As English colonists were arriving at Jamestown and Plymouth Rock on the east coast of North America, the southwestern Native Americans were starting to see visitors from the south. Catholic missionaries traveled north from Mexico to establish missions in the Southwest region that is now Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California.
The oldest Jesuit mission in Arizona has been preserved in Tumacácori National Historic Park, a picturesque reminder that Southern Arizona was, at one time, the far northern frontier of New Spain. The San Cayetano del Tumacácori Mission was established in 1691 by Spanish Jesuit priest Eusebio Francisco Kino, 29 miles north of Nogales beside the Santa Cruz River. Jesuit, and later Franciscan, priests ministered to the O’odham Indians and Spanish settlers until 1848.
Mission life became impossible because of the Mexican-American War cutting off supply routes, an increase in Apache raids, and a severe winter. The community made the difficult decision to leave Tumacácori, taking their valuables with them to Mission San Xavier del Bac.
Closed completely following the end of the war in 1848, Tumacácori became US property in 1853 when land south of the Gila River was transferred to Arizona (the Gadsden Purchase).
After sixty years of deterioration, President Theodore Roosevelt established Tumacácori National Monument in 1908, protecting the mission’s remains. Times were not always easy; there were revolts, devastating epidemics, an expulsion of Jesuit priests, and influxes of people from outside the region. Tubac, a Spanish soldier garrison, was established nearby and offered protection from some Apaches who had formed raiding parties.
In 1775, a Spanish-sponsored 1,200-mile expedition composed of 240 colonists and 1,000 head of livestock passed through the mission. Organized and led by a Tubac captain, Juan Bautista de Anza II, they were en route to settle an outpost in California that resulted in the founding of the City of San Francisco in 1776. Even though they had to traverse an unforgiving desert sparsely populated with sometimes hostile Indians, all of the colonists arrived safe, a testament to Anza’s leadership.
The expedition’s route, now the Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail, passes through the park, providing opportunities for walkers, bird watchers, and horseback riders. A 4.5 mile stretch of the Anza Trail, extends from Tumacácori to the Tubac Presidio State Historic Park. The trail follows the Santa Cruz River in the shade of mesquite, hackberry, elderberry, cottonwood, and willow trees providing shelter for more than 200 species of birds.
Using Mission View RV Resort off San Xavier Road in southern Tucson as our home base, we recently visited this historic place, toured the mission church, cemetery, and grounds.
Entry is through a large wooden door set into the wall, which opens directly into the visitor center. The center has a good selection of local-interest books, a museum, park store, and an auditorium for video presentations about the history of the mission.
Staffed by National Park Service employees and volunteers, the museum and park store provide orientation and a wealth of information. The museum offers dioramas, artifacts, and exhibits about the Native American and Spanish colonial cultures. Ranger-led tours, living history, craft presentations, and even full-moon tours of the church and riverside are available seasonally.
A self-guiding tour booklet for the Tumacácori Mission grounds can be purchased or borrowed. The walking tour of the site leads through several interlinked rooms with open doorways, and to the enclosed courtyard garden, filled by mature trees and Sonoran desert plants.
The church is a 200-foot walk away across the main quadrangle, much of which is bare soil though other parts have trees and lesser buildings such as residential quarters. The main chamber has a nave, altar, and remains of a choir loft, with links to smaller rooms including a baptistery, sacristy, and sanctuary. Behind the church are a granary, mortuary, and a cemetery with original graves marked by simple wooden crosses.
Today, the past and the present meld together as one at Tumacácori National Historical Park. Come experience it!
Now that I’m here, where am I?