•  About Santa Rita, New Mexico, and the "Kneeling Nun"

Adapted from "Hispanic Folklore of Southwest New Mexico", a report by Neal W. Ackerly, Ph.D., January, 1998

This report summarizes historical information regarding the "Kneeling Nun" monolith near Santa Rita. The Kneeling Nun has become the focus of controversy as a result of Chino Mine Company's (CMC) proposed expansion of the Santa Rita mine. In particular, opponents of the mine expansion have argued that the Kneeling Nun is a historically- significant landmark and, further, that it is, in effect, sacred ground.

The Kneeling Nun is a large rock monolith located on the north side of Ben Moore Mountain east of the Santa Rita open-pit copper mine operated by CMC. Geology of the Nun--it's monolith consists of a single volcanic unit composed largely of ignimbrite--varying to upwards of 400 feet in thickness, with vertical fissures caused by shrinkage.

Regarding the myth of the Kneeling Nun, the myth's origin has faded into obscurity, and the period when the myth was attributed to the rock monolith facing Ben Moore Mountain is not clear. Only by analyses of folklore, newspapers, maps, and other documents is it possible to reconstruct how the Kneeling Nun came to prominence in the region's lore.

The earliest description of the Santa Rita region derives from Jose Cortes' narrative of a traverse made in 1798. Cortes noted only that, "In New Mexico we know of copper mines of rare purity, where not even a fifth of the ore is lost as dross". Although "El Cobre" apparently was a known landmark as early as 1785, the Kneeling Nun monolith had not acquired a name toward the close of the eighteenth century.

The earliest Spanish operators of the Santa Rita mine, Jose Manuel Carrasco and Francisco Manuel Elguea, have left no memoirs describing the Santa Rita vicinity at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Despite this lack of documentation, legend has it that an Apache Indian told Carrasco the location of a copper outcrop, remarking that a "A peculiar rock formation marked the mine's location". Legend also has it that Carrasco was responsible for naming the monolith the "Kneeling Nun".

The earliest description of the Santa Rita area was provided by the American James Ohio Pattie in the 1820s. Pattie, not a chronicler of folk tales, assuming that they even existed, simply noted:
"Within the circumference of three miles, there is a mine of copper, gold and silver, and beside, a cliff of load [lode] stone. The silver mine is not worked, as not being so profitable, as either the copper or gold mines."
Recurring Apache raiding caused the mines at Santa Rita finally to be abandoned in 1838. There apparently were no Europeans situated at Santa Rita for a number of years.

The next descriptions of the region coincide with the arrival in 1846 of American troops under the command of Stephen Kearny. While Kearny's chronicle contains no information about the district, two reports by soldiers in Kearny's command do provide some information about the region. Henry Turner reported that Kearny's column marched to the "copper mines," camping 2 miles west of them. However, Turner's compatriot, William Emory, provides in his 1848 report what is perhaps the first detailed description and naming of any of the topography near Santa Rita del Cobre:
"We passed at the foot of a formidable bluff of trap, running northwest and southeast, which I named Ben Moore, after my personal friend, the gallant Captain Moore, of the 1st dragoons. In many places the path was strewed with huge fragments of this hard rock, making it difficult for the mules to get along. Turning the north end of Ben Moore bluff, we began to drop into the valley of what is supposed an arm of the Mimbres, where there are some copper mines....There are the remains of some twenty or thirty adobe houses, and ten or fifteen shafts sinking into the earth."
Three years later, William Hunter, a '49er passing through the region on the way to California, noted:
"On scrutinizing near us to the north, we thought we could distinguish signs of water near the base of the mountain. One of our party accordingly descended in that direction and found plenty in a rocky ravine about a mile from our encampment....Could old 'Ben Moore' have found a tongue he could have told us many a wondrous [sic] tale."
The first direct reference to a stone monolith corresponding to the Kneeling Nun appears in Bartlett's report of the Boundary Commission survey in 1853. Arriving at Santa Rita del Cobre with the intention of establishing a base camp for the boundary survey, Bartlett commented:
"The height of the little valley where the mines are was [sic] found to be six thousand two hundred and fifty feet above the level of the sea; and the height of the mountain, which rises abruptly from it, and to which the name of Ben Moore has been given, is eight thousand feet. This mountain is the beginning of a range of bold, rocky bluffs of trap, of a grayish hue, which extend some twenty miles to the south, and gradually drop off into the plain. On one side of this bluff, a portion of the rock is separated from the mountain, and stands detached from it like a column."
This description corresponds almost perfectly with the general character of the Kneeling Nun. Bartlett's description is important for three reasons. First, it accurately describes both the location and character of the monolith that has come to be known as the Kneeling Nun. Second, a drawing from this same period accurately depicts the monolith now known as the Kneeling Nun (see Seth Eastman's 1853 painting on the cover, original at the Rhode Island School of Design, Providence). Finally and most importantly, Bartlett is well regarded by historians, anthropologists, and other scholars as a diligent chronicler of native customs, beliefs, and myths.

