The History of Tubac Presidio

Conflict has shaped the Southwest since colonizers arrived in the late 1600s. From the earliest presidios to a modern-day Army base, fighting near and far has caused communities to thrive and fall.

Tubac nestles in a high, mountain-framed valley on the banks of the Santa Cruz River. This pastoral landscape of rolling grasslands, shaggy with mesquite, is 47 miles south of Tucson and 25 miles north of the Mexican border.

In 1948, landscape painter Dale Nichols opened an art school and the quiet little burg began an evolution into an artist colony. Today, over 80 shops and restaurants are clustered in the village plaza where old adobes, Spanish courtyards, and ocotillo fences blend seamlessly with a handful of newer buildings. There’s a whiff of emergent Santa Fe here without the jostling crowds.

Tubac © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What’s not immediately apparent in this peaceful setting is that Tubac was born of violence.

The New World Spanish Empire known as New Spain sent missionaries to Christianize the natives.

Father Eusebio Francisco Kino arrived in 1687 and began work among Indians the Spaniards called Pimas. In their language, they were O’odham, or the people. Kino traveled the region he called Pimeria Alta from today’s Sonora, Mexico to southern Arizona establishing missions including Tumacácori, just south of Tubac.

Spanish colonists began to arrive in the Santa Cruz valley during the 1730s, farming and raising cattle, sheep, and goats. Angry over the appropriation of land and harsh punishment doled out by missionaries, the Pimas revolted in 1751. Led by Luis of Saric, they attacked several settlements. When the violence ended, more than 100 colonists were dead.

Tubac Presidio State Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As a result of the rebellion, a presidio was founded at Tubac in June 1752, the first European settlement in Arizona. The 50 cavalrymen garrisoned at the Presidio San Ignacio de Tubac were to protect the missions in the area and quell uprisings. The presidio would serve as a base for continued exploration of New Spain.

Soldiers were encouraged to bring their families which gave Tubac an air of permanence. Indians killed the first captain of the post in 1759. The man who would become Tubac’s most famous resident, Juan Bautista de Anza, assumed command.

De Anza led numerous campaigns against the Apaches and achieved a notable reputation as a soldier and leader. However, he is best known for establishing a long-sought overland route through the desert to northern California. Following a successful journey in 1774, de Anza immediately began organizing a colonizing expedition. In 1775, de Anza set out from Tubac with more than 240 men, women, and children on a treacherous trek of 1,200 miles to establish a settlement near the San Francisco Bay.

Tubac Presidio State Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The journey emptied Tubac of most of its occupants. Increasing Apache raids drove away others. In 1776, the presidio was moved to Tucson. Without military protection, Tubac languished for a decade. It wasn’t until the presidio was reactivated that the community began to recover.

The Royal Fort of St. Rafael at Tubac was established in 1787. This time the garrison consisted of four Spanish officers and 80 Pima Indians. The viceroy of New Spain, Bernardo de Galvez implemented a policy to settle Indians who sought peace near the presidios on makeshift reservations. The goal was to make them dependent on the Spaniards by giving them gifts, supplies, food, sugar, firearms, and ammunition.

This plan of peace by deceit gained the Spaniard’s allies against warring factions. It also pushed the Indians away from a nomadic lifestyle and toward an agricultural one considered more appropriate by European standards. Tubac enjoyed a period of relative calm.

Mexico won independence from Spain in 1821 and the new Republic of Mexico’s flag flew over Tubac until 1848. That year, an Apache attack caused great loss of life. Months later, men poured out of town streaming for the California gold fields. Tubac was abandoned again.

Tubac Presidio State Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tubac was part of the Gadsden Purchase of 1853 and fortune hunters began making their way back. Charles Poston and associates formed the Sonora Exploration and Mining Co. and used Tubac as their headquarters. They repaired some of the old presidio buildings and moved in.

Poston who would become known as the Father of Arizona for his role in procuring Arizona’s Territorial status served as mayor, judge, treasurer, and justice of the peace. By 1859, Tubac was the largest town in the region and Arizona’s first newspaper was established there.

When the Civil War broke out, U.S. troops were withdrawn from Arizona to fight in the East. Tubac residents moved to Tucson and did not return until the presidio was regarrisoned in 1865 after the war.

For the next two decades, Tubac’s fortunes again depended entirely on military presence. This was the heart of the frontier, exposed and vulnerable, and it wasn’t until the Apaches were subdued in the 1880s that Tubac stabilized.

But that also was about the time silver strikes led to booming growth at Tombstone. And the railroad was routed through Tucson sparking that town’s development. Tubac had lost its position of prominence.

Tumacácori National Historical Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved


Getting there: From Tucson, travel south on Interstate 19 to Exit 34. Cross under the interstate and continue south on the frontage road another half-mile to Tubac.

History walk: The Juan Bautista de Anza Trail is a 4.5-mile pathway connecting Tubac Presidio State Historic Park and Tumacácori National Historical Park. The level trail traces the Santa Cruz River through shady woodlands and follows the route Juan Bautista de Anza took on his expeditions. It’s popular with hikers and birders.

Tubac Presidio State Historic Park: Arizona’s first state park was established in 1958. The Presidio was the final staging area for two expeditions to California, the second of which resulted in the founding of San Francisco and is commemorated in Anza Days every October at the park. Long before colonial days, the site was home to O’odham, Tohono O’odham, and Apache Indians. You’ll see evidence of their contributions and those of other cultures in the park’s museum and archaeological dig.

Tumacácori National Historical Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tumacácori National Historical Park: This is the site of a Jesuit outpost settled in 1691 by Eusebio Francisco Kino. The current building, Mission San Jose de Tumacacori was built in the late 18th century. In 1921, construction began on a roof to protect the interior of the mission. The mission grounds and visitor center are open for exploration and guided tours are offered January through March.

Worth Pondering…

A tree is known by its fruit; a man by his deeds. A good deed is never lost; he who sows courtesy reaps friendship, and he who plants kindness gathers love.

—Basil of Caesarea, Ancient Greek theologian (330-379)