Tumacacori's Yesterdays
NPS Logo


"One authority has called the history of mining the history of civilization. Men in search of valuable metals have blazed trails and made roads into dangerous and inaccessible parts of the world, and in their wake have followed trades, industries, and social institutions. But for every great mine development there have been thousands of small operations that failed for lack of time and capital, thousands of prospectors who never 'struck it rich,' and scores of promoters who exaggerated the richness of a mineral deposit.

"We have no real evidence of mining in this region during the Spanish Mission Period; the story on this frontier, in the 18th century and first two decades of the 19th, is rather that of the occasional prospector and explorer, who knew that the only sure way to capture attention and support for his particular project was to report every possibility of mineral wealth to the King of Spain, whose treasury was never sufficient for Spain's world-wide commitments. South of the Spanish outposts along the Santa Cruz Valley, a few adventurous men did a little prospecting and worked a vein of silver or washed gold for a short time, until the vein or pocket pinched out, or the Apaches drove them away. Even the fabulously rich find of the 'Planchas de Plata,' 30 miles south of Tumacacori, where large pieces of silver were picked up on the surface, was not developed into a mine; the 'mother lode' was never found. The only known operating mine in the whole of Arizona and New Mexico during Spanish times was the copper mine at Santa Rita, New Mexico, developed after 1800.

"After Mexico won her independence from Spain, prospectors continued to scout along the border; the first mineral deposits in the Papago country were discovered in 1835; mines in the Planchas drainage of Sonora were worked; and no doubt there were a number of hardy men who followed the mountains north into the Santa Ritas and Patagonias, where they carried on small scale operations during the 1830's and 1840's.

"With the passing of those men who had personal experience with conditions in the Santa Cruz Valley of the 18th century, and with the lack of authentic written history on the frontier, legends of 'lost mines' and 'buried treasure' grew with a fine disregard for fact.

Artist's sketch of how the finished church might have looked if the architects had planned a one-story bell tower. By J. H. Tovrea.

"When the first American mining men came into this region in the 1850's they heard these legends, and found some old workings. Knowing little history of this frontier, except that it had been the scene of Spanish mission activity, and knowing Spain had developed rich mines in other parts of the New World, they jumped to the conclusion that any 'old' tunnel, shaft, or dump had been made by the Spanish Jesuits. Perhaps writing that their property had been worked hundreds of years ago by Jesuits who 'amassed unbounded wealth' made it easier to get capital for their mining companies. Their promotional literature thus bore the erroneous idea of 'Spanish mission mines in Arizona,' an idea that unfortunately has become part of the literature on mining history of the region."

The material quoted above is from text prepared by Sallie Brewer for the mining exhibit in the museum at Tumacacori National Monument, and is the best brief explanation we know of for the countless persistent stories that have sprung up with regard to mission mines in southern Arizona.

It would require a thick volume to recount the treasure tales that have been told about Tumacacori Mission and the surrounding hills. Many people have believed, and still believe, that the missionary priests here spent a large part of their time in using mission Indian labor to remove great quantities of gold and silver and copper ore from the mountains to the east and west. Some of the stories hold that a great quantity of gold ore was gathered here, and that the priests, having to leave suddenly, buried it, with no later opportunity to reclaim it. The hiding place often assumes the form of a secret "escape" tunnel, running underground from the church to the bank of the Santa Cruz, over a quarter mile eastward. The theory is that this tunnel was for escape in case Apaches attacked, and that in some part of its interior the walls are lined with rotting sacks of gold.

Some Other Missions of the Pimeria Alta Chain

Beautiful San Xavier del Bac mission church near Tucson, Arizona; still in use as an Indian mission.

The elaborate nave and sanctuary of San Xavier del Bac.

San Diego del Pitiquito church at Pitiquito, Sonora.

San Antonio de Oquitoa, upstream from Altar, Sonora.

Nuestra Senora de Concepcion de Caborca at Caborca, Sonora.

Nuestra Senora Guadalupe de Cocospera at Cocospera, Sonora.

San Ignacio de Caborica near Magdalena, Sonora.

