The Journal of San Diego History
Winter 1982, Volume 28, Number 1
Edited by Thomas L. Scharf

Book Review

Richard H. Peterson, Book Review Editor

Missionaries, Miners and Indians: Spanish Contact with the Yaqui Nation of Northwestern New Spain, 1533-1820. By Evelyn Hu-DeHart. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 1981. Bibliography. Maps. Index. 152 pages. $9.95.

Reviewed by Clare V. McKanna, Instructor of California and Latin American history at San Diego Evening College (Mesa Campus).

Over fifty years ago, Herbert Eugene Bolton promoted the concept of comparative history which included the Spanish Borderlands. Since then he and many of his students have slowly, but methodically, researched and written historical works that have helped to explain this vast area contested by Native Americans, Spaniards, Frenchmen, and Anglo-Americans. One of the areas that has remained somewhat sketchy has been elucidated with the publication of this concise useful volume by Evelyn Hu-DeHart. It is true that there are studies tracing the rise of Jesuit power on the Northwestern frontier of Mexico, but no significant works explain the intricate balance that existed among the Jesuit missionaries, the Spanish miners, and the Yaquis who populated the river basins of Sonora.

Hu-DeHart explains that despite contact and warfare with the white man for over three centuries, the Yaquis had not been “forcefully assimilated or decimated.” They were a resourceful people determined to maintain their cultural identity in spite of overwhelming pressure from European intruders. There were probably around 30,000 Yaquis at the beginning of the Jesuit penetration and after three centuries, 15,000 still remained. How did they survive? That is the main thrust of this volume.

The author briefly traces the cultural heritage of this hardy group and then follows the movement of the Jesuits as they formed their missions on the Yaqui and Mayo rivers. These areas were selected to take advantage of the large number of Indians that congregated in the rancherias scattered over the fertile flood plains. In 1591, the first missionaries arrived and gradually gained influence among the Yaquis. Eventually they established eight pueblos and quickly developed a surplus of food products which became the center of controversy and opened the Jesuits to attack. The missionaries controlled almost every aspect of the Yaquis’ lives and refused to teach them Spanish since they might be corrupted by the rest of the Spanish population. Still, Yaquis maintained their cultural identity. Apparently the neophytes welcomed the administrative control of the Jesuits because it increased agricultural production and strengthened security against their enemies. It appeared to be a good arrangement for both sides.

The most important chapter covers the Yaqui Rebellion of 1740 and its consequences. Hu-DeHart concludes that it was the death knell for the “Black Robes.” They saw sinister plots by the governor and the Spanish who lived in the area. It is true that many Spanish subjects envied the Jesuits; however, they weakened their position on the Sonoran frontier by refusing to consider the complaints of the Yaquis. The author has given us an excellent new appraisal of this confusing rebellion and she concludes that it was not nearly as violent or severe as has been commonly assumed. But its consequences were very significant. The Yaquis increased their movement into the mines, and the Jesuits lost their missions with the changes introduced by Jose’ de Galvez. Yet there was little protest by the Yaquis. Hu-DeHart concludes that the “Yaquis had become morally and materially less dependent on the mission.” They were more concerned with the alternate lifestyle provided by the Spanish mines. This ended the saga of Jesuit control which left the Yaqui in good shape to resist domination by any other group.

The author has provided a succinct account of the inter-relationships among the Jesuits, miners and Yaquis during the colonial era. She has included useful maps, and a good bibliography. One can only hope that she will produce a companion volume that will cover the plight of the Yaquis during the harsh years of the “Porfiriato.” This important work is highly recommended for those interested in Spanish Borderlands history.