The courtyard garden at Tumacácori was built in 1939 as part of the visitor center’s “New Deal” era construction. Its design, like that of the adjacent visitor center, was inspired by other missions in the Pimería Alta.
Missions took their garden design from Spanish tradition, which itself borrowed from Arabic, Moorish, and Roman architectural tradition. An ideal Spanish garden incorporated a walled courtyard with a central fountain that promoted shade, fragrance, and color.
These gardens featured mostly plants imported from Europe and brought to the New World by the padres. They were each valuable in their own way—for cultural, religious, or symbolic importance, medicinal or food value, shade, or aesthetics. The tranquility of these natural spaces brought the Spanish and indigenous communities together to savor common cultural values: beauty and utility.
The courtyard garden at Tumacácori was built in 1939 as part of the visitor center’s “New Deal” era construction. Its design, like that of the adjacent visitor center, was inspired by other missions in the Pimería Alta. Several agencies were involved, but the original plantings were carried out by sixteen young men employed by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). Three native mesquite trees were left in place and continue to grow in the garden. The olive, ornamental pomegranate, and monk’s pepper trees survive to this day. When the original apricot tree had to be removed, a seed from that tree provided its replacement.
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Self-guided tour - Mission Model
A mission was much more than a church. The mission community included housing for the mission residents and the priest, workshops, class rooms, a cemetery, a mortuary chapel, an irrigation system, gardens, orchards, and grazing lands.
The goal of Spanish colonization was simple: to remake New Spain in the image of Old Spain. All aspects of daily life would be subject to transformation—food, language, clothing, agriculture, and religion. In the mission model you can see adobe buildings for residences and workshops, agricultural lands, cattle, and the main irrigation ditch. A mission community could be considered a residential training academy where indigenous people learned and adopted a new way of life. The plan was for the missionary priest to move on after ten years, when the community could sustain itself. In fact, more than 100 years would pass before the turn of the 19th century, when the first bricks would be laid for the mission church you see today.
Tumacácori went from being an O’odham village to a frontier visita (satellite mission) to a cabecera (headquarters mission) in a matter of decades. Its people changed as well. The O’odham became known as the “Pima” and the “Papago,” and their lands the Pimería Alta (land of the upper Pima). They were baptized with Spanish names, given Spanish-style clothing, and assigned Spanish jobs. They tended to domestic livestock rather than hunting wild game, and irrigated fruit trees that came from oceans away.
Today, the O’odham people still carry with them the legacy of colonization. Because they did not record their stories in a written language, exploring their history requires empathy, inference, and respect for O’odham oral tradition. The descendants of mission-era communities are still living all around us.