Our tales of the old west include many accounts of chroniclers and keeper of journals of the old days. But, perhaps none of these chronicles is more fascinating or descriptive than the journal kept by one of the seven nuns who traveled from San Diego, California to Tucson, Arizona in May, 1870.
The seven sisters had been called to serve at the St. Joseph Convent in Tucson, but the calling required that they travel from San Diego, over the coastal mountains, across the California desert to Yuma, and then through the dangerous Indian territory to their new home. The only way these poor sisters could make the trip – on foot.
They carried the beautiful names of Emerentia, Ambrosia, Euphrasia, Monica, Martha, Maximus, and Hyacinth. But the beauty of these names belied the strength of those seven spirits. They could not understand why men of greater physical strength who had experienced this same crossing pleaded with them not to go. After all, God had called and they meant to obey – even though they had little money.
It took two weeks just to cross the mountain range east of San Diego to reach the desert, and twenty more to cross the Imperial Valley floor.
Sister Monica kept a detailed diary. She wrote of desert mirages – strange, and more wonderful than men in the new world had ever imagined. These visions came and vanished, and left a touch of complete unreality upon the mysteriously baked land.
The nights were cold and the nuns shivered in their light blankets on the barren ground. The days were blazing and silent.
They occasionally came upon a watering hole, where, like any desert oasis, all the animals gathered. In this case it was all kinds of human animals – raucous with cursing and sometimes sinister conversations from men who had stayed too long away from other human contact. Now to find seven gentle women, dressed in flowing black robes – well within their reach and seemingly unprotected — was a temptation not to be ignored. But, providence guarded the sisters in these times.
At one point in the crossing, the journal speaks of the sisters reaching a ranch to make their camp. Sister Monica wrote:
At noon we came to a cool, shady place in which we rested. The ranchman invited us to dinner … There were several ranch men there from the neighboring stations, but no women. After dinner they became very sociable. We returned to the stable, where our driver and only protector was, and they followed. Some of them proposed marriage to us, saying we would do better by accepting the offer than by going to Tucson, for we would all be massacred by the Indians. For that afternoon we had amusement enough.
Undaunted, the sisters pressed on across the California desert. It was a grueling walk in the relentless sun. But, on the following night they again reached a station. Sister Monica wrote:
Although nearly overcome with fatigue, everyone was cheerful and full of courage. The man offered us the far room to sleep in, but we said we preferred the stable. He replied: “There are 40 men in the stable.” Six of them gave us their places, and in the twinkling of an eye we were fast asleep and did not awake until 7:00 o’clock A.M. We then saw the strange place we were in – 40 men sure enough! And as many Indians. Nevertheless, they all treated us with the greatest kindness and respect.
The seven sisters of St. Joseph would reach the Colorado River and cross to Yuma with great danger – nearly losing their lives in the torrents of the only river water they would face in their trip.
Now in the newly established Arizona Territory (1863), they were able to follow the dry Gila River bed to near Casa Grande, then south to Picacho Peak. Here the prophetic attack by renegade Indians nearly took their lives only a day’s journey from Tucson, but the day was saved by the timely intervention of the U.S. cavalry. Their journey across the desert, and the hardships of life in the wild west, would serve them well in their new callings at the Convent.