The Missions of Tumacacori


Tumacacori National Historical Park, south of Tucson,  was our nation’s third national park – after Yellowstone and Yosemite.  It was designated in 1908,  four years before Arizona became the 48th state.

The Tumacacori site preserves one of many missions begun by Father Kino who served the area between 1687 and 1711. His mission work for Spain concentrated in what is now northern Sonora, Mexico and southern Arizona.


The Tumacacori Mission grounds included an extensive compound of farmlands, housing, shops and communal kitchens and storerooms.


This is a re-creation of typical housing for O’Odham peoples within the mission.


The priest’s house also served as the schoolhouse and the center of government. The limestone plaster has protected the adobe walls. The supporting buttresses are not original.


Work began on this church about 1800. Construction ebbed and flowed with the final phase pushed forward in the 1820s. Yet, the bell tower was never finished.


An artist’s rendering of what the inside of the Tumacacori mission church looked like.


What it looks like now. The park service works towards preservation of what remains, not restoration.


The artwork that remains on the limestone plaster is original.

The Tumacacori Mission  persevered between 1691 and 1848. Inhabitants suffered disease, Apache attacks and the Spanish King’s removal of Jesuits in favor of Franciscans. After Mexican independence, Spanish born priests were expelled leaving a shortage of priests. The site was abandoned in 1848 and became part of the United States with the Gadsden Purchase of 1853.

Spain’s Jesuit, and later Franciscan missionaries, were tasked with spreading Spain’s language, religion and rule of law to native peoples. In retrospect, this effort was successful in two aspects given that peoples in Mexico and Central and South America speak primarily Spanish with Catholicism as the dominant religion.

We also went on a tour to see two missions available for viewing only with a ranger, and conducted just twice a month.

fullsizeoutput_38c1We traveled by van to the remains of Los Santos Angeles de Guevavi, also begun by Father Kino in 1691. He encountered the natives, celebrated mass, left gifts of livestock and winter wheat seed and promised a permanent missionary. The first resident missionary helped  build a small church that was completed in 1701. It was a difficult locale so Jesuit missionaries came and went.

In the 1740s Guevavi Mission took on a more permanent role and a bigger church and compound was completed in 1751.


Inside the larger church.

Guevavi was impacted by an O’odham (native peoples) uprising and the repeal of all Jesuit missionaries by the King of Spain. As the Franciscan priests arrived, the decision was made to move the area mission headquarters to Tumacacori.  Guevavi was abandoned by 1775.

fullsizeoutput_38bfTo preserve what remains of the mission site, the park service limits access and covers the remaining adobe walls with mud.

fullsizeoutput_38c4An archeology study was done a few years ago and an extensive record was found.

fullsizeoutput_38bdThe remains of a building were found in this area with lower walls still intact under the sediment.

fullsizeoutput_38c5Only wild game are allowed in the Guevavi unit without escort. We didn’t see any, but we saw the camera that sees them!

A dozen miles away we were shown San Cayetano de Calabazas. The naming of this mission is a mystery as most missions took on the name of a neighboring village. Calabazas means gourds or squash. It is not known when this mission actually began but the first reference to it in the written record was in 1756.fullsizeoutput_38c8The side doorways were a later modification.

fullsizeoutput_38cbThis indenture near the floor would have been at or above eye level during the mission church’s active years. A statue of a saint would have been displayed there. Several feet of sediment now cover the floor.

This area was under constant threat of Apache attack and by 1780s, most of the people of Calabazas had assimilated into Tumacacori.  The grounds of Calabazas were converted into a stock ranch to support the Tumacacori mission.

Over the years, the ranch had several owners but was generally occupied. After Mexican independence, the abandoned ranch was purchased in 1844 for $500. The old church became a ranch house.


This view is from what was the sacristy where the priest could look out towards the worshippers. The doorways and interior walls were added when the church was used as a ranch house.

When the lands became US territory, the mission was used by squatters until it became Camp Moore during the Civil War.

The Apache continued to be a problem for Calabazas until Geronimo was curtailed in 1886. Eventually it was left to ruin until the park service came into stewardship.  Strategy for preservation at Calabazas is to cover the remains and limit access.

I hope you enjoyed the return to a History blog.  Channeling Donnie and Marie:  “I’m a little bit History,   He’s a little bit Science and Space.”

About Serene

Former full time RVers, transitioned to homeowners and travelers. We've still got a map to finish! Home is the Phoenix area desert and a small cabin in the White Mountains of Arizona.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Missions of Tumacacori

  1. Mark McClelland says:

    Isn’t it remarkable that sites like this still exist for us to look at!! And I’d have never guessed that this was the third National Park established after Yellowstone and Yosemite. That is pretty heady company…

  2. Ruth Gabrielson says:

    Very interesting! Thanks for sharing.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s