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. I found one such time portal in Arizona – the Tumacacori National Historical Site near Tucson.

The history of this place starts hundreds of years ago. Back then, the O’odham Native American tribe inhabited the Santa Cruz Valley. 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.  Bent branches covered in mud served as their homes. 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.


Drying and Storage Room

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 the rest abandoned Tumacacori, leaving it vacant for over a year. A Spanish military post sprung up 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. They changed the mission name 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. Not the picturesque church-front that centers the mission today, but a very small building used only until the Jesuits were expelled in 1767. Today, only the foundation of this earliest church remains. As for the famous Tumacacori sanctuary, that didn’t come along until the 1800s.

By then, Franciscan missionaries were the prime care takers of Tumacacori. Under them, the mission had 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 they watered with a self-built irrigation system, and an impressive drying and storage facility so fruits and vegetables could be eaten year-round.


The Orchard

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. The sanctuary suffered damage from exposure to the elements, and also from fortune hunters digging up the floors in search of mythical Jesuit treasure. The abandoned sanctuary also played host to 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 on the site.

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 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.


The Sanctuary

One of the most intriguing spots on the entire site rests in the back of the church – the graveyard.  The mission-era graves are long gone. Exposure, reckless visitors, and even cattle herds scattered them to the winds. However, graves from the early twentieth century still remain. The eternal resting places are marked with crosses and rocks, but no names. In fact, 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.


The Graveyard

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, who passed through these walls and planted an orchard, went to church, and maybe got married. They learned a trade and had children. They lived. And it all took place right within these crumbling walls. I felt something very humbling and even spiritual about that. Because 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, and 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.


Mission Grounds from the back


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 

76 Comments on “Tumacacori Historic Site – A Step Back in Time

    • I was glued to that graveyard. It was hard to walk away. I bet you would love it and you could take more of your fantastic pictures!

      • Me. Too. 🙂 always glad to meet a fellow history enthusiast!

      • The simplest, truest and most heartbreaking way to experience history is to walk through a graveyard and
        read the inscriptions on the stones:

        (Under an angel) Born 1881 – Died 1882

        (Under a service cross) Born 1920 – Died 1944

        Husband and Father Born 1840 – Died 1930 Wife and Mother Born 1842 – Died 1866

      • That is the truth! My husband and I hiked through an old ghost town near Seattle last year. One of the few things left was the graveyard and it was mostly children! 1 or 2 years old… it was heartbreaking.

    • Thanks a lot! I highly encourage a visit if you’re ever in the area. The place really speaks.

    • Why thank you! And thanks for giving it a read. How the hell are you anyway?

  1. Yes! Absolutely how I feel whether standing on the Battlefield at Glorieta Pass, Vicksburg, or just driving across the plains and thinking about settlers crossing the same paths in wagons.
    They had entire valuable lives…wouldn’t you just love to sit and hold a conversation?
    Thanks for sharing!

    • Yes. Yes I would love to sit and have a conversation! Sounds like our minds work very similar. I cant go anywhere without thinking of the history and who came before me

  2. You just took me back in time. Thank you for the very beautiful journey. This is another awesome story and on one of my favorite subjects and people. The Native Americans.

  3. I would even welcome just a window, a peek into the past. I agree that every history buff thinks about that at some time.

    • I knew you would understand 🙂 Just a crack in a window! One little peep hole! I wish so bad sometimes but it makes me extra grateful for places like this. Always nice to hear from you GP.

  4. Fabulous! – I confess that I had no idea there was anything like that in Texas. And you really do communicate the evocative sense of the place. Time travel – I may be wrong (it happens), but I believe fans of Stephen Hawking are keeping an open mind on the subject…

    • I will never give up on the idea entirely! 😉 it’s just nice to have places like this in the meantime. Im so glad you enjoyed the post!

  5. I love your combination of vivid details and lovely pictures that help to capture the mood. I have always been fascinated with stories of the clash between Spanish explorers/colonizers/missionaries and the indigenous people of Central and South America, so this post is especially interesting to me. I also really love your point at the beginning that we actually CAN travel back in time. That is what good history always helps us do. Love your posts.

    • I’m so glad you stopped by and enjoyed it and love that you connected with it. 🙂 Our imaginations may be the only time travel vehicles we will have. Luckily your great posts help me keep mine healthy! 🙂

  6. Very interesting! I’m not sure why but I’m not allowed to like your posts.(but I certainly do)

    • Oh that’s bizarre! I’m going to have my husband (aka Mr. Web Tech lol) look into that for you. Thanks for bringing it to my attention. And I’m glad you like the posts!

