Tumacacori Historic Site – A Step Back in Time
Do you ever wonder what it’s like to go back in time? I think about it a lot, as I’m sure many history enthusiasts do. Over the years, I have accepted that physical time travel might not happen. But fear not, I have found another way. Because there are places where the past comes to me. Ancient ruins, battlefields, preserved monuments – places like these are time portals. When you go there, all it takes is imagination, and you can move about on the timeline. One of these time portals is the Tumacacori National Historical Site near Tucson, Arizona.
The history of this place goes way back in time to hundreds of years ago. Back then, the Santa Cruz Valley was inhabited only by the O’odham Native American tribe. They lived peaceful lives of hunting, gathering, and farming. They grew beans, squash, corn, and had their own irrigation system to fuel the crops in the hostile desert climate. Their homes were made of bent branches covered in mud. Conflicts with neighboring tribes flared up once in a while, but most gatherings by the O’odham were peaceful and resulted in dancing, feasting, and spiritual rituals to celebrate nature.
By the late 1600s, the O’odham got occasional visits from the white man. One of these was Father Eusebio Francisco Kino, a Catholic missionary sent by the Spanish. He visited an O’odham settlement in 1691 and recorded the name as “Tumagacori.” After a successful first Catholic mass with the O’odham, Kino started three different Spanish missions in the area. One of these was Tumacacori – built near the O’odham village that Kino dubbed “San Cayetano.” The mission boasted housing for residents, workshops, learning centers, gardens, and irrigation systems. All went well for a few decades, but in 1751, the O’odham grew restless with surrounding Spanish settlements and a rebellion broke out. In the ensuing violence, over one hundred people were killed and Tumacacori was abandoned for over a year. A Spanish military post was placed near the village of Tubac, and only then did the Tumacacori Mission residents return. They also moved to the other side of the river to be closer to the soldiers. The mission name was changed to San Jose De Tumacacori and the new settlement became their permanent dwelling.
In 1756, the Jesuits arrived in Tumacacori and gave the mission their first official church building. This wasn’t the picturesque church-front that is the center of the mission today. Rather, it was a very small building used only until the Jesuits were expelled in 1767. Today, only the foundation of this church remains. As for the famous Tumacacori sanctuary, that wasn’t constructed until the early 1800s. By then, the Tumacacori residents were under the care of Franciscan missionaries. The mission had also become a unique cultural center of multiple Native American tribes (O’odham, Yuqui, and even some Apache), as well as several European settlers. It had also become an amazing, self-sustaining village in the middle of the Arizona desert. They had their beautiful church and sanctuary with its own choir loft, baptismal font, and graveyard. They also had their own livestock herds, an orchard that they watered with a self-built irrigation system, and an impressive drying and storage facility so fruits and vegetables could be eaten year-round.
Despite its many charms, in 1848, the residents of Tumacacori packed up their lives and abandoned the mission. Theories for this abrupt departure center around the Mexican-American war, Apache raids, and a particularly hard winter. Afterwards, the beautiful mission sat alone and isolated for decades. The roof of the church was removed and the lumber scrapped for other use. The sanctuary suffered damage from exposure to the elements, and also from fortune hunters that dug up the floors in search of mythical Jesuit treasure. Other visitors to the silent sanctuary were anxious 49ers en route to the California gold mines, exhausted ranchers and cowboys herding cattle, and Mexican and US soldiers in need of a place to sleep. One of these soldiers was John J. Pershing. The man destined to lead the American Expeditionary Forces in WWI was just a young lieutenant caught up in border patrol when he spent a night in the mission.
In 1908, recognizing the unique history of the mission, Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed the crumbling church and the 10 acres surrounding it as a historic monument. However, it wasn’t until 1919 that major restorations finally began. By 1937, the modern day Tumacacori Historic Site emerged when the museum and Visitor Center were built.
Today, due to a lot of hard work over many years, Tumacacori National Historic Site is an impressive step back in time. Standing in the cool, dark sanctuary is a truly haunting experience. Parts of the choir loft still remain, as does the baptismal font and sacristy. You can almost hear the angelic voices from the choir. You can feel the energy of the dozens of baptisms, births, marriages, and masses that took place in that empty room. Energy also lingers in the Sacristy, where the names of the many cowboys, soldiers, and gold hunters that passed through are scratched in the faded walls. You can almost see the glow of their fires, and you can feel the angst they had for their futures. There is also the mission orchard. Volunteers searched far and wide for fruit seeds that would have grown there when the mission was still active. They did a remarkable job. In that orchard, you can imagine the mission residents harvesting fruit and digging the impressive irrigation system. Today, that system is just grassed-over ditches, but imagination lets you hear the trickle of water.
In the back of the church is one of the most intriguing spots on the entire site – the graveyard. The mission-era graves are unfortunately long gone. Exposure, reckless visitors, and even cattle herds scattered what was left of them to the winds. However, there are still graves from the early twentieth century. The eternal resting places are marked with crosses and rocks, but no names. In the funeral chapel, sadness from the many mourning families hangs in the air. However, only one grave in the entire place has ever been identified. The rest are unknown remains of people that are forever lost to history – and that says nothing of the mission era graves that no longer exist.
It struck me then that real people, with real lives, real dreams, and real ambitions lived and died right where I stood. They weren’t famous historical figures and they didn’t need to be. They were just normal people with normal lives. Normal people who passed through these walls and planted an orchard, went to church, and maybe got married. They learned a trade. They had children. They lived. And it all took place right within these crumbling walls. To me, there is something very humbling and even spiritual about that. Because it meant that other than hundreds of years of time – we weren’t all that different. It was 2018 outside the mission walls, but in that graveyard, another era beckoned and I suddenly felt very close to it.
I left Tumacacori feeling like I had just time traveled. I also left infused with the energy of the many people who lived and died in the mission. Their graves are unmarked, but through the preserved site, their stories remain. We can talk to them by visiting places like Tumacacori and letting our imaginations be the flux capacitor. Then we can connect to a bygone past, learn the lessons, and work together to pave a powerful future.
Tumacacori National Historic Site
In the Footprints of the Past – National Park Service Informational Guide
All photos by M.B. Henry. For more on our recent trip to Arizona, click here