Concepcion mission (1699), Bolivia. Photo Copyright by Geoffrey A. P. Groesbeck
Concepcion mission (1699), Bolivia. Photo Copyright by Geoffrey A. P. Groesbeck

The First Period: 1691-1722, San Juan Bautista, San Juan Nuevo, Taperas de San Juan, Concepción, San Ignacio de Boococas, San Ignacio de Zamucos. Jesuit Missions of Chiquitos

Evanescence and Permanence: Toward an Accurate Understanding of the Legacy of the Jesuit Missions of Chiquitos.

Written by Geoffrey A. P. Groesbeck

– Part 8: San Xavier: The First Jesuit Reducción in Chiquitos, The Passing of Arce and the Closing of the Road to Paraguay, Additional Jesuit Missions in Chiquitos

The First Period: 1691-1722

Many historians group the establishment of the Jesuit reducciones of Chiquitos into two distinct periods with an interval between, with each period characterised by rapid growth. The first, starting in 1691 and ending in 1722, corresponds to the foundation of the first eight missions; the second, beginning in 1748 and ending with the expulsion of the Jesuits in 1767, encompasses the last four.

Regarding the group of the first eight reducciones, the founding of San Xavier has been treated above. And the missions of San Rafael de Velasco,F1F San José de Chiquitos, and San Miguel de Velasco are straightforward enough – and their various accounts generally consistent enough – to require no additional treatment beyond what easily can be found elsewhere, and so will not be examined here.2F

However, the remaining four from the first period – San Juan Bautista, Concepción, the short-lived San Ignacio de Boococas, and San Ignacio de Zamucos – deserve additional mention to clarify their status and emend inaccuracies still present in research.

San Juan Bautista

Querubin, San Ignacio de Velasco mission, Bolivia. Photo Copyright by Geoffrey A. P. Groesbeck

Querubin, San Ignacio de Velasco mission, Bolivia. Photo Copyright by Geoffrey A. P. Groesbeck

Of the earliest of these four reducciones – San Juan Bautista – no traces exist apart from a stone tower (most likely the campanario or bell tower) and some wall foundations, all in a state of ruin. Along with San Ignacio de Zamucos, San Juan Bautista surely had the most complex and turbulent history of any Chiquitos reducción.

After many re-locations, re-foundings, fires, and abandonments, in 1788 it was split into two separate settlements. San Juan “Nuevo” opted to remain on the site where the mission had stood since 1772, whilst Taperas de San Juan relocated to the ruins of the earlier Jesuit settlement of 1717-1772. This divided community existed until sometime between 1798 and 1800, when all of Taperas de San Juan and the majority of the inhabitants of San Juan “Nuevo” reunited, relocating yet again. But by 1831, the few families who had opted to remain in Taperas de San Juan had definitively abandoned it, leaving only San Juan “Nuevo” – which by then had reclaimed the name of San Juan Bautista – inhabited.

Untangling the history of San Juan Bautista is problematic, as conflicting accounts exist. What is known for certain is that the troubled mission was founded first in 1699 on the banks of the upper reaches of the Río Tucavaca, as San Juan Bautista de los Borós (or Xamarus), by Frs. Juan Bautista de Zea (who also co-founded San Rafael de Velasco and the ill-fated San Ignacio de Zamucos) and Juan Patricio Fernández. The reducción was relocated first in 1705, a short distance to the south.

Early on, San Juan Bautista was abandoned – as opposed to simply relocated – for several reasons (amongst them drought, hostility of local tribes, scarcity of available priests, and pestilence). The most likely date for this is 1712, although Tomichá (citing a 1750 letter from Fr. Manuel Querini, then the Jesuit Provincial General of Paraguay), posits the date of its initial dissolution as 1709.3 Its inhabitants were transferred to San José de Chiquitos, and the mission remained empty until it was refounded and relocated anew in 1717.

San Miguel de Velasco mission, Bolivia. Photo Copyright by Geoffrey A. P. Groesbeck..

San Miguel de Velasco mission, Bolivia. Photo Copyright by Geoffrey A. P. Groesbeck..

Sánchez Labrador seems to imply that sometime between 1699 and its relocation in 1705 San Juan Bautista might have been re-established by Frs. Pedro Juan Carena and Juan Bautista Xandra.4 What is known is that Xandra definitely did refound the mission, although the date for this was 1717.5 The evidence for Carena’s role as a co-founder is scant. In any case, by virtue of Xandra’s efforts, San Juan Bautista the only Jesuit mission in the Chiquitania to have at least three co-founders.

