Gumersindo Esquer of Sonoyta: A Mexican Jules Verne in the Footsteps of William Hornaday

By Hartmann, William K.; Hartmann, Gayle Harrison et al. | Journal of the Southwest, Summer 2007 | Go to article overview

Gumersindo Esquer of Sonoyta: A Mexican Jules Verne in the Footsteps of William Hornaday


Hartmann, William K., Hartmann, Gayle Harrison, Palacio, Guillermo Munro, Journal of the Southwest


The native village at Sonoyta, Sonora, was first recorded by Europeans when Father Eusebio Kino visited it in 1698. By 1700, he wrote that this "rancheria ... is the best there is on this coast. It has fertile land, with irrigation ditches for good crops ..., water which runs all the year, good pasture for cattle, and everything necessary for a good settlement" (Kino 1924, 2:255). Kino was proved right. Sonoyta was a good place to live.

By the 1920s, Sonoyta was a prospering town, full of busy and optimistic inhabitants, a desert oasis on the Sonoyta River. This was the Sonoyta of the writer, poet, teacher, hunter, and explorer Gumersindo Esquer, one of the most colorful yet least known characters of the northwestern Sonora frontier at that time. He rhapsodized about his little town on the first page of his 1928 novel, Campos de Fuego (Fields of Fire).

   Sonoyta is an oasis in the midst of the desert. It is worthy of
   being seen and admired because of the small but never-failing river
   which, like a beautiful silver ribbon, runs from east to west along
   the north side, until its waters are lost in the unexplored sand
   dunes which are in the eastern part of the steep mountain range of
   El Pinacate. ... Its climate is, I know not why, extremely
   variable, very hot in summer, very cold in winter, and subject to
   abrupt changes in temperature in spring and fall.

   When in flood, the "Little River," as the North Americans call the
   stream, fertilizes the flood-plains on both banks, where small
   plantings of maize, wheat, beans, vines, fig-trees, pomegranates,
   etc., may be seen; these are pleasing to the eyes of the
   passers-by, presenting as they do a most lovely panorama of
   verdure-clothed fields. (1)

SONOYTA AND THE EXPLORERS

Scientific exploration helped inspire the flowering of Sonoyta in the early twentieth century. As earls, as 1887, the French geographer Mphonse Pinart passed through the area. Sailing from San Francisco, he visited Caborca and Sonoyta, explored the Pinacates, and sketched missions and lava fields. His account of his travels was published in 1880 in the French journal Bulletin de la Societe de Geographie (Pinart 1880). Intriguingly, Pinart mentions that around Batamote, on the southeast flank of the Pinacates south of Sonoyta, he heard a rumor of a discovery of ruins of a presumably Spanish-era "mission or church" and other structures. As we will see, this is the kind of story that may have influenced Esquer, forty years later.

Pinart's publication, covering both geology and folklore, probably also helped inspire a more famous expedition in 1907, when the sizeable MacDougal-Hornaday-Sykes party, passed through Sonoyta, with colorful local lawman Jeff Milton as a guide. From then on, other historically interesting citizens of the area, such as Alberto Celaya and Hia C'ed O'odham Quelele, acted as guides for such Pinacate explorers as Carl Lumholtz and Julian Hayden. MacDougal's 1907 party described various species of large animals such as bighorn sheep and pronghorn that roamed the region. They collected specimens, discovered and named yawning craters, and photographed cacti and rattlesnakes. Hornaday, primarily a zoo director and travel writer, published a bumptious book about the expedition's adventures in 1908. Brimming with American turn-of-the-century optimism and enthusiasm, Hornaday's Camp-Fires on Desert and Lava describes awesome vistas of lava and "first" descents into spectacular craters (which Native Americans had certainly visited previously). One of the most impressive anecdotes recounts the odyssey of MacDougal's indefatigable colleague, Godfrey Sykes, who left camp alone one day at 1 p.m., and without telling anyone, made a forty-three-mile round-trip walk (according to his pedometer) across the trackless Gran Desierto dunes in order to reach the coast and calibrate his barometer at sea level, returning at 1:30 a. …

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