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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.
At its peak of activity, this bustling community space served as the backdrop to the lives of nearly 200 mission residents. People walked from here to attend church services, engage in work in the convento, or to go into the fields, gardens, and orchards between the plaza and the river.
The long, low mound to the left of the sidewalk protects what remains of adobe residences connected in a line running north to south. The ramada to the right resembles a mission family’s outdoor cooking and living area. Take a moment to imagine the mission community as it once was—the sounds of animals, children running and playing in the plaza, oxen and carts coming and going. Here is a village at work.
Many different languages could be heard in the plaza. Some priests came from Spain, but others from Austria, Switzerland, Italy, or Bavaria. The O’odham had many dialects. The Yoeme, now referred to as the Yaqui, spoke a totally separate language. The Nde, now called the Apache, shared linguistic roots with the Navajo.
The proximity of neighbors in the mission core differs from traditional O’odham villages. There, family households might be generally clustered together, but did not share walls, enclosed spaces, or other facilities. The density of the closely packed mission community likely contributed to the spread of European diseases such as measles, smallpox, and typhus.
Spanish maestros de obra used architectural traditions from across the globe. The capitals at the tops of the columns are Egyptian in style. The plastered arch design over the front door is Roman. The pointed tops on the statue niches on the second level come from the Moorish influence of the middle east and northern Africa. Even the bell tower niche scallop shell motif, a nod to Spain’s patron saint, has Roman origins.
Spain’s influences made their way to Tumacácori in color, as well. The columns on the front of the church were painted red, the capitals yellow with black markings. Statues stood against a blue background in their niches. The plaster of the doorway was carved and painted to resemble blocks of orange marble. You can still see original paint in the doorway and under the cornice below the window.
The monumental building with its bright color scheme and decorative elements would have been unlike anything in O’odham tradition. Previously, natural features like springs and mountains provided a community’s identity and place name. But after the O’odham labored for more than twenty years to build this new face for their village, it became a landscape feature itself, and a symbol for Tumacácori’s complex story.
The bell tower was built in three stories: on the ground floor lies the baptistry, on the second level the preparation room for the choir, and on the third level the arches and bells. The scallop shell niches harken to Saint James, Santiago de Compostela, the patron saint of Spain, and indicate a baptistry below.
A bell hung under each of the four arches. With imagination, you can see young O’odham boys and girls standing on the ground below, pulling on ropes dangling from the tower, signaling for Mass to begin. Forty-niners, en route to the California gold rush, recalled the haunting sound of the bells ringing through the river valley as they approached. The whereabouts of those original bells remains a mystery. They have since been replaced.
The bells rang many times each day, instructing mission residents when to eat, work, and pray. Yet the tower was never completed; round holes mark where construction scaffolding still supported the work in progress. Although the bell tower appears to be in ruin, it has changed little since the last residents left in 1848. The fired bricks of the bell arches never received their finishing coats of plaster. And whether a dome was intended to sit atop the tower we may never know.
Step through the arched entryway and into the remains of an impressive nave, the central hall of the church. In this room, indigenous people and Spanish settlers prayed and celebrated the Mass each day. There were no pews. People knelt or stood during services.
Along the walls are four side altars where devotional candles might be placed. In the walls above are niches where ornate statues of saints once stood.Along the interior walls, weathering has exposed the sun-dried adobe bricks made by mission residents. The once brightly-painted walls were decorated by the steady hands of artisans both indigenous and Spanish.
With the rising sun, families and individuals living in the mission would make their way to the nave to gather and start the day. It is likely that men and women were separated by sex, as was the colonial manner. Here, indigenous people learned and practiced new religious traditions in new languages. They adopted new deities and established a new worldview under the direction of the padres. In this space, there were tears, both happy and sad. There was loss, celebration, learning, and change.
Shortly after the residents left in 1848, the roof timbers were taken by local settlers for construction elsewhere. For the next seventy years, the nave was exposed and heavily damaged by weather. Looters, seeking Jesuit treasure that never existed, dug holes in the walls and floors.
Facing the front door of the church, you can see where the choir loft once stood. Notice the entrance to the balcony high on the left wall, and the ruined bases of the two pillars that supported the arch below it.
Music played an important role in mission life, as it always had in the lives of the O’odham and Yoeme. Tumacácori likely supported anywhere from eight to ten choir members, both men and women, at a given time. There were also musicians who played instruments such as oboe, flute, and zither (guitar), adding flourish to the sound of the Masses and other religious ceremonies held here.
