Tumacacori National Historical Park Commemorates Arizona’s Oldest Spanish Mission

Mortuary chapel and rear of church, San José de Tumacácori, 1937. Historic American Buildings Survey photo by John P. O'Neill, via Wikipedia.

At historically appropriate sites, national park units commemorate, interpret, and preserve the historical and archeological evidence of the early exploration and colonization efforts that took place in what is now the United States. These parks can be gathered into a loose category labeled “Exploration and Early Settlement.”

Established 18 years ago on August 6, 1990, Arizona’s Tumacacori National Historical Park, is a fine example of this genre. The park, which superceded the 10-acre Tumacácori National Monument established in 1908, preserves the sites of three Spanish missions that helped shape the history of the Southwest. One is the oldest mission in Arizona.

A basic understanding of Colonial era history is essential to a full appreciation of the role that the missions played in the Spanish and Indian Southwest.

Five major European colonial powers -- Spain, England, France, Denmark, and Netherlands -- explored, laid claim to, and established early settlements in parts of what is now the United States and its territories. The colonial powers were motivated by many things, nearly all of which are conveyed in the expression “God, Gold, and Glory.” God refers to religion (missionary zeal; winning converts for the Church), Gold refers to riches (however defined), and Glory refers to the respect, admiration, status, titles, and other benefits accruing to individuals who are successful explorers, discoverers, and exploiters.

The motives of the various colonial powers differed in important ways. The French emphasized the fur trade, and secondarily, expanding the frontiers of Christianity. The English sought a shortcut to the Far East (the fabled Northwest Passage) and were keenly interested in fish, timber, and plantations. The Dutch and the Danes played niche roles, seeking lucrative plantations and trade arrangements, primarily in the Caribbean.

The Spanish were particularly interested in imperial conquest and riches (“show us the gold!”). Like England and France, the Spanish valued regional hegemony, meaning military and political control over large areas possessing material resources important to Spain.

And what of the people inhabiting those conquered areas? The imperial model that Spain found so profitable in the New World held that the only way to make conquest profitable was to kill some of the people you conquered and put the rest to work in your behalf.

In practice, the Spanish killed Indians who refused to submit to Spanish will or convert to Christianity (two sides of the same coin). The intimidated remainder were re-educated in the Spanish way of doing things and given the opportunity to become productive workers in Spanish directed enterprises, principally farming, ranching, and mining. In this context, the missions played a hugely important role.

The missions that the Jesuits, Franciscans, and Dominicans built in what is now the Southwestern United States (mostly during the 1600s and 1700s) were multi functional facilities. They were, to be sure, a series of religious outposts built for the purpose of spreading Christian doctrine among the Native Americans. But there was much more to the missions than saving souls. While they worked for God, the missions worked even more for Spain.

Each mission (misión) that was established gave Spain another toehold in the frontier, or if you prefer, another Spanish-friendly oasis in the wilderness. The Spanish also established presidios (forts) at strategic locations as well as pueblos (towns) where substantial settlements could be sustained in the colonized regions.

More than just toeholds on the frontier, the missions functioned as agricultural production centers and transport hubs or way stations for caravan routes. Consistent with the Spanish imperial model, the missions introduced European crops (grains, fruits, vegetables) and livestock (horses, mules, cattle, sheep, goats) so the locals could produce valuable products for shipment to Spanish colonial centers and Spain. Hides, wool, and tallow were prominent exports because they had high value in relation to their weight or volume. Bulky, low value goods were not worth shipping.

Spanish missionaries established dozens of missions in and near present-day Arizona. Between 1687 and 1711, the famous Jesuit missionary-explorer Father Eusebio Francisco Kino (1644-1711) established more than 20 missions among the O'odham (Pima) Indians in the Pimería Alta region (southern Arizona and Mexico’s northern Sonora). Other Jesuits established and administered missions in the area until they were expelled in 1767. Franciscan missionaries then took over until Mexican independence in 1821.

Today, Tumacácori National Historical Park protects three of the mission sites in southern Arizona’s Santa Cruz County. The small (310 acres), fragmented park preserves the ruins of the San José de Tumacácori, Los Santos Ángeles de Guevavi, and San Cayetano de Calabazas Missions. The prolific Padre Kino established Tumacácori and Guevavi, while another Jesuit established Calabazas. Tumacácori, one of the northern outposts of Spanish settlement, has the distinction of being the oldest mission site in Arizona. It dates to January 1691.

A clarification is in order here. The present site of the Tumacácori mission is not the original site. For more than eight decades, the mission was located on the east side of the Santa Cruz River and functioned as a visita (“country chapel” or visiting station) of the mission headquarters at Guevavi. At that time it was called San Cayetano de Tumacácori, and it didn’t have a church. There was a presidio at Tubac, three miles to the north.

After the Pima Rebellion of 1751, the mission was moved to the west side of the river and renamed San José de Tumacácori. The mission’s first actual church was built at this new site.

The ravages of time have reduced Guevavi and Calabazas to adobe ruins. Though interesting from the historical perspective, they are basically archeological sites.

Tumacácori is another matter. While nothing is left of the original mission that Father Kino established on the east side of the valley in 1691, the present site of the mission is blessed with a very interesting church as its centerpiece attraction.

The mission’s old adobe church, which is depicted in the photo accompanying this article, was constructed under the direction of Franciscan missionaries over a period of more than two decades beginning in 1800 and ending in 1822. (The bell tower was never finished, as it lacks the dome it was intended to have.) The original construction, which yielded walls 14 feet high and five feet thick at the base, required more than 90,000 adobe bricks.

The church was abandoned by the late 1840s and fell into disrepair. Only its massive construction saved it from complete ruination.

The church became federally protected property in 1908 with the creation of the Tumacácori National Monument, which totaled just ten acres.

Some major repair work has been done, including a new roof over the long nave installed in 1921. However, nearly all repair work has been done only to preserve the original work. The old church is still in good enough shape to be used to celebrate special events.