In 1857, for example, William Emory completed a resurvey of the US-Mexican boundary. His narratives, while somewhat drier than those of Bartlett, contain no mention of any rock formation resembling the Kneeling Nun. Similarly, Samuel Cozzens' narratives from 1858 accurately describe the Santa Rita region, going so far as to mention the presence of a number of "sandstone" monoliths, but completely fail to mention any monolith or other topographic feature named the Kneeling Nun. Finally, Carleton's 1864 map of New Mexico, when carefully scrutinized, contains no reference to the Kneeling Nun, although the Santa Rita Copper Mines are noted. Considered together, this evidence suggests that the monolith was not named at least as late as 1864.

The earliest description of the Kneeling Nun as the Kneeling Nun appears in 1873 in a newspaper description in "Mining Life" September 1873. The article contains a poem about the Kneeling Nun prefaced with the following comments:

Santa Rita is an enormous rock resembling a kneeling, female figure, about 15 miles northeast of Silver City, and from that distance seems about 12 or 15 feet tall, but in reality nearly 150 feet. It kneels facing a precipice some 200 feet high, and is the most prominent feature in the whole country, except Cook's Peak. The legend, of an early day, is that a nun, in one of the numerous Jesuitical convents, committed an offense for which she was condemned to death, and her soul banished to this rock, to remain until the action of the elements released it to join the blessed throng of the redeemed. -Editor"
In the following year, 1874, an alternate name for this rock monolith, the Kneeling Virgin, appears in a U.S. government publication. In an overview of mining in the West, Raymond commented that:
"A bluff of ejected trap-rock strikes across the country southeasterly, presenting a perpendicular wall five to eight hundred feet high above the general level to the northeast. This wall is a conspicuous landmark for a great many miles, being visible from the Burro Mountains, a distance of twenty miles. Its northwest terminus is abrupt, and is marked by a singular perpendicular stone known as the Kneeling Virgin, owing to the resemblance it bears to a draped female figure kneeling before an altar. The Santa Rita mines are two and a half miles northwest."
Newspaper accounts from 1877 confirm that this monolith was becoming a named landmark, with the added wrinkle that it was in the process of acquiring possible religious connotations. An anonymous article appearing in the Weekly New Mexican observed that:
"A portion of the copper mines were recently worked but when we passed the silence of desolation reigned. Near here is a peculiar land mark [sic] which can be seen for miles in every direction called Santa Teresa Mountain. That portion fronting the road presents a square face, and in front of this is a stone 90 feet high presenting the appearance of woman kneeling in front of a shrine, and to make the illusion more perfect, someone has painted a cross on the face of the hugh [sic] rock fronting the kneeling figure."
Yet, the gender and the name ascribed to the rock monolith were by no means settled during these early years. In his survey of southwestern New Mexico in 1877, Wheeler noted on a draft version of a map of the Santa Rita region a rock monolith whose location corresponds perfectly to the Kneeling Nun. However, the name appearing on Wheeler's map is "Kneeling Jesus". This map was never published by the government. However, Wheeler's denotation and the other accounts mentioned above indicate that the monolith was, in the 1870s, known by at least three different names--Kneeling Nun, Kneeling Virgin, and Kneeling Jesus.

An 1881 report about mining in Grant County appeared in the Silver City Enterprise. In this report, the purported mission near Santa Rita is repeated as part of local lore:
"Ages have passed since the Mexicans worked these mines, yet there is a Spanish legend in connection with them to the effect that the mission was destroyed by a terrible storm, and that the mine caved in burying all the workmen...."
The Kneeling Nun appears for the first time on published maps of the region in 1883. A careful review of Powel and Kingman's map of Southwestern New Mexico shows the Kneeling Nun as a named landmark, but it remains named "Kneeling Jesus" following, presumably, the naming convention first established by Wheeler. What is interesting is that the monolith's name was unchanged on this map, despite the fact that myriad poems and articles in the region's newspapers referred to it as the "Kneeling Nun." Why is not clear.

