Celebrating National Public Lands Day 2012

Outdoor enthusiasts probably already know that today is National Public Lands Day, a day on which we can visit U.S. National Parks and Historical Sites for free. Many public lands around the country also had programs for volunteers to clean up and preserve sites of interest. Here in Southern Arizona, there are several interesting properties run by the National Park Service. I decided to visit one that was new to me: Tumacacori National Historical Park.

The site at Tumacacori has a long and kind of sad history that reveals a lot about what life was like in the Sonoran Desert before the 20th Century. A mission was established near this site by Father Eusebio Kino in 1691. Father Kino was a Jesuit priest who, during his time in this area, established a network of missions and interacted with native tribes. The official historical record states that Father Kino (an Italian of noble origin) was well regarded and respectful of the Pima (aka Tohono O’odham)  among whom he lived. Tumacacori was Kino’s first mission in the area, though he started preaching long before a church was built here. Kino would go on a year later to start the mission at San Xavier del Bac, which I visited in March, and numerous other missions in Arizona and Sonora.

Father Kino died in 1711 in Magdalena, Sonora, where he is buried today. After his death (and likely before it, too) the mission at Tumacacori struggled. The mission complex (as shown above) should be considered more of a town center than just a church. There was a granary that stored food, a school, a cemetery, orchards and fields, irrigation canals, and a kiln to fire bricks for construction–all in this one spot. While that made it an important spot for the community, it also made Tumacacori an attractive target to hostile Apache who repeatedly raided the site in spite of attempts at fortification. (To be fair, the Pima were also sometimes restive–it was an uprising by the Pima that forced the move to the current site in the mid-1700s.)

European politics also influenced Tumacacori’s fate. In the 1760s, the Jesuits fell out of favor with the Spanish king and were expelled from New World colonies. More precisely, Jesuit priests like those at Tumacacori were rounded up and sent out into the desert to almost certain deaths. Their replacements, from the Franciscan order, wanted a bigger and better site and put the Pima to work building the current church around 1800s. Although this church was never actually finished (the design was scaled back several times due to lack of funding, and the bell tower was never more complete than it is now), at one point it was functional–the facade still shows some traces of the bright paint that once covered it, and the inside also hints at better times.

Note, for example, the niches in the side walls along the nave and the painting behind the altar. The ceiling also shows faded patterns. So what happened here? Well, after the Mexican Revolution, the Spanish-born Franciscan priests were also expelled, leaving the site without a resident priest and in the care of the Pima, who had their hands full with awful weather, Apache raids, and disease. The Mexican-American war provided the final blow to Tumacacori: Supplies became harder to come by and Mexican troops abandoned the nearby presidio (fort) at Tubac, making the site even harder to defend. In 1848, the last native residents of Tumacacori decamped to the more vibrant and better-defended mission at San Xavier. As they retreated, the Pima took much of the church’s artwork with them. Whatever was left was subject to a fast and intense decay. Only about 60 years passed between the abandonment of the mission and the creation of the National Historical Site under Teddy Roosevelt, but the mission looks like it suffered centuries of damage.

Cemetery at Tumacacori. The grave in the center is the only one that is identified. Others are from the early 20th century; any traces of pre-20th century graves are gone.

The site is worth a visit if you live in Tucson or the surrounding areas. Admission is normally $3 and includes a self-guided tour. A festival in December also includes music and dancing from local native peoples. While San Xavier is hands-down the better example of a mission church, it does not offer such extensive historical and educational display as Tumacacori. I felt I learned a lot more here about what life was like at a colonial-era mission, and one of the highlights of the site’s museum was hearing audio recordings in which elder members of the Tohono O’Odham, Yaqui, and Apache tribes discuss their lives and heritage.

The town of Tubac, which I just love for its galleries and boutique shops, is a few miles up the road. (Technically, it’s a few kilometers–I-19 south of Tucson has metric highway signs. As a runner, it’s a good thing I’ve become so adept and making distance conversions in my head.) I went to Tubac today as well, but only after another short detour to the Coronado National Forest site on the outskirts of Nogales. I took a nice, 10-mile drive out to Peña Blanca Lake. This body of water that is not so impressive on its own, but the drive out is filled with hairpin turns and rolling hills. It was also nice to spend a few minutes sitting out on a dock in the middle of the desert, appreciating all that our public lands have to offer.




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