1764.” Translated, this is: “A crude [raw, unfinished, rough] and curious geographic description of the province of Sonora [written] by a friend in the service of God and our Lord the King, the year of 1764.”

And, too, Smith must have noted the informality of the author's writing style. For example, Nentvig concludes his remarks at the end of section two, chapter ix, with the plea, “I beg the benevolent reader to forgive the disarray of the last two sections of this chapter.” The title Rudo Ensayo seems even more apropos in light of the later discovery of Father Nentvig's letter of February 14, 1765,1 to Provincial

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Francisco Zeballos, S.J., in which Nentvig pens, “The Description is badly arranged.” Today, the Rudo Ensayo title of Smith's version is well accepted and synonymous with the work.

The authorship of the manuscript was in question for many years. Because the author referred to himself on the title page of the Mexico City manuscripts as “a friend of the common good” and on the final page as “one in the service of God and our Lord the King,” investigators believed the writer to be connected with the church. And since the Jesuits were the sole religious group responsible for the province of Sonora, it was believed the author had to be a Jesuit priest. Buckingham Smith, as well as other investigators, suspected the Jesuit missionary Juan Nentvig, but definite proof was not obtained until February, 1950, when a docket of letters was found in the Archivo Histórico de Hacienda of Mexico, Temporalidades section, legajo 17–24.2 In a postscript to this letter to Zeballos, Nentvig wrote:

‘‘Concerning the Descripción de Sonora, it had to be ready within a very limited time: before the departure of Señor Tienda de Cuervo [December 9, 1762]. The Descripción is badly arranged. I wrote it surreptitiously during the summer when my health was not so good. Lacking necessary data, I requested information from various individuals who paid no attention to my appeals … I would prefer that less credit be given to me alone for the writing of such an important work as the history of this province, to which I would gladly dedicate my efforts in a more thorough manner were it not for my endless occupations … and my blindness has prevented me from reviewing my notes …3’’

With reference to Tienda de Cuervo one is able to establish the year in which the essay was written. But the Madrid manuscript bears the date 1763 while the two Mexico City manuscripts are dated 1764. An explanation seems in order.

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In the middle of 1762 Spain was at war with England. The British had captured Havana, and the governor of Sonora, Don José Tienda de Cuervo, a lieutenant colonel in the Regiment of Dragoons, was ordered by the viceroy of New Spain to report for active duty with his regiment at Veracruz. Tienda de Cuervo left Sonora December 9, 1762, carrying a copy of the essay and corresponding map, to which Nentvig referred in another letter to Provincial Zeballos, this one dated July 16, 1764, and appearing in translation in this volume. One learns from this that another manuscript was carried by Father Visitor Ignacio Lizassoian, S.J., who left Sonora September 23, 1762, and forwarded the work to Mexico City from Charcos de Celaya, state of Guanajuato, December 13, 1762. Since the manuscript carried by Tienda de Cuervo was intended for the viceroy, who apparently had requested such an essay, it would seem safe to assume that Cuervo was carrying the original and Lizassoian, a copy. Because of the death of Cuervo, the original never reached the viceroy and its whereabouts is unknown. The copy carried by Lizassoian, intended for Nentvig's superior, reached Mexico City, and from it at least one copy was made during the early part of 1763 and sent to Madrid. Other copies were made less hurriedly in Mexico City, amending and updating the essay to correspond with more recent information. For example, the Mexico City manuscripts record the death of Curate Juan José de Grijalva in January, 1763, but the Madrid manuscript makes no mention of it. This leads to the belief that the manuscripts do not bear the date in which the essay was written but rather the year in which each was copied or amended.

Buckingham Smith apparently examined the two manuscripts in Mexico City as well as the one in Madrid, for he served as chargé d'affaires for the United States in Mexico from 1850 to 1851 and later traveled to Spain. Since Smith used the 1763 date of the Madrid manuscript on his version, one might assume he followed the Madrid text.