In 1885, a strong earthquake rattled much of Grant County. A local newspaper, The Silver City Enterprise, reported the impact of this earthquake on the Kneeling Nun:
"About thirty feet of the Kneeling Nun at Santa Rita has tumbled down. For years past this has been a prominent landmark in southern New Mexico. A small portion of the needle still remains, but cannot be seen at so great a distance as of old."
Another earthquake in May of 1887 shook much of the Southwest and northern Mexico, including Silver City. Period descriptions appearing in the Silver City Enterprise indicate the impact of this tremor on the Kneeling Nun:
"Out at Santa Rita the ancient landmark, the 'kneeling nun,' a large and lofty needle rock, which was visible for a great distance, was broken and the top fell to the depths below. From the precipices thereabouts rocks weighing over a ton went tumbling down..."
By the 1890's, the rock monolith near Santa Rita appears to have become progressively more established as a named landmark. This is indicated by descriptions of two events in the general area. In April of 1895, The Eagle reported:
"The normal school picnic last Friday developed into two dances, one at Ft. Bayard and the other at Santa Rita. It was the intention to have a picnic at Santa Rita and most of those who went had signified an intention of climbing to the summit of that widely known monolith called Santa Rita monolith or the Kneeling Nun."
Three months later, a fire in the Santa Rita townsite was reported in The Eagle as follows:
"Last Thursday evening between 10-11 some of the residents of this city noticed a bright light at Santa Rita and at once came to the conclusion that some of the buildings were on fire. The fire lighted up the Kneeling Nun, which is also known as the Santa Rita monolith and is a landmark for miles around, so that it stood out in bold relief and its outlines could be plainly discerned although it is 16 miles distant..."
By the early twentieth century, the Kneeling Nun became progressively more established in both scientific and popular literature as a landmark and as a culturally important place. Fayette Jones in 1904 noted in his review of mining across New Mexico that:
"To the east of the Santa Rita basin on the rim is a peculiar isolated column of stone which rises to a considerable height, and may be seen from certain directions for long distances. By a little imagination the stone resembles a woman kneeling in the attitude of prayer; this monolith is known as the 'kneeling nun'."
The importance of the Kneeling Nun as a place name is perhaps best indicated by its appearance on a series of U.S. Geological Survey maps published in 1909. As a notice in the Silver City Enterprise indicated, these maps were prepared in 1907 by which time the Kneeling Nun appears to have become firmly established in local lore.

Despite the fact that the U.S. Geological Survey began to use the name, some locals--notably, the county surveyor, C. E. Johnson--persisted in using Wheeler's original designation, "Kneeling Jesus".

The emotional connection between the myth of the Nun and the stone monolith appears to have been well-established in the popular press by the early twentieth century. In 1901, for example, the Silver City Enterprise noted that Fourth of July fireworks would be set off "on the summit of the mountain just above the famous Kneeling Nun". By 1909, the local reporter from the Santa Rita mining camp began signing letters to the Silver City Enterprise with the nom de plume, "Kneeling Nun". Also in 1911, the Silver City Enterprise noted that students from local schools traveled to visit the Santa Rita mine and took the opportunity to view the Kneeling Nun:
"High above the camp and overshadowing it, is the legendary Kneeling Nun mountain famous in the folk lore [sic] of that section of the country, and in poetry and song, and for the first time the teachers had a superb view of this hoary old mountain with its traditions of love, romance, and tragedy..."
In a wide-ranging review of New Mexico's history and traditions, Ross Calvin in 1934 suggests that the Kneeling Nun, which he described as "statuesque, bending exactly like a Sister of Perpetual Adoration," was part and parcel of Hispanic traditions whereby landmarks of many kinds were instilled with religious overtones. Similarly, Morey in 1938 and Weigle and White in 1988 interviews of local residents in the 1930s confirm that the Kneeling Nun was viewed by some residents as a religious icon:
"[It is] strange, but true, [that] many of the present day inhabitants of this region regard the story of the Kneeling Nun as sacred and liken unto the Bible story of Lot's wife....I wish to add that this Kneeling Nun Monument has furnished many persons a place of prayer and worship, in the present as well as in past generations. This one small monument has not only furnished a place of repentance, but it has given the mountain a name that has lasted more than a century."
The religious importance of the Kneeling Nun is confirmed by an article appearing in the April 21, 1914 edition of the Silver City Enterprise. Here, a photograph of the Kneeling Nun is shown with a caption entitled "An Easter Offering of the Eternal Hills: The Kneeling Nun." Likewise, Ricardo Munoz in 1984 uses one of the alternate legends of the Kneeling Nun as a springboard for understanding the character of life in Santa Rita before the open pit mine was expanded, noting in the course of his narrative that "Everybody in this village prays to her". Considered jointly, these accounts indicate that the Kneeling Nun is viewed in a religious sense by some segments of the local population.

Even if the Kneeling Nun is not viewed in a religious sense by all the population, it does appear to constitute an important cultural identifier for the region's inhabitants. Mildred Jordan in 1936, wrote "perhaps no story is so dear to the people of Grant County as the Legend of the Kneeling Nun."

The preceding discussion has documented the advent, development, and cultural importance of the Kneeling Nun monolith near Santa Rita, New Mexico.
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