Big Jim: Lost mine stories

2013-11-26T00:00:00Z 2013-12-19T11:46:38Z Big Jim: Lost mine storiesJim Griffith Special to the Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

If our part of the world ever gets paved over, it won’t be with asphalt, but with stories. Stories can stick to the roughest terrain, seldom need maintenance, and can breed other stories.

Among our most popular stories here in the Santa Cruz Valley are those of lost mines and treasures from the mission period. Their very names ring with romance: The Mine with the Iron Door (one in the Catalinas and one near Tumacacori), The Lost Guadalupe Mine, the Lost Opata Mine, and the Silver Bells of Tumacacori.

Now, one dictionary definition of “romance” is “something that lacks foundation in fact,” and that describes pretty well most of our region’s lost mine stories. They are good stories — wonderful stories, but the foundation of many of them seems to be a combination of historical misunderstanding, speculation, hope, and fraud. They are all based on the notion that the Jesuit and Franciscan missionaries here were engaged in highly successful mining, using Indian labor. There is no written evidence from the mission period that this was indeed the case. In fact, for most of the time, the missionaries were strapped for money (and that’s why the east tower at San Xavier was never finished).

However, when the first Anglos arrived, they found abandoned missions and evidence of mining, and naturally assumed that they were connected. Not so, as far as we know. That has never stopped the true believers, the map-sellers, and others from pursuing their fortune by paths honest and otherwise. But how does one prove that something didn’t take place?

There is indeed money to be made out of lost mines and buried treasure — not by finding them, but by selling spurious maps and engaging in other less-than-honest endeavors. Dr. Bernard Fontana, whose studies of San Xavier have been mentioned earlier, was once invited to accompany two men in a quest for mission-era treasure. At the appointed time, Fontana and one of the men arrived at the rendezvous. The other — the fellow who had told the story and talked his friend into investing his entire livelihood in the project, never did show up. It was a classic “pigeon drop,” and Fontana had been used to lend authenticity to the scam!

These stories are indeed all around us, and are a strong part of this region. And I have no doubt that promising mineral locations have been found and then lost in Arizona … but not in this valley during the time of the missions.

You might want to read Charles Polzer, S.J.’s “Legends of Lost Missions and Mines,” and William J. Wasley’s “Ravaged Ruins: the Destruction of Our Colonial Heritage.” Both appear in volume 18 (1968) of The Smoke Signal, published in Tucson by the Tucson Corral of Westerners.

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About this blog

Jim Griffith is the former director of the Southwest Folklore Center at the University of Arizona, and co-founder of Tucson Meet Yourself. He’s also the author of seven books on the folklore and folklife of our region, most recently “A Border Runs Through It.” His books can be purchased at

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