An exterior of the Presidio State Park museum area Monday March 30, 2009, in Tubac, Arizona. 

Benjie Sanders/Arizona Daily star

Two great institutions of the imperial Spanish frontier (that’s where we live!) were the mission and the presidio. Missions and missionaries have figured in these blogs from time to time; now let’s take a look at a presidio. There are three visitable Spanish presidios in Arizona, and sooner or later I’ll write about all of them, but I’ll start with Tubac because it was the first to be established, and because it’s the first stop on a virtual trip into Sonora that we’ll be taking.

Tubac was an O’odham farming community on the Santa Cruz River when Kino established his mission at Tumacácori a few miles upstream in 1691. Within a few years it was a ranch and farm for the mission, and by the 1730s Spanish settlers began farming there too.

In 1751 the village was temporarily abandoned as a result of the Pima Revolt and in the same year a presidio or military post was established in response to that bloody experience. In 1776, the Tubac presidio’s second commander, Juan Bautista de Anza, led his famous overland expedition to California, and the presidio was moved to Tucson.

The 19th Century brought the end of the Spanish Empire, the Gadsden Purchase, and renewed pressure from raiding Apaches. Both Tubac and Tumacácori were abandoned in 1849. However, with the increased American presence and the lure of precious metals in the hills, the upper Santa Cruz Valley attracted cattlemen, farmers, miners and others even before the Apache Wars ended. In the 20th Century, as above-ground traces of the Presidio disappeared, Tubac slowly became the artists’ colony and tourist attraction that it is today.

Which brings us to Tubac Presidio State Historic Park. This wonderful museum, now operated for the State Parks system by a local non-profit organization, gives the visitor a wonderful picture of Tubac over the past several centuries. It is complete with preserved buildings, a good museum, and even an underground “Stairway to the Past” that lets you see the wall footings of the old presidio and shows the results of some of the extensive archaeological excavations.

It’s a wonderful place to learn about the history of the valley, and it fits in nicely with a visit to Tumacácori National Historic Park, a couple of miles down the road. Both towns have good places to eat and the back road connecting them is a lovely drive.

Folkloric Footnote: I have Mexican-American friends in Tumacácori who refer to Tubac as “dos pa’ atrás” “Two Back.” Aren’t you sorry I told you?

For more information on the Presidio and its many educational programs, go to