Singers needed to memorize up to twenty-five songs for the community’s Masses, services, and processions. Despite the fact that few could read or write, they learned and performed hymns and kyries in Latin, Greek, Spanish, and O’odham.
You are welcome to sing a few bars of your favorite song here. The excellent acoustics of the building are no accident—the sound, along with the height, color, and beauty of the space, were designed to inspire feelings of awe, and a sense of power and majesty.
To the right of the church entrance is a small room where baptisms were performed. The room is composed of sun-dried adobe walls, nine feet thick with an inner rock core, which support the bell tower above. The stairway (inaccessible to visitors for reasons of safety) leads to the choir loft, the robing room, and beyond to the bell tower and roof.
Baptism was the first major sacrament undertaken by mission residents. Adults participated in religious instruction in order to learn about the doctrine of the Catholic church. Infants were baptized by padres with the permission and presence of the parents. All newly baptized individuals were given at least one godmother or godfather whose job it was to provide spiritual support. In the baptistry, the Catholic religion officially became a part of the lives of community members.
How did the new converts undergoing baptism feel? Were they apprehensive? Proud? Would they have to give up their traditional beliefs, or could they practice all of their spiritual beliefs simultaneously? We may never know. One thing is certain, though, this room was a space of transition and change.
The sanctuary, still adorned with remnants of the original paints and flourishes, picture frames, and stenciling, can be seen as the heart of the church. Here, the priest, dressed in brightly-colored vestments, led the Mass. During the most sacred parts of the ceremony, he sang the words facing toward the altar, his back to the congregation. Scriptures were read from the pulpit, reconstructed on the east wall beside the sanctuary. The service was conducted in a combination of Latin, Spanish, and O’odham.
Standing under the high dome, you might imagine the brightly painted decorations on the walls and ceilings, flickering candles, the congregants kneeling in the nave, the sound of chants, prayers, and song reverberating through the room. The combination of these things was meant to create a mental distance from the day’s hard work happening just outside the doors.
The O’odham and Yoeme people of the mission might have found the rituals of the Mass strange upon first introduction to the Catholic faith. The practice of kneeling, standing, and then kneeling again, during a ceremony conducted in primarily foreign tongues, was no doubt confusing for some. Eventually, however, these strange customs became familiar and blended with the spiritual and religious beliefs of the indigenous communities. Today, many O’odham and Yoeme people practice this uniquely intertwined religious tradition.
The sacristy served as the priest’s office. It housed the holy vestments and other objects for Mass. A priest would spend many hours working by candlelight in this room, documenting the important events of the day such as baptisms, marriages, and deaths. The mission records are a treasure trove of information but require some skill to interpret. They were handwritten with quill pen in now-antique Spanish. Personal details, especially from the perspective of women, O’odham, Yoeme, and Nde community members, are difficult to extract.
After the mission residents left Tumacácori for the last time in 1848, the church became a refuge and the sacristy its primary lodging. The protection of its thick walls offered welcome shelter for gold-seekers on their way to California, and for Mexican and U.S. soldiers and cowboys. These tired travelers recorded their stays not in mission record books, but on the walls. The darkened ceiling and many names are proof of the numerous fires made, dinners cooked, and stories told in this space.
The O’odham and their neighbors had complex traditions for burials. The dead were dressed well, often provided with some personal items, buried in a cavity, and covered with rocks. The O’odham would sometimes burn items that had belonged to a person who died, and would ask the dead to remain at peace, not come back to disturb the living. A blend of traditional and Catholic beliefs and ceremonies continues among the O’odham today.
The fourteen niches in the walls surrounding the cemetery would have held paintings or sculptures of the Catholic “Stations of the Cross.” In the center lies the round mortuary chapel. The plan may have been to cover the round building with a dome. A family might spend time with their deceased loved one in this room before burial.
Although burial records exist for Tumacácori from 1755 to 1825, the first burial in this cemetery took place in 1822. The previous cemetery was next to the Jesuit-era church.Many of the dead were victims of the terrible epidemics of smallpox, measles, and typhus that swept through the missions. A few were killed during Apache raids. The majority of Tumacácori’s burials were of children under the age of five.
While records describe nearly 600 burials at Tumacácori, any evidence of mission-era graves was destroyed long ago by weather, cattle, and vandals. Families who moved into the area after the O’odham residents left continued to use this cemetery to bury their dead. Little Juanita Alegria, who died of influenza at the age of nine months in 1916, was the last person buried at Tumacácori.
The storeroom’s two-story structure was the tallest part of the convento complex. Its wide staircase led to an upper level which was supported by heavy pine beams, hauled from the heights of the Santa Rita Mountains. The large beams were, in turn, supported by two thick adobe piers. On the right side of the doorway are depressions where large clay jars filled with seed and grain were stored for next season’s crops.