  7. Thanks for the transport back in time and for sharing about a cool historical site! I’m only a few hours away from Tucson, so I’m going to put this on my bucket list and check it out when I’m in the area.

    • Oh I highly recommend it. You will really enjoy it! There’s a nice walking path that takes you all around the place and you can either do a guided tour or a self-tour with a pamphlet they sell for a few dollars. Enjoy! And thanks for stopping by!

  8. Thanks for the comment on my blog, not sure why but when I try to reply it deletes the comment. Probably something I’ve done without knowing. Thanks again.

    • I noticed sometimes wordpress does that when I try to respond to things too. I think it’s just a little glitch in the software that appears on and off. I appreciate your stopping by! 🙂 (and your photos!)

  9. This is so cool and I always go,travel places with you. The graveyard had to be spooky in a way and yet so amazing. Thank you for sharing.

    • Glad you enjoyed it! Hey I’ve been meaning to tell you my husband and I booked a three week trip to Europe in July and Germany is on our list! Any recommendations? 🙂

      • Oh my goodness how wonderful. It really depends on what you like to see. Germany is rich in history which I know you love. There are many castles and ruins. Maybe you could do a Castle tour if that is of interest, but be prepared for touristy areas. Germany had also many Medieval kind of towns high might be not as busy as castles. Those are romantic places with cobblestone roads and many historic sites. Bavaria is beautiful if you love mountains. The alps are a must see and borders Switzerland and Austria. You have options and I’ll be happy to help more. 😉

      • Yay! We definitely have some castles on our list. I’d like to mix it up between history and nature. I’ve always been interested in seeing the Black Forest so we’ll probably check that out. We’re also stopping in Berlin and Munich as well as a few other cities.

      • Thank you! I’m sure we will have a great time. And yes, I’m sure many new posts on here will be the result 🙂

    • We really enjoyed our visit there. Glad you see the time portals the same way I do 🙂 thanks for stopping by!

  10. Great overview of the Tumacacori Mission, MB — you brought it back to life for all of us, thank you.

    • Thank you! Im so glad you enjoyed it. It really was a marvelous place

  11. It looks – and sounds – like an intriguing site. Some historical sites are interesting enough, but some of them pull you back in time, like you described here. Nothing makes history come alive like visiting a graveyard and reading the names (and ages!) of those laid to rest. Fascinating history here. Thanks!

    • Thanks for stopping by to give it a read! I totally agree that graveyards are an excellent (although tragic) history lesson. It’s always a great way to learn about the town and its trials. So glad you enjoyed the piece.

  12. This is a beautiful post to our ancestors. I love exploring old Mission buildings which were usually close to Native communities. For the most part, the early settlers lived in harmony on the west coast and often married which is why I have Native DNA. My great-grandparents are buried in Tucumcari, NE New Mexico – I wonder if the language was the same?

    • Wow! What a connection you have to these fascinating pieces of history. That is so amazing. I sure enjoyed walking around that place and learning more about the Native cultures of the West. As for your great-grandparents, boy the names are sure similar – it makes me wonder as well.

      • Every time I find out some new genealogical fact about my family, I am surprised. I just found out that we have a family cemetery (Pace) in a little township called Henry, Illinois. Next stop on my bucket list!

      • Oh my goodness that’s crazy! I actually know right where Henry is. I grew up in Iowa and my husband in Indiana so we drive through Illinois frequently when we are in the Midwest. That would be an amazing trip for you!

      • I can’t believe you know where Henry is!!! What a crazy small world we live in. I haven’t visited the Midwest apart from a diverted plane to Minneapolis but would love to follow my ancestor’s tracks.

      • I recommend going in the early spring! Nicer weather and less mosquitoes! 🙂

      • Surely there are no more mosquitoes than in south east Texas… I am covered in bites and have a mosquito misting system!!

      • So at least you’re a mosquito veteran! 🙂 Glad you have a battle plan for them too. Lousy little creatures!

    • You’re welcome! Thanks for reading it and I’m glad you enjoyed it

    • Glad you enjoyed it! It was an amazing place to walk around

  13. Wonderful read and photos. You’re right, even your explanation takes us back in time – relating to the lives that once roamed this area, enjoying or enduring life similar to our way of life today. I also can just imagine the voices from the walls and the grave. No doubt though that God knows who they area.

    • Im not surprised you can imagine it since you seem to connect so much with historic places! 🙂 I agree too that God surely knows them all and very well. I’m grateful for places like this where we can close the gap between time periods. Glad you came by and happy you enjoyed it!

      • You’re so right. We both understand the significance of history and how we can learn from the past, respecting and honoring those who lived before us. Thank you.

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