Quechan legend befuddles historian
Editor's Note: The Yuma Sun is reprinting articles from past newspapers throughout the year as part of the Arizona Centennial celebrations, marking the area's history. This column is one in a series written by local historian Frank Love that appeared periodically in the newspaper.
One of the strangest tales to come from the Yuma region was related to Father Eusibio Kino, a Jesuit missionary, by the Quechan Indians in 1698. Kino had traveled here with a Spanish army officer, Lt. Juan Mateo Manje, who kept the diary which contains the story.
“When the oldest among us were young,” a Quechan told Kino, “a beautiful white woman carrying a cross came among us. She wore clothing that was white, gray and blue. On her head was a veil. She spoke to us in a language we didn't understand. It made her angry when she didn't know what she was saying, and soon she was shouting at us.”
The Indian told Kino that one of them shot the woman with an arrow, and she fell to the ground. “We thought she was dead and we left her there,” they reported. “But she wasn't. The next day, she was back trying to speak to us again. Someone shot her a second time, and she was left for dead. To our surprise, she appeared among us a day or so later, and then we saw her no more.”
“Nonsense,” you may be thinking. As a historian, that was my reaction upon first hearing the tale. There is no documentary evidence of nuns being in Arizona in the early 17th century. And how could one have survived arrow wounds twice?
But I've had second thoughts since finding evidence which suggests that a similar lady in blue appeared to other tribes.
Consider this: A delegation of Jumano Indians of Mexico appeared at a Spanish mission in 1629 wanting to be baptized and desiring that missionaries be sent to instruct their tribe. Fray Alonso de Benavides, in charge of the mission, was delighted in their interest but curious about how they learned of the Christian religion.
“We asked them why they petitioned us for baptism with so much fervor and for missionaries to instruct them,” he wrote. “They replied that a woman ... had come to preach to them in their own tongue ordering them to go and summon the padres to instruct and baptize them.”
While the Jumanos were at the mission, they were shown a painting depicting Mother Luisa de Carrion. She was a nun noted for her good works. “It was not her,” the Jumanos said, “but she wore clothing like that and was much younger.”
Or what about this? Missionary Fray Damion Manzanet reported after visiting Indians in eastern Texas in 1699 that one of them requested a piece of blue cloth. When asked why he wanted it, the native replied that it would be used as a burial shroud for his mother. He said that his tribe used that color to bury the dead because they were visited years earlier by a beautiful woman who wore blue clothing. He wanted his mother to be dressed for burial in the same color of clothing the woman had worn.
If Kino had only been told of the woman in blue in one place, it might be dismissed as a hallucination, but he heard the tale before reaching the Yuma area. Five days earlier at Sonoita, Indians told him that the strange white woman had been there, too. Even then he might have dismissed the tale had he not been familiar with the story of Sister Maria de Jesus, the abbess of a Spanish convent.
In 1630, Sister Maria told her confessor that while in a trance, she was miraculously transported to a distant land where she taught her faith to the native people. The same Fray Benavides who was told of the woman in blue in Mexico learned of the nun's claim and visited her in Agreda, Spain, in 1631.
Here is his report of their conversation:
“I arrived in Agreda the last day of April, 1631, and before saying anything else, I will declare that the said Mother Maria de Jesus, abbess now of the Convent of the Immaculate Conception, is about 29 years of age. ... Her habit was that of the Franciscans, of brown sack cloth covered by a white one and over this she wore a cloak of blue cloth. The first time she went was in the year 1620. She has continued ever since until 1631. ... She told me also that she had commanded the Jumanos to call on us. She herself sent the messages to call the missionaries.”
Kino and Manje were puzzled by the story. They wondered why God would go to the trouble to transport the nun to Arizona but not give her the ability to speak in the language of the Quechan Indians. I wonder about that, too. If the woman in blue was able to speak the language of the Indians in Texas, why not in Arizona?
Kino and Manje weren't the last to hear about the woman in blue from Indians. Father Jacob Sedelmayr heard about her when he visited the Yuma area in 1744. But his version of the story differs. The woman spoke the language of the Quechans and taught them the faith.
It is a curious tale but isn't easily dismissed because it was reported so often by so many different missionaries.
Fact or fiction? Your guess is as good as mine.