One of the more persistent legends to attract fortune seekers has been the tale of the Tumacacori Mission treasure in southeastern Arizona. The most commonly accepted version of the story places a vast treasure within the walls of a Tumacacori mission, the treasure being abandoned by the Jesuit missionaries when a Spanish king thought they were garnering riches for themselves and expelled the order from New Spain.
To reinforce the legend, there were two Tumacacori missions, and possibly a third that truly is lost. One is now a national monument, San Jose de Tumacacori, with pockmarked grounds bearing mute witness to constant attack by treasure seekers. The other is less well known, Tumacacori de San Cayetano, a structure which has deteriorated into a few barely noticeable humps of adobe. The third is so lost that it bears no special identification.
There have been at least as many people searching for the lost treasure of the Tumacacori Mission as there have been prospectors futilely chasing a rainbow to the elusive Lost Dutchman Mine in Arizona’s Superstition Mountains. Yet recently discovered evidence indicates that the treasure of the Tumacacori Mission maybe “mission impossible.” While the lost mission remains lost, evidence of treasure actually exists. A cache with a reported value of more than $45 million is hidden in the shafts of a series of separate old mines in the Tumacacori Mountains. Even more exciting, the new evidence indicates that the discovery of any one of the old mines will set off a chain reaction by providing a waybill to each of the others, for they are linked together in the words of an old Spanish document, called a derrotero.
The evidence first came to light in the spring of 1889 with the arrival in Tucson of a priest from Spain. He rode into town on horseback and immediately asked for directions to the court house. When he was introduced to Judge Bill Barnes there, he explained in English that his superiors in a monastery in Spain had sent him to Tucson to retrieve a chest that contained some old church records. These records had been buried somewhere in the Tumacacori Mountains during an Indian insurrection that took place when the Spanish were settling this part of the New World.
The stranger carried with him a document titled the Derrotero de Tumacacori that described where the chest was buried. Being unfamiliar with the country, the priest was unable to locate the landmarks described in the document. Judge Barnes was asked if he could recommend someone who was familiar with the area and who would be willing to act as a guide.
Judge Barnes smelled treasure. The legend of the Tumacacori Mission treasure had been floating around Arizona for along time. The Judge hastened to assure the good man of the cloth that he did indeed know of such a person. Himself.
The stories of the relationship between the opportunistic judge, his friends, and the mysterious priest, vary. The one told by Judge Barnes until the day he died contends that in spite of their better judgement, he and some unidentified rancher friends accompanied the priest into the Tumacacori range. Legend always had placed the Tumacacori treasure in the Coronado range east of the Santa Cruz River, near the ruins of the Tumacacori Mission. The Arizonians were perplexed when the priest insisted upon focusing his search west of the river, into the unfriendly Tumacacori mountain range.
Consequently, they were not surprised that he recovered nothing more valuable than the old chest of papers that he purportedly sought. Before disbanding, the ranchers concluded that the priest did, indeed, appear to be solely interested in old church records. They immediately lost interest All, that is, except the canny judge. He had glanced at the derrotero earlier in his office. Although the language of the document was an archaic Spanish that he could not translate, he had a hunch that there was more to it than directions to a single chest.
Before departing Tucson, the priest shuffled through the records in the chest to satisfy himself that they fulfilled his assigned mission. He then presented the derrotero to the judge as a souvenier. He never was heard of again.
Such was not the case of the derrotero. Within a few days the Judge found three educated Mexicans of pure Spanish ancestry who agreed to attempt translation of the archaic Spanish document. Working separately, each came up with a different version. The only things the translations had in common was that they contained instructions for finding a series of vast treasures, and each one quoted dates incompatible with Tumacacori mission history as it had been legitimately recorded.
For example, the translations began by stating that between the years 1548 and 1648, a mine called the Virgin of Guadalupe belonged to the Tumacacori. Curiously, however, the earliest known Tumacacori mission, Tumacacori de San Cayetano, was not established until 1698, while the present San Jose de Tumacacori, now a national monument, was not completed until the early 1800’s.
Furthermore, Padre Eusebio Kino, the Jesuit priest credited with founding the first mission in Arizona, did not even arrive there until a half-century after the Tumacacori treasure had been concealed, according to the dates of the derrotero.
