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German Jesuit Missionaries in the Southwest

Christian missionaries from the Southern German Province of the Jesuits arrived in the northern Mexican area of Sonora (present-day Arizona) in 1687 to convert the population to Christianity. Like many other Christian missionaries, Ignaz Pfefferkorn (1726 - 1798), a Jesuit from Mannheim, learned the local Native American languages after his arrival in North America.

Jesuits and the Tohono O'odham

The Jesuits wanted to turn the nomadic Native Americans into settlers. They taught agriculture, livestock farming, and reading and writing to the Pima (Tohono O'odham), Eudebe, and Maricopa peoples. The Jesuits worked to establish mission sites. As much as possible, they protected the Tohono O'odham, Eudebes, and Marcicopa who had converted to Christianity from the Apache and Seri, who fought to protect themselves from colonization by the Spanish.

Jesuits Driven Out

Over several decades, the missionaries developed close relations with the native populations. Because the Jesuits wanted to protect the Native Americans against exploitation by the Spanish colonial powers, the Spanish did not trust the Jesuits and hostilities developed. In 1767 Pfefferkorn and his fellow Jesuit missionaries were arrested and expelled from America.

“In this stretch of land, we were almost exclusively German missionaries. Because everywhere, missionaries are either in the vanguard or sit as lost sentries, who are always on the outermost frontier,
neighboring the entirely savage ones.”

- Missionary Joseph Och (1725 - 1773) about the situation in Sonora

Encyclopedia of Sonora

After his return to Germany, Pfefferkorn authored a two-volume encyclopedia (published 1794 - 1795) about the Mexican desert environs and the Jesuit missions there. He wrote about the landscape, the plants and animals, and the relations between the missionaries and the Tohono O'odham. His account gives a clear picture of the encounters between the Europeans and the native populations. The Jesuits judged the Tohono O'odham through the lens of European culture, and first regarded them as nomads who needed to be "civilized" and then as people to be converted to Christianity.

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