Jesuits affiliated with the Tumacácori mission discovered and worked in many mines | Story

William Ascarza Special for the Arizona Daily Star

The Spanish missions served as early outposts of European civilization in Mexico and what is now southern Arizona. They were first operated by the Jesuit Order of the Roman Catholic Church serving as missionaries and educators to the native population.

The purpose of these missions was to aid in the colonization and exploration of land for the financial benefit of the Spanish Empire while converting the native population to Catholicism. Several notable missions, including Tumacácori, Calabasas, and Guevavi, had a significant impact on the early history of what is now Santa Cruz County. These villages included adobe churches and mission residences.

Tumacácori, the Pima word meaning curved peak, was originally established as a viewpoint where priests used to go and located on the Santa Cruz River 48 miles south of Tucson and 12 miles north of the Mexican border. Established by Jesuit Father Eusebio Francisco Kino in 1691 and was the first mission established within the boundaries of what later became Arizona.

Named Mission San Cayetano de Tumacácori, its original presence was on the east side of the Santa Cruz River until the Pima Revolt of 1751 required it to be moved to its present location on the west side of the river when it was renamed San José de Tumacácori.

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The year 1767 marked the expulsion of the Jesuits from the Spanish Empire by decree of King Carlos III of Spain, concerned about their growing power and influence over the Church. In 1773 the Franciscan Order took over and Tumacácori became a cabecera or main mission welcoming priests until the last padres left in 1841. The two-storey bell tower was never completed due to lack of funds and manpower . The ruins became a national monument on September 15, 1908, to deter its destruction from treasure seekers and in 1990 it became a national historical park. Limestone quarried from the Santa Rita Mountains, 40 km north of Tumacácori, was used to coat the exterior of the church in the form of a white limestone coating.





An on-site lime kiln at the Tumacácori Mission used to burn limestone as a building material.


Guillaume Ascarza


The southwestern foothills of the Southern Santa Rita Mountains were home to mines producing low- and high-grade lead and silver ores operated by Jesuit missionaries in the 17th century.

The Spanish government has actively encouraged mining by granting military protection to local mining companies. Many of them exploited the labor of local Indian tribes affiliated with the local O’odham Indians, which included the Papagos, Pimas and Sobaipuri.

Spanish miners were required by the Royal Crown to pay the quinto, also known as the royal fifth of gross bullion production. It is certain that there were miners who were not forthcoming in their production figures to avoid paying this royalty. The mines were operated in semi-secrecy for the benefit of the mine operator and it is likely that the profit was pocketed and hidden in the form of bullion or plates in undisclosed locations where many stories of lost treasure have been passed down from generation to generation.






On the southwest slope of the Santa Rita Mountains in 1909, a view of the Salero Mine, a historic silver deposit first mined by the Jesuits in the 17th century.


United States Geological Survey


In what became known as the Tyndall Mining District, hosted some of the earliest recorded mining efforts in the American West. Jesuit missionaries affiliated with Tumacácori discovered and worked the Alto, Montosa, Salero and Wandering Jew mining properties dating back to 1688. The Salero mine, Salero translated into Spanish meaning “salt cellar” or “salt mine”, is said to have provided the both salt and money to the local missions.

Jesuit miners were limited by the technology of the time which included the use of crude iron rods used to drill to depths of several feet or more in lime-filled rocks broken further by hammers with ores packed by the miners carrying rawhide buckets and leaning on rough. ladders made up of posts with notches cut out. Lead and silver ores were smelted by adobe reverberatory furnaces and separated by cupellation to remove impurities from gold and silver by melting the impure metal in a cupel, a porous dish resistant to high temperatures. The metal then received a blast of hot air from a furnace lined with porous materials, including marl and bone ash, removing impurities, including copper and tin, through oxidation and vaporization.

Other methods of extracting singular gold and silver from rock involved mercury grinding using arrastras and then retorting the amalgam or mixture. The Spanish also searched for placers using gravity separation techniques involving hand picking, water separation and air winnowing, a technique of dry separation of gold from sand along streams and washes where the gold had naturally eroded from the gangue.






Exterior facade of the Tumacácori Mission.


Guillaume Ascarza


After the height of Spanish rule in Arizona in 1821, rumors of buried mineral wealth abounded in the region with silver veins discovered on both sides of the Santa Rita Mountains. The Americans arrived after the Mexican War of 1848 and discovered the remnants of mining operations as slag east of the Tumacácori mission. Other examples include:

According to Papago Indian tradition, the ingots were removed from the Virgin Guadalupe mine three miles southwest of the mission and moved to a nearby mine tunnel. The mine was worked from 1508 to 1648. It was seized by Coronado in 1540. The mine is said to contain 2,050 mule loads of silver and 905 mule loads of gold.

The bells at the Old Guevavi Mission near Calabasas were cast from heavy black silver-copper ore mined from the San Cayetano Mountains 20 miles north of Nogales. The Padres are said to have sealed off the mine and buried the bells in an undisclosed location. Guevavi was abandoned in 1775 due to Apache attacks and its estrangement from the Spanish military garrison at Tubac.

The Planchas de Plata “Silver Slabs” strike in Arizonac in 1736, one mile south of the present international border between the United States and Mexico, included silver slabs weighing up to several thousand books. It is possible that part of this cache of silver remains hidden by the Spanish miners to avoid paying the royal fifth to the Crown.

There is no doubt that some of Spain’s mining investment remains to be discovered and unearthed, which will continue to appeal to current and future treasure seekers as was the case in 1854, when Arizona pioneers Charles D. Poston and Herman Ehrenberg traveled from San Francisco by boat to the Gulf of California through Alamos, Sonora and on to Tubac to inspect old mines and missions between Tucson and Mexico.






Alto mine, camp and mill with tunnel at outcrop below summit, circa 1909.


United States Geological Survey







Map illustrating the locations of historic missions in Arizona and Mexico.


National Park Service







Another angle of the Tumacácori mission from the fragment of the convent.


Guillaume Ascarza







Historical cemetery of the Tumacácori mission.


Guillaume Ascarza







Mining cups as seen on the table


Library of Congress


William Ascarza is an archivist, historian, and author of seven books available for purchase online and in select bookstores. These include his latest, “In Search of Fortunes: A Look at the History of Arizona Mining”, available through MT Publishing Co. His other books are “Chiricahua Mountains: History and Nature”, “Southeastern Arizona Mining Towns”, ” Zenith on the Horizon: An Encyclopedic Look at the Tucson Mountains from A to Z”, “Tucson Mountains”, “Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum” with Peggy Larson and “Sentinel to the North: Exploring the Tortolita Mountains”. mail to William Ascarza for a signed copy of his publications at AZMiningHistory@gmail.com

Edward K. Thompson