It is not strange that Judge Barnes’ translators identified the Tumacacori treasure described in the derrotero with the Tumacacori mission, however. By inserting the word “mission” after the word “Tumacacori” they simply were lending credibility to their translations. After all, everyone in Tucson was familiar with Tumacacori mission ruins rotting away on the outskirts of the city. Published historical data that might have alerted them to the incongruity of the dates was not commonly available in those days.
In spite of this obvious in consistency, treasure hunters today are still conducting expeditions into the rugged terrain east of the Santa Cruz. In 1974, for example, a syndicate led by two major shareholders from Idaho launched a sophisticated treasure hunt almost within sight of the present Tumacacori Mission, accompanied by a documentary television crew and the manufacturer of a leading electronic metal detector. More than $10,000 was spent in triple-triangulated aerial surveys, helium balloons and sophisticated electronic gadgets for detecting metal both from the air and on the ground.
This search, as so many before it, was inspired by a copy of one of the derroteros derived from Judge Barnes’ translations. Such copies are not hard to come by. Each of the three original translators made copies for himself which his heirs re-copied and passed on to their heirs. A number of them have been published over the years, and no two are exactly alike.
Members of the 1974 syndicate are still silent about the details of their adventure, but it is known that they found no treasure. And no wonder. Like so many before them they searched in the wrong place!
It was a California school teacher named Michael Ford who produced the clue that the Tumacacori treasure, and the derrotero that leads to it, is not a fraud. Ford had taken a sabbatical to research early Spanish mission records in Arizona. During advance work in California, he had run across a copy of a translation of the Derrotero de Tumacacori that someone had left between the pages of an historical book long out of print. Judging from its precise script and faded ink, Ford guessed it to be relatively old.
Upon studying it, he was disappointed to find that although its title contained the word “Tumacacori,” it had nothing to do with the old mission. Nevertheless, he shoved the loose pages into his briefcase and later put them in his file at home. There they remained, forgotten, until he happened to read a story about the fabled Tumacacori Mission treasure. As a serious historian, he scoffed at the notion that Jesuits had left any mission treasure at Tumacacori. To emphasize his point, he produced the translated version of the derrotero that he had found and explained that the discrepancy between its dates and the actual date that the Jesuits founded the first mission in Arizona made the treasure legend impossible.
Although his theory made sense, the word “Tumacacori” originated with the Indians, rather than with the Spanish missionaries. Long before the Spanish had arrived in Arizona, it had been the name of both an Indian village and a mountain range. The Spanish had adopted it for the mission because Indians from the Tumacacori village attended the mission.
These facts, previously unknown to Ford, piqued his interest. He promised to look up the other versions of the derrotero when he arrived in Tucson, and see how they compared with his own. The primary difference between his version and the others was that they referred to Tumacacori as a mission and his referred to it as a mine. This struck him as important. Theoretically, it provided an explanation for the inconsistency in dates. The mines were there before the missions. Treasure hunters of the past had made their mistakes by attempting to follow directions stated in the derroteros, using one of the two known Jesuit Tumacacori missions as a starting point. This obviously had been the wrong approach. The missions, named for the Tumacacori Indians lay in the Coronado range. The treasure lies in the Tumacacori range.
In addition, Spanish conquistadores were in Arizona as early as 1590, a date that fell well within the derrotero’s account of mines worked between 1548 and 1648. Moreover, while those early Spanish colonizers were exploiting the wealth of the land with Indian slave labor, they were supporting a small number of friars of the Franciscan order to administer to their religious needs.
A partially translated memoir of a Spanish soldier named Ramon Martinez was discovered in an old historical journal. Having started north with D. Juan de Ornate’s army of 800 men in 1596, Martinez became entranced one night with an old soldier’s campfire story. The veteran warrior claimed to have guarded a supply train that was taken up the west coast of Mexico some years earlier to a rich mine worked illegally by a company of Spaniards. A born opportunist, Martinez quickly realized that any plunder he might come upon with Ornate’s army would have to be divided some 800 times. It would be more rewarding, he figured, to persuade several comrades to steal away from the army and join him at a rendezvous they had passed earlier on their trail. They then could work their way westward into what now is Arizona, overcome the mine owners described by the old soldier, and claim their riches for themselves.