Comparing the Smith text with the Mexico City manuscript used in this interpretation, one discovers some interesting and significant differences that prove the Mexico City manuscripts were written later. The missionary assignments given in the Smith text are confirmed in the yearly Jesuit provincial catalogue of 1762, while the missionary assignments in the Mexico City manuscripts coincide with the yearly

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Jesuit provincial catalogue of 1764. The following chart lists the placements of missionaries as given in Smith's text dated 1763 and the Mexico manuscripts dated 1764:
1763 1764
Jacobo Sedelmayr Tecoripa Francisco Javier González
José Joaquín Franco Cumuripa Benito Antonio Romeo
Guillermo David Borio Mátape Jacobo Sedelmayr
José Toral Banámichi Francisco Javier Villaroya
Salvador de la Peña Opodepe Ignacio Pfefferkorn
Ignacio Pfefferkorn Guevavi Cústodio Jimeno

Then, too, chronological discrepancies are found in other areas. In chapter v, section one, Nentvig alludes to the thirteen years he has been in the northwest. Since he arrived in 1750, 1762 would be his thirteenth year in the province. Yet, in his letter of December 3, 1754, to the visitor general José Utrera,4 Nentvig states he took charge of the Saric Mission, his first in Sonora, on June 21, 1751. However, the yearly Jesuit provincial catalogue has him there in 1750. In chapter vi, section three, the good father refers to the encounter between the Spanish forces and the Seris in “November or December of this past year, 1761.” Since the manuscripts record events that occurred in 1763 and 1764, the 1761 date here seems puzzling. The Smith text states that the depopulation of Cananea took place in 1762, while the Mexico City manuscripts, chapter ix, section two of this interpretation, give 1763 as the date.

The manuscript used for this interpretation is in the Archivo General de la Nación (Mexico), history section, volume 393. There are other known manuscripts. They are in the Real Academia de la Historia, Madrid; the Huntington Library, San Marino, California; and another in the Archivo General de la Nación (Mexico), volume 16.

The first Spanish version was published in Documentos para la

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historia de México, volume XVI, pages 489–616, Mexico, 1853–1856. The second was by Buckingham Smith, St. Augustine, Florida, 1863; a third published version is identical as far as it goes to the Documentos para la historia but is incomplete in the Boletín del Archivo General de la Nación (Mexico), volumes XXVI (1955), XXVIII (1957), XXIX (1958). Furthermore, there is an English version by Eusebio Guiteras printed by the American Catholic Historical Society of Philadelphia in 1894 and republished by Arizona Silhouettes, Tucson, Arizona, 1951. More recently, a fourth version, in Spanish and modified to some extent by Germán Viveros, was published by the Archivo General de la Nación of Mexico, second series, number 1, 1971.

An important item in Nentvig's correspondence relates to the existence of a map that goes along with the essay. Nentvig wrote in his letter to Zeballos, July 16, 1764:

‘‘I have just replied to a letter from His Excellency the Viceroy dated May 19 [1764], in which he asks me for a map of this province. I had one left, identical to the one carried by the deceased Tienda de Cuervo but not so well finished.’’

And to the viceroy, the Marquis de Cruillas, Nentvig wrote on July 15, 1764:

‘‘As we do not have the necessary instruments nor the ability to use them, the map was not made by mathematical observations. Instead, it was drawn following the knowledge acquired on my travels through Sonora and the Pimeria, adding the information obtained from experts on the Apache and Seri lands.5’’

On February 14, 1765, Nentvig wrote to Zeballos:

‘‘I have just received the very esteemed letter of November 15, 1764, in which Your Reverence embarrasses me by granting me more credit than I deserve. Permit me to confess that my part in the preparation of the map was limited to making a

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rough sketch. It was Father Middendorff who drew and finished it so beautifully. Therefore, if it has any merit, the credit should go to him.’’

As for the copy of the essay and map carried by Tienda de Cuervo, one can well surmise why it was not delivered to the viceroy, who at the time had gone to Veracruz to make preparations for the expected attack by the British. Cuervo either contracted smallpox in Mexico City or fell ill and died in the unwholesome climate of Veracruz shortly after his arrival. Referring to the map, Nentvig wrote to Zeballos (February 14, 1765) that it was “… taken by Tienda de Cuervo … and upon his death his widow took it to Spain, and I fear she will have it published there …” The cartouche in the lower left corner of the map reads:

‘‘Chorographic draft of Sonora and Pimería, Provinces of North America from the 26 degree to the 36 degree latitude and from the 257 degree to the 269 degree longitude of the Tenerife meridian, drawn from the sketch made by Father Juan Nentvig of the Society of Jesus and presented to His Excellency the Marquis of Cruillas, Viceroy, Governor and Captain General, etc. of New Spain.’’