It is also possible, although much less likely, that Xandra (and perhaps Carena again as well) re-founded the reducción twice. The records are confusing, but they would have had time on their side. Xandra arrived in the Chiquitania in 1699 and Carena the following year. Both had lengthy careers in the region, Xandra serving for 49 years (the longest of any Jesuit missionary in Chiquitos) and Carena for 34 years.6

San Juan Bautista remained on the site of the 1717 settlement until 1772, when some residents left it (returning in 1798). By the time the French explorer Alcide D’Orbingy visited in 1831, the reconstituted 1717-1772 mission was in ruins and no one living on the site.F7F

From San Juan Bautista to San Juan Nuevo and Taperas de San Juan

The new incarnation of San Juan Bautista, relocated in 1772, suffered as badly as the original settlement had. In 1781, a disastrous fire broke out (on the heels of a plague that had just swept through the region), destroying most records and eventually forcing the colonial government (albeit some seven years later) to definitively abandon the ex-mission and relocate its remaining inhabitants.

In 1788, the town’s population, riven by dispute over whether to relocate or stay where it was, split into two hamlets. Those who opted for San Juan “Nuevo”, moved a few miles away (ironically returning to the ruins of the 1772-1788 settlement), whilst those who chose to stay in Taperas de San Juan (“taperas” is Spanish for ruins) remained on the site of the earlier, burned out 1717-1772 settlement.

Confesionario, Concepción mission, Bolivia. Photo Copyright by Geoffrey A. P. Groesbeck

Confesionario, Concepción mission, Bolivia. Photo Copyright by Geoffrey A. P. Groesbeck

These two parishes existed side by side for roughly a decade, until sometime between 1798 and 1800 when most of the families living in both San Juan “Nuevo” and Taperas de San Juan were combined and relocated to form a new San Juan Bautista. A remnant of the populace of Taperas de San Juan stayed amongst the ruins of the 1717-1772 town, but when D’Orbingy asked in 1831 to see the “original” settlement – they had gone. He found the former reducción abandoned completely and the site overcome by the jungle.

Census records show San Juan Bautista with a population of 1,433 in 1807 – the last count before its second disastrous fire in 1811. Its population dropped to just 879 in 1830, only 42 years later.F8

To make matters more confusing, sometime around 1940, the Bolivian government established a railway station known as Taperas, not far from the site of San Juan “Nuevo”, and named after its proximity to San Juan Bautista’s long-abandoned ruins. This settlement eventually took the name of San Juan de Taperas and rose to prominence (being named the location for the canton’s parish in 1960), as the older San Juan “Nuevo” – known now as San Juan de Chiquitos – faded into obscurity.9 Ironically, a new church –not a reconstruction of the Jesuit one (for which little information exists) – was built in San Juan de Chiquitos between 2009 and 2012.

Robert Jackson makes an interesting conjecture that San Juan Bautista may have been established not as a conventional reducción but as a visita – a settlement visited only occasionally by a priest until there were a sufficient number of other Jesuits available for permanent staffing.10 This view makes a good deal of sense in light of the turbulent history of the ill-starred establishment and the fact that there was indeed a scarcity of priests at the time and in the region, largely due to matters in Europe. His view also is supported by chronological evidence regarding the number of missionaries in the Chiquitania at that time. It has had other supporters as far back as René Moreno, and more recently in Ramón Gutiérrez, who worked with Kühne, Roth and others on the piecing-together of the confusing and still-incomplete history of this troubled settlement.

Concepción and San Ignacio de Boococas

Concepcion mission (1699), Bolivia. Photo Copyright by Geoffrey A. P. Groesbeck

Concepcion mission (1699), Bolivia. Photo Copyright by Geoffrey A. P. Groesbeck

Concepción was originally founded in 1699F11F (not in 1708, 1709, or 1722, as the majority of sources claim) as La Inmaculada Concepción. Its initial settlement, although lasting only a few years, was nonetheless its true founding date and should be recognised as such.12 In a rare example of local hostility to the Jesuits’ presence in the Chiquitania, this first incarnation of Concepción was subjected to frequent attacks from marauding tribes and dismantled in 1704.

A second attempt in 1709 was successful, and in 1712 Concepción incorporated the inhabitants of nearby San Ignacio de Boococas, a small reducción founded in 1709 by Fr. José Ignacio de la Mata.F13F Concepción then was formally re-established as the merger of both missions, and translated in 1722 to its current location.