After much hardship at the hands of Indians, only Martinez lived to reach the green valley fringed by foothills that the old soldier had described. By this time however, he had shed his dreams of plunder. All he desired now was to be welcomed as a friend. In his journal he described attending his first mass at Tumacacori de Cerritas, a church near the mine. There he was absolved of his sins and assured by the priest that his miraculous survival indicated that it was God’s will that he be spared.
This is the earliest mention of a church located at, and named for, the Tumacacori mountain range. Its priest would have been a Franciscan, not a Jesuit, and the church was a chapel rather than a mission. This reinforced that the Tumacacori in the derrotero was a mine located in the Tumacacori Mountains and that the Franciscan chapel adjacent to the mine gave birth to the legend of the Tumacacori treasure that was passed on by Indian slaves. The Spanish traditionally instilled fear in their slaves of ever betraying the storage places of “God’s gold.”
Ford’s derrotero describes six mines, giving the distances in Spanish varas and leagues of one from the other. It also gives geological descriptions which are clues. For example, the silver of a mine called the Opeta is described as being in a lime contact which eventually cuts into pure silver. This could be an area in the Tumacacori Mountains about fifteen miles west of Nogales where the caliche is a lime contact that hosts silver. It is shown on modern maps as an extension of the Pajarito Mountains of the Atasa range. Here, in a caliche outcrop in a pass between the Pajaritos and El Ruido is a likely place to start looking for the Opeta Mine described in the derrotero.
Once that one is found, or any of the others for that matter, the derrotero gives directions from each mine to the others. They will not be found easily, however. There are no roads, only blind trails that wind through a confused mass of rocky crags, peaks and flat-topped bluffs with vertical sides and steep dykes. Gold and silver veins are numerous, with placer gold collected in the canyons, but it is hard to find it under the tangled covering of oak, juniper and manzanita.
One league north of the Opeta, according to the derrotero, is the Tumacacori mine. In it likes a key to all of the others, for this mine, marked by the letters “PSR; and dated the 8th day of February,1548, contains a covered box. In one corner of the box is a screw. You take out the screw and there is an iron bar. Pullout the bar and open the box. In it are all the maps of the great treasures of Tumacacori!
Each a league-and-a-half in opposite directions form the Opeta, lie two mines called the Virgin of Guadalupe and the Pure Conception. Guadalupe holds 2,050 bars of stamped silver and others of gold, amounting to a value of $45,000,000 at the time the derrotero was translated in 1889. The Conception is host to from three to five cartloads of virgin silver in slabs.
More slabs of silver are stored in the San Pedro mine located one league from the Guadalupe mine. The sixth mine, San Isabel, lies one league from the San Pedro, but the derrotero neglects to give an inventory as to what is stashed in it. Some of these mines doubtlessly have been found, but the great treasures in the Guadalupe and Tumacacori remain unclaimed. That is, unless the church records gathered by the priest from Spain were the treasure maps of the Tumacacori.
In 1874 an engineer named Hiram C. Hodge came out to Arizona Territory to make a study of Tucson’s early mining and mission history. In writing of a mine 75 miles southwest of Tucson, he described another one six miles south of it that he simply called the “Old Mine.” He believed it to have been worked long before Jesuit fathers arrived. A few miles south of it were the historic Plachas de Plata mines of Sonora, Mexico, with their solid planks of pure silver. And onward into the Oro Blanco range that winds across the high mesa to the southwest of Arivaca on the Arizona side of the border, Hodge described the old Austerlitz mine. It was here in 1870 that miners found indications of much earlier work, including drill holes of an archaic type four inches square along with primitive tools, human skeletons, and two rawhide bags filled with silver ore that assayed to $4,000 per ton. These are all in the area of the Tumacacori range.
It is believed that even if the priest did retrieve the treasure maps, an expedition from Spain carrying enough equipment to exploit the area would not have passed unnoticed. If not all, at least some of the Tumacacori treasure must still await a finder astute enough to disassociate the legend from the mission.