Within the elaborately embellished cartouche and just below the above quoted legend is a code of symbols representing presidios, missions in ruin, principal or head missions, dependent missions, mining settlements, ranches, colonies of white inhabitants, towns with large numbers of Spaniards, water holes, Indian villages, and mine shafts as well as devastated towns.

In the lower right corner—a region not included in the essay—is an illustration of a castle being cannonaded, perhaps the sketcher's memory of a European siege.

A reproduction of the Nentvig-Middendorff map is included in this interpretation, thanks to the trustees of the British Museum who very kindly supplied a copy of the original in their possession and granted permission (March 20, 1964) for its use. The map was believed lost. Fortunately, with the invaluable assistance of Father Ernest J. Burrus, S.J., the precious cartographic chart was located in the British Museum catalogued under Mentuig, R53/1207, ADD 3424

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OB. It was later published by Father Burrus in La obra cartográfica de la provincia mexicana de la Compañíia de Jesús 1567–1767, volume 2, chart number 39, Madrid version.

The original is 76 × 91.5 centimeters and badly stained. It is torn around the folds, and there are sizable portions missing, no doubt caused by lack of materials to wrap it properly for its long journey, rain in transit, and old age. Nentvig foresaw a certain amount of damage when he wrote in his letter of July 15, 1764, to the Marquis de Cruillas, “The map is being sent wrapped as well as circumstances permit to protect it from the prevailing rains.”

The reproduction included in this version is reduced in size and has been carefully retouched without changing the spelling or altering the style of script.

Nentvig's descriptions of plants and animals often lack sufficient information for proper identification. Efforts were made to identify them, giving wherever possible their English equivalents and botanical or zoological nomenclature. In this area we are indebted to Mr. Howard E. Gulick for his praiseworthy cooperation, so generously offered.

Spelling varies indiscriminately in the manuscripts, b being used for v (and vice versa); g for h; and c, s, and z are frequently used interchangeably. The suffixes of tze and tzi often appear as che or chi, and the final letter a is at times omitted. Even among scholars today there is not agreement concerning the spellings of many villages, towns, and tribes, particularly when these are no longer in existence or now bear different names. In the interest of uniformity and clarity the translators have selected generally accepted spellings and used them uniformly throughout. Also in the interest of uniformity and clarity, the translators have added titles to chapters i, viii, and ix, which are not titled in the manuscripts.

The Smith text, the Guiteras translation, and the Mexico manuscript were studied and compared. In this phase our departed friend Harmon J. Middaugh was an invaluable aid, and his assistance is gratefully acknowledged.

Even though Nentvig was terribly busy, indisposed, enduring the heat of the summer, and suffering from failing eyesight, he tended to be verbose; his syntax led to some confusion in many instances, even

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for persons well versed in the language and region. The goal of this interpretation, then, is to render Father Nentvig's essay in readable English and clarify ambiguous points by offering a free translation in keeping with his meaning.

In the preparation of this interpretation the writings of Nentvig's contemporaries—Kino, Perez Ribas, Pfefferkorn, Roxas, Sedelmayr, etc.—were consulted and compared with accounts of modern writers. The Nentvig-Middendorff map was closely followed, and annotations that might prove useful were made throughout the text. Brackets were used to set off explanatory notes by the translators within the text, and footnotes have been added by us to help clarify and amplify points for the reader, and perhaps to open avenues for further investigation.



1. Located in the Temporalidades section, legajo 17–24, Archivo Histórico de Hacienda, Mexico City, as is the July 16, 1764 letter to Zeballos cited in this preface.

2. Pradeau, A. F. “Description of Sonora,” Mid-America, 24, new series no. 2, (April 1953): 81–90.

3. Father Nentvig, writing to Father José Hidalgo, S.J., October 5, 1766, states that in order to see better he was using the glasses of the deceased Father Tomás Pérez de la Busta, S.J.

4. Located in the Archivo Franciscano, Biblioteca Nacional, caja 33-692, Mexico City, it was published in Documentos para la historia de México, 1, second series, pp. 195–204.

5. Located in the Archivo General de la Nación, Mexico City, Provincias internas section, vol. 86, folios 332–3.

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