Mission San Cayetano de Calabazas -- Spanish Colonial Missions of the Southwest Travel Itinerary

Illustration of Calabazas in 1853. Courtesy of the National Park Service

Mission San Cayetano de Calabazas
Tumacácori National Historical Park, Arizona
Coordinates: 31.567472,-111.051842
Discover Our Shared Heritage
Spanish Colonial Missions of the Southwest Travel Itinerary

Mission San Cayetano de Calabazas
Ruins of the mission compound and church at San Cayetano de Calabazas

Courtesy of the National Park Service

Through the 18th century, the Spanish Jesuits built a string of missions throughout the northeastern Sonoran Desert along the Santa Cruz River. The Jesuits founded Mission San Cayetano de Calabazas in 1756 as part of the reorganizing settlements following the upheavals of the Pima Revolt of 1751. Meant to be a visita (visiting station), Calabazas was a satellite outpost associated with larger Mission Guevavi and later with Mission San José de Tumacácori. The mission at Calabazas lasted only 30 years, between 1756 and 1786, but continued to figure importantly in the cultural landscape.

San Cayetano de Calabazas is a National Historic Landmark located within Tumacácori National Historical Park in southern Arizona, just north of the U.S.-Mexico border. The site preserves a significant period of interactions between diverse cultures including the O'odham, Yaqui, Western Apache, Mexican, German, and American peoples. The native people who lived near Tumacácori called themselves "O'odham," meaning "people" in their language. The Spanish and others have historically called them Pima and Papago, although these names are now considered problematic. Their homeland included the area that is now southern Arizona and the northern part of the Mexican state of Sonora. The O'odham were farmers raising corn, beans, squash and other crops using flood irrigation long before the Spanish came. People from other indigenous groups lived at and around the mission as well, including Yaqui, Apache, Yuman, and Opata.
Various details of the Calabazas structure, 1937.
Various details of the Calabazas structure, 1937.

By Frederick Nichols, Historic American Building Survey. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

The Visita, Calabazas

The name Calabazas first appears in a baptismal record of June 2, 1756. It was evidently established as a mission earlier that year when Father Francisco Xavier Pauer relocated at least 78 O'odham to the site from their village of Toacuquita located closer to the Santa Cruz River. When the mission was moved up away from the river it was given the name "San Cayetano de Calabazas." Calabazas means "squash" or "gourds" in Spanish.

Construction of the church was half complete in 1761 and the building was functional by 1773. Calabazas, however, did not have a campo santo, or the holy ground, in which to bury the dead. The mission was a visita of Mission Guevavi, also featured in this itinerary. If someone died in the 1760s, the body would be carried five miles to be buried in Mission Guevavi, the head mission's holy ground.

At Calabazas missionaries gathered together O'odham residents and introduced European animal husbandry, European crops, the Spanish language, Catholicism, and European social values. New food sources such as wheat and cattle were added to traditional agriculture, but other elements of European culture were not adopted or mission inhabitants modified them. Changes in agricultural practice increased the food yield for the O'odham, but disease spread quickly among the residents there. To keep Calabazas viable the missionaries encouraged the neighboring groups to join the remaining O'odham. However, illness and raids by Western Apache in the region forced the Franciscans, who administered the site after the Jesuits, to abandon Calabazas in 1786. Its residents went to live with family in Tubac and Tumacácori.
Corriente Cattle
Spanish missionaries introduced Corriente, or criollo, cattle to the Pimería Alta. They were the type of cattle raised at Calabazas.

Photo by Ellen Levy Finch. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Beyond the mission period

In the 19th century Spanish and Mexican alliances with Apache and O'odham made Calabazas safe for settlement again. O'odham ranchers used Calabazas in 1807 for their herds of cattle, horses, goats, and sheep. The mission outpost was reestablished and Franciscans returned to serve the community for a short time. In the 1820s, the mission period ended when the new Republic of Mexico secularized the missions and their agricultural lands. The O'odham mission ranch at Calabazas lasted until January 1830, when the residents left after Apache raiders set fire to the mission and destroyed the buildings.

In the 1840s, the governor of Sonora, Manuel Maria Gándara, acquired Calabazas. Gándara established a hacienda where Mexicans, O'odham, and German immigrants managed the ranch which had 6,000 head of cattle by 1853. The threat of Apache raids and political instability drove the ranchers out by 1856.
The United States acquired Calabazas from Mexico as part of the 1853 Gadsden Purchase. In 1856 and 1857 the 1st Regiment of Dragoons lived in the old adobe buildings and called the base Camp Moore. Camp Moore's protection from Apache raids allowed Americans, Mexicans, and O'odham in the Calabazas area to establish gold mines and ranches. Later the adobe chapel of Calabazas was made into a U.S. Customs House by William Mercer who, as the regional deputy customs director, inspected goods traveling between the United States and Mexico. Mercer stayed at Calabazas until the start of the Civil War when troops were sent eastward and Apache pressure forced the office to close the ranch house.

In 1864, during the Civil War, the California Volunteers –which included the only regular army unit in which all officers and enlisted men were Mexican-Americans –established Fort Mason at Calabazas. When the war ended and 300 of the 400 men fell sick with malaria, a disease common near the river, and the Fort was abandoned. By 1878 people no longer were living at Calabazas.
Calabazas in 1937.
Calabazas in 1937.

Courtesy of the National Park Service.

What you can see today

After the war, Calabazas changed hands multiple times as the United States government determined the legality of private land claims within the Gadsden Purchase. In 1964 the land was sold to the Gulf-America Corporation. In 1960, Father Norman Whalen from Tombstone, Arizona, recruited preservation volunteers who capped the walls and laid a cement foundation. Calabazas was entered into the National Register of Historic places in 1971, and the corporation donated the land to the Arizona Historical Society in 1974.
The ruins of San Cayetano de Calabazas are located on an elevated terrace east of the Santa Cruz River. Today the original visita chapel remains standing, covered by a modern roof structure. An archaeological survey in the 1970s determined that, in addition to the visita structure and the foundations of along barracks building, at least eight smaller buildings with stone foundations once stood in the Calabazas district.

Calabazas was made a National Historic Landmark and incorporated into Tumacácori National Historical Park in 1990. Administered by the National Park Service, Calabazas, Mission Guevavi, and Mission Tumacácori make up the most complete extant Spanish colonial mission district. Calabazas is the best preserved remains of a visita in the United States. To preserve this valuable cultural resource, the ruins of Calabazas can be visited only while on a reserved guided tour with a NPS ranger or volunteer during winter months.

Plan Your Visit

San Cayetano de Calabazas is a National Historic Landmark (text and photos) located in Tumacácori National Historical Park, a unit of the National Park System. The visitor center for Tumacácori National Historical Park is at 1891 East Frontage Rd., Tumacácori, AZ. San Cayetano de Calabazas is accessible January-March, by reservation. For more information, visit the National Park Service Tumacácori National Historical Park website including its featured page on San Cayetano de Calabazas, or call 520-377-5060.
San Cayetano de Calabazas has been documented by the National Park Service's Historic American Buildings Survey. Tumacácori National Historical Park is featured in the National Park Service Places Reflecting America's Diverse Cultures: Explore their Stories in the National Park System Travel Itinerary and the American Latino Heritage Travel Itinerary.

Last updated: April 15, 2016


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