Concepción was the first Chiquitos mission to suffer from the violent death of one of its missionaries. Fr. Francisco Lucas Caballero was clubbed to death outside of the town in 1711, a victim of the Puizocas, who mistook him for a Portuguese slave trader.14

San Ignacio de Zamucos

In spite of much recent research on the subject, as yet little is known with certainty regarding the short-lived mission of San Ignacio de Zamucos,15 which was explicitly intended to serve as a way stop between the Chiquitos missions and those of Paraguay. It was established primarily for three reasons: the catechisation of the Zamuco, a profoundly antagonistic tribe who had and would continue to harass and derail Jesuit efforts for many years; to establish Jesuit hegemony in the far southeastern reaches of Chiquitos; and to establish a link between Chiquitos and Paraguay via the impenetrable Gran Chaco or the Río Pilcomayo.

It was first founded in 1719 – albeit only for a few months – by Fr. Juan Bautista Zea, who earlier had co-founded the reducciones of San Rafael de Velasco in 1696 and the ill-starred San Juan Bautista in 1699. (Zea was the only missionary apart from Fr. Francisco Herbás to co-found three settlements in the Chiquitania.) It was established some 83 kilometres south of the Santiago salt works, which would have placed it in a very desolate and dangerous area just north of what is now the border between Paraguay and Bolivia.16

Pulpito, San Ignacio de Velasco mission, Bolivia. Photo Copyright by Geoffrey A. P. Groesbeck

Pulpito, San Ignacio de Velasco mission, Bolivia. Photo Copyright by Geoffrey A. P. Groesbeck

Zea first set out from San Juan Bautista in 1716 in an effort to evangelise the Zamuco. The attempt did not fare well, nor did that of 1717, or subsequent efforts of Frs. Miguel de Yegros and Br. Alberto Romero over the next two years. Romero paid for his daring with his life, in the process becoming the second Jesuit martyr in the Chiquitania proper (Fr. Francisco Lucas Caballero of Concepción was the first in 1711),17 although Yegros survived until 1740. The Jesuits kept returning to the region, however, looking for the elusive path to Paraguay, first in 1720 with Fr. Agustín Castañares, who later would return to refound the settlement. From 1721 through 1724, other incursions were made without success.

Defying all logic, in 1723 San Ignacio de Zamucos was re-founded by Castañares. His companion was Herbás, who caught the plague and died – although not a martyr – whilst returning to San Juan Bautista.18 Two other Jesuits, Frs. Juan de Montenegro and Domingo Bandiera, subsequently were sent to help. In 1726, much of its population was transferred to San José de Chiquitos in a bid to separate two warring factions within the mission, and San Ignacio de Zamucos was temporarily abandoned until the following year. A decade later, in 1737, an epidemic reduced its population to just 30 families, although this number increased soon afterwards.

Perpetual danger surrounded the reducción. Fr. Ignacio Chomé, a brilliant young linguist, wrote in 1738 that he expected to die any minute. (Fortunately for him, he was transferred to Concepción, where he wrote the first Chiquitano dictionary.) In 1744, the indomitable Castañares was not so fortunate. He was killed by the Mataguayo in Paraguay whilst on an evangelisation trip.19

By 1745 hostilities with the warlike Ugareño (or Ugarone) had made the mission virtually uninhabitable, and what was left of San Ignacio de Zamucos was destroyed. The majority of its inhabitants, after nearly three years of a peripatetic existence, eventually moved some 320 kilometres northwest to the new reducción of San Ignacio de Velasco (then known as San Ignacio de Loyola) in 1748.F20

There the head of the mission, Fr. Miguel Streicher – one of only two non-Spanish Jesuits to found missions in Chiquitos – induced the remnants of the Zamuco to live peacefully with the already-settled Ugareño. Those few Zamuco who did not trek to the new San Ignacio went to the much-closer site of San Juan Bautista. That Streicher was able to persuade the Zamucos to live peaceably with the Ugareño is remarkable, given that it was the incessant attacks of the Ugareño upon San Ignacio de Zamucos that finally led to that mission’s destruction.

