Published on December 27, 2011 by Amy
Tumacácori National Historical Park in Southern Arizona protects three of twenty-four missions founded by Father Eusebio Francisco Kino’s missionary efforts during the Spanish colonial era. Located in the region the Spanish named the Pimeria Alta, meaning “Place of the Upper Pimas,” are the adobe ruins of the missions of San José de Tumacácori, Los Santos Angeles de Guevavi, and San Cayetano de las Calabazas. From the establishment of these missions in 1691 and 1756, until their abandonment in 1848, the Jesuits and the Franciscan missionaries who followed baptized thousands of Piman Indians. Tumacácori National Historical Park preserves the history and tells the stories of these Spanish missions and their influence on the American Indian communities of the Pimeria Alta.
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Before the Spanish first encountered the Pimas, they called themselves Akimel O’odham or River People. Their communities spanned from Southern Arizona to Northern Sonora in Mexico. Those who lived on the Pimeria Alta called their village Sobaipuri. The Pimas were a peaceful, industrious, and agrarian people, who raised corn, beans and squash using a sophisticated irrigation system. They performed religious ceremonies such as their rain dance and played games, like their Ginz or Pima Stick Game. Renowned basket weavers, they traditionally used their baskets to store and gather food. Their descendants still make baskets applying the same techniques and style once used by their ancestors. The Pimas were the people Father Kino met and baptized as he established his missions throughout the Pimeria Alta.
Founded on January 1691, the mission San Cayetano de Tumacácori was Arizona’s first Spanish mission. Originally located on the east bank of the Santa Cruz River, the mission moved in 1751–following the rebellion of the Pima Indians–to its present location on the west bank of the river and took a new name, San José de Tumacácori. Here the missionaries built their church, which is still a landmark in the Santa Cruz Valley.
Construction of the church at mission San José de Tumacácori initially began in 1800, but after a report in 1803 criticized the structure’s poor and unimpressive quality, the Franciscans started building a more secure and elaborate church. Both Indian and Spanish laborers began laying the foundations for the church until lack of funds halted its construction. In 1821, in an effort to complete the church, the Franciscans sold 4,000 head of the mission’s cattle to a local rancher. The payment they received made it possible for the work to resume, but they had to halt again. The Franciscans finally finished most of the church by the mid 1820s, but never capped the dome of the bell tower.
The San José mission church is an impressive landmark from the Spanish colonial era that still holds masses today. The church is an elaborate 14-foot tall building with a 75-foot nave decorated with Mexican baroque statuaries, apostle paintings, and carvings depicting the Stations of the Cross. Although the interior colors of the wall paintings and stencils have faded over the years, the church and surrounding structures continue to withstand the test of time. Also still visible are the remains of the convento, where the priests slept; the granary used for storing food; the main courtyard; and the limekiln, where villagers heated limestone to make plaster to coat the adobe structures to protect them from moisture. Behind the mission church are the ruins of a mortuary chapel and the cemetery. A reproduction of a Muuro-ki, or traditional O’odham house, is also at the site.
The Calabazas and Guevavi missions at the park are in a more fragile state than the San José de Tumacácori mission. Visitors can only tour parts of these sites in the winter and with a guide, but visitors can learn about the history and stories of the Guevavi and Calabazas missions at the Tumacácori Museum. Founded a day after the Jesuits established the mission San Cayetano de Tumacácori in January 1691, the mission at Los Santos Angeles Guevavi became the main headquarters for the Pimeria Alta missions. Derived from the O’odham word gi-vavhia or big well, Guevavi was an adobe structure. The ruins of the 15 by 50 foot church built in 1751 are all that remains of the mission today.
In 1756, a few miles north of Guevavi, the missionaries founded San Cayetano de las Calabazas. Apache Indians burned down the church, houses, and granary there in 1777. By 1786, as problems continued with the Apache, the last group of Pimas abandoned Calabazas. In 1808, some people who were not Indians moved to Calabazas and restored the church chapel, but they soon abandoned the site as Apaches continued to set fire to the Calabazas mission structures. Eventually a group of California volunteers established Fort Mason at the Calabazas mission site, but an outbreak of malaria led to the official abandonment of the San Cayetano de las Calabazas mission site. In 1990, the Calabazas ruins became part of Tumacácori National Historical Park.
Visitors enter the park through the Tumacácori National Historical Park Visitor Center. The museum offers a 15-minute video, and a self-guided tour book, “In the Footprints of the Past” is available at the bookstore. When staffing permits, guides lead tours of the missions and of the Santa Cruz River. The ½ Mile River Walk lasts one hour. Paved paths lead through the park. Tourists wishing to take guided tours of the San José mission site or the fragile ruins of the missions of Los Santos Angeles de Guevavi and San Cayetano de las Calabazas should check the park’s website or call the park for schedules and further information.
Tumacácori National Historical Park hosts La Fiesta de Tumacácori every year during the first full weekend in December. This event celebrates the history of the different cultures historically and presently associated with the Santa Cruz Valley. In addition to the Fiesta de Tumacácori, a Historic Reenactment High Mass is celebrated inside the Tumacácori Mission Church every year during the month of October. The Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail passes through the park, providing opportunities for walkers, bird watchers, and equestrians.