- A Jesuit Missionary in Eighteenth-Century Sonora: The Family Correspondence of Philipp Segesser ed. by Raymond H. Thompson, and: Early History of the Southwest through the Eyes of German-Speaking Jesuit Missionaries: A Transcultural Experience in the Eighteenth Century by Albrecht Classen
Over the last quarter-century the methodologies of ethnohistory have enriched the one-dimensional histories of colonial missions in the Americas. The vision of Catholic missions as a frontier institution that advanced the boundaries of civilization among unlettered and barbarous peoples, reified in Herbert E. Bolton’s phrase “rim of Christendom,” has given way to complex histories of the native peoples as historical actors whose calculus for survival under the demands of colonialism included permanent or itinerant residence in the consolidated pueblos that were established under the auspices of the missions. Whether in the arid lands of northern New Spain, the woodlands of Nouveau France, or the interior lowlands of South America, histories focused on the missions or that employed missionary texts from different religious orders increasingly reveal complex stories of cultural encounter fraught with tensions and conflicts.
What is needed to complete these culturally nuanced interpretations of mission history are ethnographies of the missionaries themselves. The two books under review here contribute to that effort for the Society of Jesus while they draw on an extensive bibliography devoted to the literary and scholarly works by Jesuits who served in different parts of the Americas and Asia. Works that highlight the Jesuits’ contributions to cartography, medicine, astronomy, and natural history include John W. O’Malley, Gauvin Alexander Bailey, Steven J. Harris, and T. Frank Kennedy, eds., The Jesuits: Cultures, Sciences, and the Arts, 1540–1773 (Toronto, 1999); Karl Kohut and María Cristina Torales Pacheco, eds., Desde los confines de los imperios ibéricos: Los jesuitas de habla alemana en las misiones americanas (Frankfurt, 2007); María del Cármen Anzures y Bolaños’s scholarly edition of Juan de Esteyneffer, Florilegio Medicinal (Mexico, 1978); and Guillermo Zemeño Padilla, Cartas edificantes y curiosas de algunos Jesuitas del siglo XVII: travesías, itinerarios, testimonios (Mexico, 2006). Equally important, Theodore Treutlein’s translations of selected German Jesuits’ writings into English, including Philipp Segesser (1689–1762), Ignaz Pfefferkorn (1725–98), and Joseph Och (1725–73), contributed to our knowledge about the missions, their indigenous neophytes, and the missionaries who served them.
Raymond H. Thompson’s well-researched edition of Segesser’s letters written to his family over more than four decades provides a rich new source for scholars who work on the colonial mission enterprise in the Iberian borderlands and the Jesuits’ early-modern global network in the shadow of the Counter-Reformation. The collection includes seventy-six letters that were conserved by the Segesser [End Page 677] family and deposited in the Lucerne State Archive, of which forty-one letters were written from different locations in Europe during Segesser’s religious training, and thirty-five are penned from New World areas such as Cuba, central Mexico, and Sonora. Seven of the letters were written in Latin, and the rest were in German. The translators’ linguistic choices reflect the challenges of working from premodern texts in German and deciphering cryptic phrases in Latin that appeared throughout the originals. The result, while maintaining the formality of Segesser’s style, expresses poignantly the humanity of this Swiss Jesuit, who devoted his adult life to the missions of the Upper and Lower Pimería in present-day Sonora (Mexico) and Arizona (United States). We learn of his illnesses, his difficult adjustment to the rigors of the Sonoran climate, the daily routines of mission life that absorbed his time in temporal affairs, and his profound loneliness...