The year was 1857. The United States had just won a war with Mexico and gained large stretches of territory thereby. Ambitious Americans called filibusteros were planning or trying to carve out their own Anglo-Saxon bits of territory in Latin America. Such a man was Henry Alexander Crabb. A lawyer and politician residing in Stockton, California, Crabb was married into a wealthy and influential Sonoran family, and convinced himself that he could take advantage of the political infighting in that state by bringing an army down and settling in.
His plan was to send two parties into Sonora: one of a thousand men (who were never recruited) to go by sea, while he himself marched overland from California with about 90 men. They arrived at a point near Caborca on April 1st, where they were ambushed by angry Mexican and O’odham Caborcans. These latter then retreated into the old mission church, while Crabb’s men occupied a thatched-roofed house opposite. Meanwhile, a relief column of Mexican soldiers with two cannons from Altar surrounded the battleground. The invaders entered the convento and tried unsuccessfully to blow in the side door to the church with a barrel of gunpowder. They then retreated to their house, and when the thatched roof was set on fire with a flaming arrow shot by an O’odham, they surrendered. All were executed, except for one sixteen-year old boy, who survived to return to California and write about his ordeal.
So much for history. There is a living oral tradition among both Mexicans and O’odham that when the Americans lit the fuse on the gunpowder and retired, a Lady in Blue appeared and put out the spark with her hands. Crabb’s men were sharpshooters, I was told, but they could not hit her. That was why the door could not be blown down. The church at Caborca is dedicated to Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, and the Virgin Mary is traditionally shown dressed in blue. In the minds of those who tell this story, she was protecting her church and her people.
Folklorists have collected seven similar Sonoran narratives of saints saving their villages from attackers. I’ll probably tell some of the others at a later date. But this is enough for now.
The illustration shows a mural on the front wall of the Hotel Suites Tohono O’odham in Puerto Peñasco. The mural, signed by Ernesto Jaime M. and dated March 16, 2003, is itself a copy of a painting by the late, prolific Epifaneo Morales of Ímuris. The mural shows the church at the moment of Crabb’s surrender, with the Americans wearing red shirts and the defending forces, both Mexican and O’odham, in white shirts. A giant Indian is shooting the flaming arrow (labeled with the number 7) into the house The caption reads “Battle of April 6,1857. This church served as refuge for the defenders of the fatherland against the American filibusters. Won by a Papago Indian with the seventh arrow.”
For more information on the Crabb Expedition, see Crabb’s Filibustering Expedition into Sonora, 1857, by Robert H. Forbes. (Tucson: Arizona Silhouettes, 1958.)