The Hermit: New Mexico’s First Mountaineer

The mystery of Giovanni Maria Agostini

By Cameron M. Burns

Perhaps the greatest tragedy of history is that it tends to repeat itself. And the greatest people who do remarkable things during one era are generally forgotten by those of the next. Paul Simon said it best, and simplest, when he sang: “Every generation throws a hero up the pop charts.”

The story of Giovanni Maria Agostini is a case in point. Born in 1801, in Navaro, Italy, Agostini was the son of a nobleman, and an incurable wanderer. According to legend, Agostini killed his cousin during an argument, then devoted the remainder of his existence to atoning for the dreadful deed. After roaming around Europe for almost ten years, Agostini sailed to Caracas in 1838, then proceeded to wander the length and breadth of South America. He traveled throughout the Amazon Basin, up and down the Brazilian coast, amongst the Chilean Andes, and as far south as Patagonia.

One strange element of Agostini’s wanderings was his parallel lifestyles. Although he spent a great deal of time as the guest of the rich and powerful, he also sought out remote settings. According to historians, he was interested in pursuing a life of abstinence; he wished to repent for his murderous act. Thus he spent much of his life living in the wilderness, usually in caves.

Not surprisingly, Agostini also earned a reputation for being a holy man and was constantly healing the sick and comforting the poor. In 1863, after being removed from a cave on El Pico de Orizaba in Mexico, Agostini arrived in New Mexico. He promptly took up residence in a cave near Las Vegas, New Mexico, and was soon administering to the needy. Although Agostino sought only solitude, his own reputation made him a rather hot item, and people came from miles around to ask for his help.

Eventually, seeking only peace, Agostini moved to a cave at the top of El Cerro del Tecolote. The mountain later became known as Hermit’s Peak. In his new abode, Agostini carved trinkets and crosses, which he sold in Las Vegas for a pittance, just enough to buy cornmeal. Agostini’s notoriety grew, and before long the villagers were climbing the steep face of El Cerro de Tecolote just to seek the alleged saint.

The hermit’s most renowned miracle was performed when a group of villagers built a wooden shelter to help him endure the harsh mountain winter. Because he was very old at the time, Agostini consented. The group built the cabin to the Hermit’s plans; it was small and windowless, and had a low door that required he get down on his knees to pass through it. He also had the cabin builders rim the doorway with sharp wooden spikes. Obviously he embraced pain as much as he embraced solitude.

According to legend, while the townsfolk were building the cabin, they ran out of water. Not eager to see them suffer on his account, the Hermit scratched the ground with his walking stick. To the surprise of his followers, fresh water gurgled forth. Agostini had produced a spring where previously there was nothing but dry earth. Although the story sounds pretty tall today, the spring is the only water to be found on a totally dehydrated mountaintop.

In 1867, in search of a more fulfilling solitude, Agostini, then 66, wandered toward the southern part of New Mexico. In 1869, his body was found in a cave in the Organ Mountains; he had been stabbed to death.

Agostini left behind a wealth of legends, the least of which was an unsolvable murder. However, he also embraced a lifestyle that went beyond any mountaineering achievement. His life was spent as a part of the mountain itself.

This piece, written by Cam Burn in 1989, has never been published (until now).

One thought on “The Hermit: New Mexico’s First Mountaineer”

  1. A fascinating man; I am looking forward to a recently published book about Agostini which is likely to refuel interest in his life and legend.

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