The storeroom’s surpluses and deficits were the measure of success or failure of the mission. A well-stocked storeroom allowed the purchase of clothing or other resources. Empty shelves signaled stress.
The storeroom also embodied the community’s new European-style corporate hierarchy and contrasted with the O’odham’s consensus-based government. Harvested food would be collected here and then distributed on a weekly basis. However, the gatekeeper to the storeroom could withhold access, making food contingent on following the mission’s rules.
Although commonly confused with the term “convent,” Tumacácori’s convento had nothing to do with housing for nuns. The convento was the operational part of the mission. It functioned as a shared, community workspace and governmental center. It would have been alive with the sounds of people talking, working, and moving about.
The rooms aligned in a U-shape around a central courtyard. Along the north wing, where a long raised mound is still visible today, archeological evidence suggests a kitchen, ironworker’s shop, carpentry shop, weaving room, leather shop, and grain grinding mill. The storeroom is all that remains of the west row of the convento. The south wing included the priest’s quarters, other office spaces, and an arched entrance to the interior courtyard. The central courtyard was likely planted with trees, ornamental flowers, and medicinal and edible plants. An arcade—a covered walkway lined with arches and built-in benches—ran in front of the rooms. It would have been a shady, inviting, and pleasant place to meet and greet one’s neighbors. The arcade and courtyard garden of the visitor center were built to replicate this experience.
For its O’odham residents, the mission’s convento may have been a place where tradition and change clashed. A host of new tools, technologies, and food sources had become available. Instead of yucca or cotton fibers, a weaver could use wool. Instead of bone or stone, one could craft tools from metal. But adopting these changes came at a social and cultural cost.
Most of the mission structures are made from sun-dried adobe bricks. A soil mixture would be mixed with water into a thick paste and then pressed into rectangular wooden forms and left in the sun to dry. This efficient style of earthen technology goes back thousands of years, but requires constant maintenance. Moisture, either from the ground or from precipitation, will erode sun-dried adobe bricks, rendering the structure unstable.
The Spanish favored limestone plaster as a protective coating on their adobe buildings. Many tons of limestone rocks were gathered and carted to the mission’s lime kilns. A fire was built under a metal grill and high temperatures “cooked” the limestone over several days until it could be hammered into a fine powder. That powder was then made into a paste using water and sand, which was later troweled onto on the exposed adobe brick walls.
Gathering stone, mixing plaster, and coating the large structures required the labor of many workers. For the O’odham, the kiln probably represented a significant change in their lifestyle. Previously, they lived with a changing landscape, in buildings that changed with it. The European worldview prioritized permanence and defiance of natural weathering. This shift would shape the way that people across the region live and think for centuries to come.
Padre Eusebio Francisco Kino first celebrated Mass at Tumacácori in 1691 under a ramada (shade structure) built by the O’odham who were living here. At that time, the village was located on the other side of the Santa Cruz River.
Although he chose Guevavi to be the cabecera (headquarters) where the priest would live, he and other priests continued to visit Tumacácori, sing the Mass, and tend to mission business. There is no record of an adobe church having been built while the village was on the east side of the river.
In November of 1751, a group of O’odham led by Captain General Luis Oacpicagigua (“Ahk-pee- ah-CUK-ya”) rebelled against the Spanish and Yoeme who had moved into their land. The resulting conflict caused the abandonment of mission communities for over a year.
The Spanish began construction of a presidio, a military outpost, at Tubac. When everyone returned, the village of Tumacácori was moved to the present location nearer to and on the same side of the river as the new presidio.
The outline that you see before you marks the footprint of the community’s first church, begun in the spring of 1753. The date of its completion is uncertain, but it is known to have been in use by the summer of 1757.
This small church remained under the management of Jesuit priests until they were expelled in 1767. A year later the Franciscans arrived to carry on the mission project in the Pimería Alta. They continued to use this building until the new church was ready for use in 1822.
Only portions of the original three-sided convento complex remain today: the two-story storeroom at the northwest corner, and this fragment. Just ahead of you was the arched entrance into the convento courtyard, graced by a small dome above. The priest also lived in this wing of the complex.
Originally, Tumacácori was only a visita—a visiting station for Catholic missionaries. It wasn’t until 1768 that Tumacácori became a cabecera—a mission that housed a resident priest. This likely caused a significant disturbance for the O’odham of Tumacácori. With only occasional visits from the priest, they could openly continue their traditional religious and social practices. Now, under the watchful eye of a resident priest, they had to conceal those practices in order to model Spanish and Catholic values.
