What’s the Story Behind Tumacácori?

September 12, 2016Travel Ideas

Situated at a cultural crossroads in Arizona’s Santa Cruz River valley, the ruins at Tumacácori National Historical Park have seen a lot in their time. Conflict and cooperation both shaped the history of this unique park, where settlers, soldiers, and European missionaries intersected with the native O’odham, Yaqui, and Apache people. 

A tumultuous past

This Arizona national park preserves the ruins of three Spanish mission communities. These include the remarkably well-preserved Mission San José de Tumacácori, which was built in the 1750s to replace the much older Mission San Cayetano de Tumacácori — the first mission in southern Arizona.

Mission Church at Tumacácori National Historical Park in Arizona

The original mission was established by Jesuit Eusebio Francisco Kino and his party in 1691. The Jesuits arrived from the south via New Spain's West Coast corridor, establishing Mission San Cayetano de Tumacácori on the Santa Cruz River's east bank, followed by Mission San Gabriel 15 miles upriver only a day later. They were in the territory of the O'odham people — called the Pima by the Spanish — with whom they would have a turbulent relationship for the next hundred years

  • 1751: A Pima rebellion leads to the mission being moved to the west side of the river and renamed San José de Tumacácori. A Spanish military garrison, or presidio, is established nearby. 
  • 1767: For political reasons, King Charles III of Spain banishes the Jesuits from all Spanish territories. The Franciscans take over missionary efforts.
  • 1776: After years of dwindling populations due to disease, lack of government support, and Apache conflict, the soldiers at the presidio are transferred to Tucson. By 1786, only 100 Native Americans remain at Tumacácori. 
  • 1800: Fray Narciso Gutiérrez begins constructing a larger church to replace the modest Jesuit structure at Tumacácori, but lack of support and resources during the Mexican wars for independence make construction slow and difficult.
  • 1828: A Mexican decree forces all Spanish-born residents to leave the country, including Tumacácori's last resident priest. The new church is unfinished, and within 20 years, all settlers have left the area. 

Mission Arch at Tumacácori National Historical Park in Arizona

The mission was abandoned and in disrepair by 1848. With the Gadsden Purchase of 1854, the mission and all of the surrounding Arizona Territory became part of the United States. The area could easily have been forgotten, but in 1908, Theodore Roosevelt declared the site Tumacácori National Monument, and restoration and stabilization efforts began. In 1990, the restored Mission San José de Tumacácori became part of the new Tumacácori National Historical Park.

Visiting today

There's a lot to see and do at Tumacácori National Historical Park, and its relatively small size makes it ideal for a day trip or weekend getaway. No matter how much time you have, be sure to hit these highlights:

  • Tour the church and grounds at Mission San José de Tumacácori. This mission is open to the public, including the church itself, the nearby orchard, the cemetery, the storeroom, and other mission structures. Guided tours are also available. 
  • Explore the Tumacácori Museum and find out a wealth of information on the mission, its history, and the many people who have lived here throughout the years.
  • Walk a bit of the Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail along the Santa Cruz River. This 1,210-mile trail goes on to connect several of Arizona and California's most beautiful and historically rich sites.

Bell Tower Vista at Tumacácori National Historical Park in Arizona

Tumacácori National Historical Park is an hour south of Tucson, and only 15 minutes north of Nogales, making it an easy day trip from just about anywhere in southern Arizona. It's also a short drive from several other parks in the area, including Saguaro National Park and Coronado National Memorial.

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