HomeDaytripsAlong the way to the MissionsA Day Trip Through History: The Santa Cruz River Valley
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A Brief History Of The Santa Cruz River Valley
From Tucson South To The Mexican Border. 

Mission San Xavier ca: 1880

Here you will find the Spanish missions and presidios (forts) of the Pimeria Alta, Land of the Upper Pimas.

Today, Interstate 19 makes traveling this 70-mile section of Arizona history an easy day trip. Along the way are several very good restaurants, an extraordinary artist colony, enlightening museums, and ruins much older than our Southern Arizona ghost towns. Personally, I found these places far more interesting once I began to understand their history. For me, timelines help put major historical events in perspective. Perhaps this simple timeline will be helpful to you as well.
Click here for a MAP of the Santa Cruz River Valley


“Pima” is a general reference to various indigenous peoples who resided along Southern Arizona rivers. At the time the Spanish arrived, the …

  • Akimel O’odham live along the Gila & Salt Rivers near present-day Phoenix;
  • Sobaipuri O’odham live along the San Pedro River near present-day Sierra Vista and;
  • Sobaipuri O’odham & Tohono O’odham live along the Santa Cruz River near present-day Tucson, Tubac, & Tumacácori.
Pima Indian Woman

Pima  Woman

Each speaks a dialect of the broader Piman language and traces their lineage to the older Hohokam culture. Some older books claim the term "Hohokam" is derived from an O'odham word meaning "those who have gone before" or simply "The Ancestors". Today, anthropologists are confident that "Hohokam" literally means "all used up".

The Spanish called the indigenous people living along the Santa Cruz River near Mission San Xavier “Papago”; Spanish for bean-eater. Tepary beans were an important crop & source of nutrition for these indigenous people. In the 1980’s they officially changed their name to Tohono O’odham, meaning “Desert People” which is how they had always referred to themselves. Today, referring to them as “Papago” could be considered an insult. The Tohono O’odham Nation has a small reservation at San Xavier and a huge reservation southwest of Tucson.

Because of their losing struggle against Apache raiders, the Sobaipuri eventually merged with the Tohono O’odham and disappeared as a distinct people.


11,000 B.C.: Paleo-Indians of the Clovis culture are hunting large mammals, such as mammoth, camel, horse, and bison, along the perennially flowing Santa Cruz River in what is now Southern Arizona near Tucson. The River is lined with huge cottonwood, Arizona sycamore, and gnarled mesquite trees. Note: the adult mammoths were larger than present-day African elephants and the bison were twice the size of our "buffalo".

1200 B.C.: Paleo-Indians predating the Hohokam are farming along the Santa Cruz River where Tucson is today. They construct the earliest known irrigation canals in North America. They cultivate maize, squash, & other crops. However, they continue their hunting & gathering practices because farming alone does not supply enough food.

Hohokam Pottery

Hohokam Pottery

400 A.D.: Beginning of the Hohokam culture of complex irrigation canals, large villages, and distinctive pottery. Unlike their predecessors, the Hohokam rely mostly on their irrigated crops and less on hunting & gathering.

1400-1450 A.D.: Hohokam culture collapses, probably due to sustained drought & poor soil management.

1691: Father Kino, a Jesuit, establishes Mission San Cayetano de Tumacácori on the east side of the Santa Cruz River adjacent to a Pima Indian village. Today, no one know precisely where this was because nothing permanent was built; thus no ruins.

1692: Father Kino establishes Mission San Xavier del Bac at a Tohono O’odham village on the west side of the Santa Cruz River.  “Bac” is a Spanish transliteration of a Tohono O’odham word that means "place where the water appears". At one time there were substantial springs here that made successful farming possible.

Mission Garden at the base of "A" Mountain today.

Newly Planted Heritage Grapes: Mission Garden at the base of "A" Mountain today.

1692: Father Kino encounters a year ‘round Sobaipuri O’odham village at the base of Sentinel Peak (“A” Mountain). The Indians refer to this extensive flood plain as S-cuk Son; meaning “at the base of Black Mountain”. S-cuk Son eventually morphs into the Spanish Chuk-shon, then the Mexican Tuk-son; then the Anglo pronunciation with the silent “c”.  Kino names his new mission “San Cosmé del Tucson” and establishes a small “visita” for visiting priests from Mission San Xavier del Bac seven miles up river. Nearly 100 years later, the “visita” is named Mission San Agustín de Tucson and expanded to include a chapel, convento, two cemeteries, and outbuildings, including a large granary, the walled Mission Garden, and an extensive system of irrigated agricultural fields.

1751: Following the Pima Indian rebellion, Mission San Cayetano de Tumacácori is moved to its present site on the west side of the Santa Cruz River and renamed San José de Tumacácori. Today, no one knows what the word “Tumacácori” meant to the people who lived here.

El Presidio de Tubac ca. 1775, a year before it was abandoned.

El Presidio de Tubac ca. 1775, a year before it was abandoned.