This structure continued to serve the Tumacácori community long after the mission era. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, this remaining section of the convento served as a residence, a school, and later housed the museum of the fledgling Tumacácori National Monument. A herringbone-pattern floor currently duplicates and protects the original floor beneath one room. More than any other structure here it has seen many preservation techniques tried to protect it.
Directly in front of the most important, most symbolic, and most decorated structure of the mission are three features whose purpose remains a mystery.
Early excavations found hydraulic lime surfaces at the bottom of the boxes, suggesting they were meant to be water tight. However, archeologists and historians continue to disagree about their original function. Some refer to them as cisterns. Others theorize they provided rudimentary “indoor plumbing” to the convento. Still others look to the unfinished bell tower as evidence the vats served a function in working limestone plaster.
The side walls are reconstructions. We do not know if they originally rose above ground level. What is your leading theory?
The O’odham word for house is ki (“kee”). Melhok (“MOOro”) is the spiky plant known in Spanish and English as ocotillo. Before the arrival of adobe construction from Spain, the O’odham built rounded homes using mud applied over a wood and brush framework. When rain washed away some of the mud, a new coating was always close at hand. Over time, the O’odham adopted the square rooms favored by the Spanish.
The home would also include a wa:ato (“WAH-ah-toe”), or mesquite ramada, and a brush enclosure for cooking. While the inside of the ki provided shelter on cold nights, many activities in the home took place under or around the wa:ato. Although many mission residents lived in the Spanish-style adobe rooms around the plaza in front of the church, some may have continued to live in traditional homes.
The O’odham still build and use structures like this, made of mesquite timbers, ocotillo sticks, saguaro ribs, and mud. This one was built in 1997 by O’odham from the San Xavier community using traditional hand tools. When completed, it was dedicated by them to San Francisco Xavier, Father Kino’s patron saint.
For the O’odham living in the desert, it was the job of young girls to run each day in the early morning, often for many miles, to bring home water for their family. As the monsoon season approached, families would move to locations where shallow irrigation channels delivered rainwater to their fields. The O’odham living along streams channeled river water directly into rich fields of corn, beans, squash, agave, and melons.
With the Spanish came European ideas of irrigation. The fired adobe structure before you is part of the acequia madre, the main irrigation channel that brought water to the mission from the Santa Cruz River a mile or more to the south. The narrowed end could be closed, raising the elevation of the water to serve various functions. As a compuerta, or diversion box, it turned water from the ditch into the orchard to the east. As a holding tank, it was convenient for filling ollas, earthen jars, to carry water back to the houses for drinking and cooking. Because it had a polished, red surface, it was probably also used as a lavandería, or place for washing clothes and dishes, and possibly even bathing.
The saguaro and organ pipe cactus, generally found at lower elevations, provided the O’odham an annual treat of sweet, juicy fruit. The saguaro harvest was celebrated with dancing, singing, and storytelling, and the making and drinking of saguaro wine, essential for the calling of the clouds that would bring the summer rains.
The establishment of a mission brought new fruits, imported from Europe and considered essential to a “civilized” life by the priests and settlers. As farmers, the O’odham welcomed these new crops. Wheat, grown over the winter, provided a harvest during an otherwise lean season. Horses, cattle, sheep, goats, and chickens provided transportation, labor, fiber, and convenient sources of protein.
The mission complex included a walled garden and orchard, the contents protected from deer and cattle. Native trees, including hackberries, now grow along the foundations of those adobe walls. Within the original 4.6 acre enclosure the community grew vegetables and fruit trees. Favorite trees brought from Europe included peach, pomegranate, quince, and fig. As recently as 1938, peach trees lined the mission acequia, stabilizing its banks and making use of moisture which seeped through its mud walls.
The fruit trees that you see here today were grown from seeds and cuttings of old cultivar fruit trees—the oldest trees that could be found in historic orchards and yards throughout southern Arizona. The replanted orchard was dedicated in 2007.
Mesquite bosques (small forests) reach their greatest development near desert rivers or where their long roots can reach groundwater. This rich woodland plant community supports a tremendous biodiversity of insects, birds, and mammals. Today, the mesquite bosque of Tumacácori protects the threatened yellow-billed cuckoo and other rare species. It provided the O’odham, and later the Spanish, with wood, medicine, and food.