San Pedro y San Pablo de Tubutama on the Rio Altar, Sonora.

Other stories follow the line that ore-bearing caravans used to stop at Tumacacori en route to Sonora, and that some of their wealth is buried here. Others refer not to gold ore at all, but simply to very valuable church furnishings, allegedly left by the fathers when they departed. Why such valuable objects should have been hidden here, on other than a very temporary basis, in view of the fact that priests repeatedly came through this district for a number of years after the mission was abandoned, is not explained.

Another belief, that the missionaries cleverly concealed gold dust by having it mixed with the soil of which the adobe bricks in the church were made, is so fantastic that it deserves mention only to show what a truly wonderful thing an untrammeled human imagination is.

Other persons point to the fact that the National Park Service, during the progress of the exploratory trenching work directed by Archeologist Paul Beaubien in 1934-5, found remains of adobe and brick structures used in copper smelting operations, in the patio area east of the church. To this can be added the fact that small pieces of slag have been found scattered widely over most of the grounds.

On September 19, 1948, Mr. C. W. Walker visited Tumacacori and showed the author a location about 100 yards southeast of the mission church, on a mound which is presumably part of the unexcavated east wall of the long-abandoned Indian town. Mr. Walker picked up a few small ore and slag specimens from the top of this mound, and showed them to the writer. He then explained that in 1918 he had shipped approximately 120 tons of slag from old slag dumps adjacent to three round adobe furnaces along this stretch of high ground. He says the slag contained about 8 per cent lead, 3 per cent copper, about 8 ounces in silver, and about 1/6 ounce of gold, per ton.

There is no doubt that mining has been done in this district, and that ore was reduced on the mission grounds. The point so often overlooked, however, is that neither the exploratory trenching of 1934-5 nor the earlier activity referred to by Walker has produced any proof of structural or stratigraphic tie-in between smelting structures and mission period buildings or occupational levels. It should be mentioned, also, that the trenches covered a wide enough area, and were deep enough, to definitely disprove the idea of an "escape" tunnel from the church or patio to the river.

A conception of how a completed Tumacacori would have looked with a two-story bell tower. Drawing by J. H. Tovrea.

Nowhere do we learn of the prosperity which should have been the lot of Tumacacori Mission, had the missionaries been the miners they are so often alleged to have been. Nowhere, that is, except in stories. But there will always be the credulous, to fall prey to careless exaggeration, fanciful yarn spinning, and vicious misrepresentation. Some of the luckless ones have spent money which they could ill afford, digging hundreds of feet into the sterile boulders of nearby arroyo bottoms and tunneling through hard and barren hillside slopes, seeking rich mines which they believed the Jesuits sealed off from discovery when they were forced to leave the country. However, there are others among the hunters of lost mines who are not pathetic, who find the eternal chase of the will-o'-the-wisp a truly enjoyable, healthful, and fascinating occupation.

To some persons Tumacacori Mission, stripped of its golden aura of treasure legends, is simply a ruin, a dead shell of a vigor and grandeur that was here for a fleeting instant of history and was gone. To them, it was a creation of futility, built by dreamers who came, struggled, failed, and disappeared, leaving only a sad and gaunt skeleton which waits merely on time itself to merge again into the anonymity of the earth from which it sprang.

But to others, the rugged beauty and stateliness of the massive old structure is a sublime manifestation of much that is finest in the human spirit. Here they find an enduring monument to the faith, courage, and vigor of men who entered an alien frontier and by supreme effort blended the contrasting elements of European faith and culture with those of native peoples to form a new civilization. The missionary priests so thoroughly implanted Spanish religion, language, laws, and social customs in the Southwest that those elements have remained and continued dominant in a large proportion of its people of today.

Who, then, can say the missionary priest failed, or that his converts failed, when into the foundations of Tumacacori Mission they placed not only the massive stones which support the walls, but the faith and good will which have carried through succeeding generations to form an imperishable part of twentieth century civilization here? In that heritage we of today find the real treasure of Tumacacori.

<<< Previous <<< Contents>>> Next >>>

Last Updated: 10-Apr-2007