1752: Construction begins on Presidio San Ignacio de Tubac. It’s the first European fort in the Pimeria Alta. Eventually, its ruins will become the first Arizona State Park. For more about the Tubac Presidio, click HERE.

1757: Construction begins on the Jesuit church at San Jose de Tumacácori. It will be in use for the next 65 years.

1767: Jesuits are expelled from New Spain by the Spanish King who no longer trusts them.

1770: Apaches destroy the original mission church at San Xavier del Bac about 2 miles from the present site.

1770: San Agustín Mission Garden established inside high adobe walls at the base of Sentinel Hill (“A” Mountain) 7 miles north of Mission San Xavier. The Indians living here have dammed the perennially flowing Santa Cruz River and created a spider web of canals to irrigate their crops, primarily squash, beans, and maize. From Europe, the Spanish bring saplings of fruit trees, such as pomegranate, lime, and apricot, & crop seeds, such as winter wheat, thus greatly increasing the variety and quantity of available food in this harsh desert environment.

Tucson Convento, Chapel, & Cemetery on the West Bank of the Santa Cruz River.

Ruins of the Tucson Convento, Chapel, & Cemetery on the West Bank of the Santa Cruz River; circa late 19th - early 2oth century.

1771: Construction begins on Mission San Agustín de Tucson. Known as the Tucson Convento, or sometimes “visita”, it is a two-story fortified adobe mission complex. It will be abandoned in the mid-1800's as Tucson develops mostly on the east side of the Santa Cruz River in the area surrounding El Presidio de Tucson. Like all early Spanish forts, it is built to protect Spanish settlers and local Indians from marauding Apaches. The Convento is completely gone by the 1950’s and covered by a landfill.

1775: Spanish soldiers abandon El Presidio de Tubac, move north about 45 miles, and establish El Presidio de Tucson on the east side of the Santa Cruz River. The new fort, about 11 acres in size, is built on the ruins of a Hohokam village, evidence of which can be viewed today at the partially restored Presidio in downtown Tucson.

Presidio de Tucson reenactment at the partially restored Spanish fort in downtown Tucson.

Presidio de Tucson reenactment at the partially restored Spanish fort in downtown Tucson.

1775-1776: Juan Bastista de Anza leads an expedition of 240 colonists and 1000 head of livestock from Tubac west across the desert to California. When they reach Alta California (Northern California) they establish a little village on a fine bay and call it San Francisco in honor of St. Francis of Assisi. It will become one of the great cities of the world.

1783: Construction of the present church at San Xavier del Bac begins. Local Papago Indians (now called Tohono O’odham) do most of the hard work, but also create some of the artistic features. To view our brief video about this iconic church, click HERE.

Mission San Xavier del Bac

Mission San Xavier del Bac

1797: Construction of Mission San Xavier del Bac completed. Today it is a National Historic Landmark and considered the finest example of Spanish Colonial architecture in the United States.

Mission Tumacacori

Mission Tumacacori

1800: Construction begins on the Franciscan church at Tumacácori on the west bank of the Santa Cruz.
The foundation of the earlier Jesuit church is nearby. Some of the adobe bricks from the Jesuit church may have been used to build the new Franciscan church.  The ruins of the Franciscan church are what we see today. To view our three part Tumacácori video, click HERE.

1821: Mexicans win independence from Spain. The Pimeria Alta becomes part of the State of Sonora, Mexico.

1823: The final phase of construction on the new Franciscan church at Tumacácori begins. The church and the surrounding community it serves will be abandoned before the church is completed.

1848: Mission Tumacácori is abandoned due to frequent Apache attacks.

1854: Through the Gadsden Purchase, the Pimeria Alta becomes part of the United States in what is New Mexico Territory. (The Territory of Arizona will be split off from New Mexico in 1863.)

This is the San Pedro River today. A long time ago the Santa Cruz River banks were lined with giant cottonwoods & gnarled old mesquites too.

The San Pedro River seen here has been far better preserved than the Santa Cruz.  A long time ago the Santa Cruz River at Tucson was lined with giant cottonwoods, Arizona sycamores & gnarled old mesquites too.

1890’s: As Tucson’s population grows, wood-burning mechanical steam pumps begin extracting water from the Santa Cruz River, local springs, and the aquifer as never before. (When Americans came to Tucson in the 1860’s, the ground water was only about 18 feet below the surface. By 1985, the underground water level was 200 feet below the surface. Today, the Santa Cruz is dry except after a heavy rainstorm. The natural springs & groves of cottonwood and mesquite trees along the riverbank are long gone. The aquifer beneath Tucson would not exist without importing billions of gallons of water annually from the Colorado River.)

1908: President Theodore Roosevelt declares Mission Tumacácori a National Monument and restoration and stabilization efforts begin in an effort to preserve what is left. Today, it is a National Park administered by our U.S. National Park Service.

1912: The Arizona Territory becomes the State of Arizona, the last of the contiguous United States of America.

1918: The last vestiges of the Presidio de Tucson adobe wall is torn down to make room for modernity.

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