Mesquite flowers provide important pollen and nectar for wildlife. The flowers are crowded into long spikes called catkins. When fertilized, the flowers form long green fruits that resemble string beans. They grow and mature through the summer, turning tan or streaked with red. The beans can be eaten at all stages of their growth. The O’odham ate them as a vegetable when green, and ground the pods into a sweet, nutty flour when ripe. They are favored by many animals, including hares, pocket mice, kangaroo rats, pack rats, and javelinas.
Although honey mesquite can be found in the region, the velvet mesquite (Prosopis velutina) dominates the landscape of Tumacácori. Some theorize that the Spanish introduction of cattle accelerated the spread of mesquite bosques in the Pimería Alta.
The Santa Cruz River has long been a highway of trade and travel. Prehistoric people followed the river to trade with neighbors. The O’odham farmed along the river, using the floodplain and low banks to grow crops. Later, missionaries and explorers would rely on these existing networks to colonize the area.
In 1775, an expedition of approximately 240 people and nearly a thousand head of livestock followed this river on the first part of a journey that would establish the first European settlement on the San Francisco Bay. The Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail was designated to commemorate this massive and important movement of settlers across the land.Today the Anza Trail preserves this important history while also providing valuable outdoor recreational space. At Tumacácori it passes through habitat that supports the most diverse migratory bird population outside of the tropics.Hikers, runners, and riders can travel along its route. Even a casual stroll connects visitors to the residents and travelers of history.
The Santa Cruz River is an international waterway. It begins in the San Rafael Valley, flows southward into Mexico, then makes a U-turn back into the United States. Here, it flows from south to north, eventually joining the Gila River. The river creates essential habitat and a wildlife corridor for threatened and endangered species.
Where underlying bedrock slopes up, the water is forced to the surface. The O’odham situated their villages in these locations, known as “gaining reaches,” to take advantage of the reliable water source. Later settlers followed suit.
The river provided not only water for drinking and irrigation, but habitat for the complex web of life that supported human settlement. It contributed to every basket, meal, article of clothing, medicine, and cultural practice. Literally every item a person touched over the course of a lifetime connected back to the Santa Cruz River corridor.
Today, the cottonwood-willow environment along the Santa Cruz is one of the most rare and endangered habitats in the United States. The river’s plant and animal communities and water quality are threatened by climate change and modern land use. The stretch of river that flows through Tumacácori is now composed almost entirely of treated effluent, released from the Nogales International Wastewater Treatment Facility in Rio Rico, Arizona. Although this supplemental water source has supported the return of the endangered Gila topminnow (Poeciliopsis occidentalis), it is not safe for human consumption. Avoid contact.
The annual event, La Fiesta de Tumacácori, takes place in this open area each year on the first full weekend in December. Originating with a Catholic Mass inside the mission church in honor of Father Eusebio Francisco Kino in 1965, the first all-day fiesta took place following the 1971 commemorative Mass. The Fiesta quickly outgrew the space in front of the church and was moved to this area of previously farmed land.
Each year, the Tumacácori Fiesta brings together people from all the cultures of the Santa Cruz Valley for two days of celebration. Each culture traditional to Tumacácori is represented in music and dance. Local non-profit organizations are invited to provide information and to sell handcrafted items and traditional foods. Artisans and craftspeople representing O’odham (Tohono O’odham and Pima), Yoeme (Yaqui), Nde (Apache), Mexican, and Mexican-American traditions demonstrate their skills and share their cultures with people from all over the world.
Once it gained its independence from Spain, the new nation of Mexico no longer valued the missions for their original purpose of converting native people into European-style citizens. Priests born in Spain were deported, including Tumacácori’s last resident priest in 1828. The mission families stayed on for another twenty years. For reasons that they did not record, in 1848 the residents of Tumacácori moved away, the women carrying their precious santos (saint statues) on their backs in burden baskets to San Xavier del Bac. They left behind their church, cemetery, fields, and homes.
With the Gadsden Purchase in 1854, Tumacácori became part of the United States. The U.S. reservation system eventually limited the legal territory of the O’odham to five sister reservations: the San Xavier and Tohono (desert) O’odham, and Gila River, Salt River, and Ak-Chin Pima (river) nations.
Today, the Tohono O’odham and Pima are known for their beautiful basketry, woven using materials collected from the deserts and rivers of their homeland. The Yoeme (Yaqui) are famous for their carvings and religious dance, the Apache for their beadwork. Many still speak the languages of their ancestors.
After hundreds of years of mixing, marrying, creating new families, and blending traditions, a new people emerged: the mestizaje of Mexico. Flavors like chiles, carne asada, and tortillas reflect this mixing of origins. Sharing traditional foods—made fresh in kitchens such as this one—connects us to each other and to our shared heritage.
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.