It ruins are barely visible now, located not far from the eastern entrance to Parque Nacional del Gran Chaco Kaa-Iya. It lies in an uninhabited area in western Germán Busch Province, utterly forgotten, just a few miles from the border with Paraguay and within sight of the Cerro San Miguel, the second-highest point in the Chiquitania.21 No one seeing the spot would ever consider it as simultaneously the high and low mark of the Jesuit presence in the region.

– Part 10: The Second Period: 1748-1767, Santa Ana de Velasco, The Last Attempt: Nuestra Señora del Buen Consejo


1 See Jaime Cabello, ed., Provincia Velasco (Santa Cruz: Centro para la Participación y el Desarrollo Humano Sostenible, 2005) for a brief historical treatment of the four Velasco missions of San Rafael, San Ignacio, San Miguel, and Santa Ana.

2 Whilst not entirely free from error, Menacho, Querejazu, and Tomichá in particular have much useful information on each of these reducciones.

3 Manuel Querini, S.J.,“Informe a S.M. del P. Manuel Querini, Provincial de la Provincia del Paraguay, sobre las Misiones de Indios que tiene actualmente aquella Provincia” in Archivo General de Indias, Audiencia de Charcas (Seville), p. 275.

4 José Sánchez Labrador, S.J., El Paraguay Católico, Vol. III (Buenos Aires: Coni Hermanos, 1910), p. 7.

5 Kühne, “Historia Breve de los Pueblos de Chiquitos y de sus Edificios Patrimoniales”, p. 24.

6 Tomichá, OFMConv., op. cit., p. 159.

7 Querejazu, op. cit., p. 349.

8 See Robert H. Jackson, “Demographic Patterns on the Chiquitos Missions of Eastern Bolivia, 1691-1767” in Bolivian Studies Journal, Vol. 12 (Urbana-Champaign: University of Illinois, 2005).

9 Kühne, “Historia Breve de los Pueblos de Chiquitos y de sus Edificios Patrimoniales”, p. 25.

10 Ibid, p. 234.

11 Fernández, S.J., op. cit., pp. 44, 227; in Vol. II, pp. 67, 248. See also José Aguirre de Achá, La Antigua Provincia de Chiquitos (La Paz: Flores, San Román & Cía, 1934), p. 43; Gumucio, op. cit., p. 119 (but see p. 36); Querejazu, op. cit., p. 333.

12 According to Kühne, it was abandoned in 1704 and its foundation re-established permanently in 1709. See Eckart Kühne, “Historia Breve de los Pueblos de Chiquitos y de sus Edificios Patrimoniales” (Zurich: ETH Zurich, 2011), p. 5.

13 Although several primary sources attest to the existence of San Ignacio de Boococas, only Querejazu and Tonelli makes mention of it. See Querejazu, op. cit., p. 274; Tonelli, op. cit., p. 71.

14 Fernández, S.J., op. cit., Vol. II, p. 79; Charlevoix, S.J., op. cit., p. 309; Astrain, S.J., op. cit., in Vol. VII, p. 504 give the year as 1709. But Tomichá, OFMConv., op. cit., p. 154, and Page, op. cit., p. 45, both adhere to the more likely date of 1711.

15 See, for example, Isabelle Combès’ “Documentos Completarios A La Anua 1721-1730: Años 1723-1729: 1723-1724. Las Misiones de los chiquitos [Fundación de San Ignacio de Zamucos]” in Chiquitos en las Anuas de la Compañía de Jesús (1691-1767), pp. 159-61.

16 Gott, in Land without Evil: Utopian Journeys across the South American Watershed, mistakenly places the location of San Ignacio de Zamucos in modern-day Paraguay. Cf. Tomichá, OFMConv., op. cit., p. 548, note 57.

17 Tomichá, OFMConv., op. cit., p. 484; Page, et al., op. cit., pp. 121-2.

18 Page, et al., op. cit., p. 159. Another often-repeated error is that the Chiquitania was rife with fallen Jesuits, killed by hostile indigenous peoples. Yet very few Jesuit missionaries – four to be precise (the last being Fr. Antonio Guasp in 1763 outside of the newly founded mission of Santo Corazón) – met their end as martyrs in the region. See Tomichá, OFMConv., op. cit., pp. 484-6; Kühne, “Historia de los Pueblos de Chiquitos”, p. 28.

19 Tomichá, OFMConv., op. cit., p. 485, and especially note 68.

20 Ibid. p. 547-9.

21 Ibid. Tomichá cites a number of Jesuit primary sources whose testimonies offer additional detail on this mission. See also Page, et al., op cit., pp. 159-62.

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