THE YELLOW GRASS stands tall enough to obscure the view of a horse and rider. Giant cottonwoods line a sizable stream, and on its banks a fort breaks the horizon with walls 12 feet high. Above the fort flies the flag of Spain.
This picture of Tucson would have greeted the eyes of a visitor in 1803 to what was then the new pueblo.
Today, archaeologist Connie Allen-Bacon creates this same picture in the minds of a group of alumni from Westerville Ohio's Otterbein College as she leads them on a tour of downtown Tucson. The guided tour is designed to give archaeology fans a first-hand glimpse of what Tucson was like over the past thousand years or so.
Allen-Bacon works for the Center for Desert Archaeology, and this tour is one of several the nonprofit research and education organization runs in southern Arizona.
Going on the downtown Tucson tour the group travels back in time to the age of the Hohokam. A millennium ago several hundred people were living along the banks of the Santa Cruz River near what today would be Miracle Mile Road.
With the aid of artifacts loaned by the Arizona State Museum, Allen-Bacon lets the troupe of retirees touch that past by handling stone axes and pottery shards from the area and time period.
At another stop we jump forward in time to when the red-haired Irish mercenary Colonel Hugo O'Conor selected the site for a frontier outpost from which the Spanish could repel Apache raiders. That outpost became the Tucson presidio with the 12-foot high, three-foot thick walls.
Remnants of the 200-year-old wall remain in a few locations throughout downtown Tucson. In one spot the presidio wall was paved over to make a parking lot, but archeologists mapped it beforehand. Today, two iron spikes, inconspicuously hammered into the parking lot, mark the corner of the presidio wall just west of the downtown YMCA.
Without Allen-Bacon pointing the markers out to us, no one would have noticed the spikes.
"It's the explanations that really make the tour," says Otterbein alumna Bobbie Day. "Without that, it's nothing."
Equally enlightening are the collection of photographs of excavations and historical buildings she shows us.
In a 1954 photograph, a University of Arizona anthropology professor points to an excavation site that unearthed both the presidio wall and the side of a Hohokam pit house. The Spanish fort was built atop an Indian village abandoned 800 years earlier. Now parking lots and downtown high-rises sink their footings into the older structures.
The tour begins on Sentinel Peak, a.k.a. A Mountain. From here Allen-Bacon introduces today's tour group to the Tucson basin.
In 1694 the Jesuit missionary Father Eusebio Francisco Kino was one of the first Europeans to explore the region. He established the mission at San Xavier del Bac and then dubbed the small village along the banks of the Santa Cruz River San Agustín de Tucson. At this time Tucson wasn't much more than a few Tohono O'odham houses.
The name Tucson stems from the Tohono O'odham name meaning at the foot of the black mountain, probably in reference to Sentinel Peak. In Historical Names of Places in Arizona, Byrd Howell Granger spells it Ts-iuk-shan. In Roadside History of Arizona, Marshall Trimble spells it Schookson. It also appears variously as Chuk Son. In any event, the Spanish ultimately corrupted the name into Tucson.
As we do a walking tour through downtown Tucson, Allen-Bacon points out areas where archeological digs were conducted and explains what was found.
Tucson residents may remember the excavation adjacent to the old Pima County Courthouse building on the corner of Church Avenue and Alameda Street. Here Desert Archeology unearthed the foundation of a house owned by Sidney DeLong, one of Tucson's first mayors, Allen-Bacon says. Beneath DeLong's house they found a Hohokam storage pit containing 750 pieces of pottery.
These digs are tricky because of the traffic as well as power and gas lines surrounding the site, Allen-Bacon says.
They also uncovered the presidio's cemetery and moved many of the graves. This type of dig is touchy for religious reasons, and the staff of Desert Archeology enlisted the aide of Indian medicine men and Catholic and Protestant priests to ensure no graves were desecrated.
"We're very careful," Allen-Bacon says, "to maintain good relations with the Native Americans. Most of our work relies on cooperation with them."
Inside the Pima County Assessor's office, Allen-Bacon shows us an exhibit highlighting an actual piece of the presidio wall. The original eastern fort wall ran from what is now Washington Street south through the floor of the old courthouse.
We go upstairs to the courthouse balcony and look down into the courtyard. A dark line bisects the tile and fountain and runs into the assessor's office. This line represents the original presidio wall.
The tour ends at the gate to the Tucson Museum of Art in La Casa Cordova, an original adobe building. Inside, dioramas of the presidio give the Otterbein Alumni a clear picture of what the presidio may have looked like.
In the courtyard of the house, visitors get a feel for how Tucson's first European inhabitants lived. They often cooked and slept outside in shaded courtyards, and the Spanish and Anglo communities were closely connected.
As the half-day tour winds down, the Otterbein graduates wander off in disparate directions to get lunch. As they walk the streets of Tucson, they know better than most locals the stories of the buried cities, historical and ancient, beneath the concrete.
| © 1995-97 Tucson Weekly . Info Booth