Lost Treasure

Arizona's mines, missionaries and myths spark modern search for silver and gold.

Fifty-five miles southwest of Tucson, Ruby Road winds through the rugged Atascosa, Cerro Colorado and Pajarito mountains. It may seem like just another dusty, washboard way through granite, scrub mesquite and dry washes, but it is also a journey into the past of abandoned mines and speculative history that has unearthed stories promising a wealth of missing and hidden treasure.

In his book Lost Mines and Buried Treasures Along the Old Frontier, longtime Arivaca resident and prospector John D. Mitchell describes with conviction the people and events that led to sites of silver and gold still waiting to be rediscovered. Many of these lost riches he attributes to the mining by Jesuit priests from the Tumacacori mission.

In one tale, Mitchell quotes a Spanish document, "La Purisma Concepcion mine was located four leagues (about 12 miles) south of the Tumacacori mission." Mitchell goes on to state there is a "mass of evidence to indicate that this old mine is located in the narrow pass between the west end of the Pajarito mountains and El Ruido."

He adds to the story a Nogales saloonkeeper who later grubstaked an oldtimer to search for gold and silver from the abandoned mine. Six weeks later, the prospector returned to the saloon with two silver-loaded burros. Alas, after a night of celebration, the old timer was found dead from exposure and the mine remained a mystery.

Mitchell's account concludes that Jesuit padres at Tumacacori worked multiple gold and silver mines near the mission until 1767, when King Charles III expelled the Jesuits and sent them on a long, hot walk to the coast, where they were shipped back to Europe. Some have speculated that the king's motives stemmed from a tiff over padres who failed to send a proper 15 percent cut of all silver mined to the crown.

This rift between Charles and missionaries served as the basis for yet another story, the lost treasure of Carreta Canyon. Legend has it that the mountains south of Arivaca hold a lode of abandoned and undiscovered silver. According to Mitchell's book, one of these deposits is somewhere in the Atascosa Mountains that flank Ruby Road to the east. Mitchell reports that during the Pima Indian uprising of 1751, Jesuit padres fled Tumacacori with a cart full of silver.

Supposedly, they stashed their treasures in a silver mine in the area referred to as Carreta Canyon, which is probably what is now called Peck Canyon, and covered the entrance with a heavy wooden door. The missionaries escaped to the coast but were never able to return for their fortune. Mitchell concluded, "The contents of the old carreta (cart) from Tumacacori and the eight jack loads of treasure from the Altar mission are still stored away in the old tunnel up there in the hills near the head of Carreta Canyon, guarded by the skeleton of the old Opata ..."

These are not the only accounts of lost riches in the area, and Mitchell's book is hardly the only source of these tales. Books such as Hinton's Handbook of Arizona, along with a variety of ghost town publications and treasure Internet sites also perpetuate the legends of lost treasure.

Arizona has a history of valuable ore, ranked in the top 10 for gold and silver production for in the United States during the 1800s, and there is no doubt that silver and gold exist in the mountains south of Arivaca. So why not stop pumping the slot machines and tear up those lottery tickets? If early retirement is your dream, but you're not a CEO, why not pack a mule with shovels, pick axes and maps and head for the hills to garner your riches?

Before you rush out, you may want to consider those who doubt the existence of these treasures and even dispute whether the Jesuits were mining the earth instead of souls.

For Mary Kasulaitis, a resident of Arivaca and local librarian, the idea of lost treasures is all bunk perpetuated by Mitchell, who she believes was a better storyteller than prospector. "A lot of those stories go back to John Mitchell. The man was a storyteller; he made people believers. People just decide if they read this, it must be true."

Kasulaitis has heard her share of treasure stories. She grew up hearing stories of her grandfather's years of unsuccessful searches for treasure. Now she doubts the treasures exist. "My grandfather prospected all over this country. He covered every inch from Arivaca to Nogales and found nothing. Maybe there was something, but if it did exist, it has been found. Why would anyone tell?"

She also warns of people who arrive with high hopes but little preparation, expecting to walk into wealth. "There's minerals out there, but if you think you're the first person to look, you're stupid. Come prepared with topo maps, prospecting maps and claim documents."

Others question whether the Jesuits were ever involved in mining. Donald Garate, a park ranger at Tumacacori, is another doubter.

Garate acknowledges that the missionaries were able to amass significant amounts of silver, but attributes that to the fact that they were well educated, shrewd businessman who earned healthy profits from the sale of cattle and crops. Garate said most of the treasure stories were early 20th-century romanticism of the frontier West.

He also doubts that treasure was hidden before the Jesuits were ousted in 1767. According to Garate, not only was the expulsion motivated by political reasons rather than King Charles' wrath over being shortchanged on kickbacks, "The priests were arrested the night before they were expelled without warning. There's no way they would have had time to hide treasure."

While modern historians seem certain the missionaries had no interest in the pursuit of silver, The History of Arizona 1884 from Wallace W. Elliot and Co. states that "in 1710 there were eight missions in a flourishing condition within the Territory of Arizona. They possessed herds of cattle, sheep, and horses, cultivated a large area of land, which yielded cereals, fruits, and vegetables. Many rich silver mines near the missions were worked extensively, and, with the rude reduction facilities at hand produced large quantities of the precious metals. This was the most prosperous era in the history of Arizona missions."

Elliot also cites a Spanish work entitled Apostolic Labors of the Society of Jesus that gives an the following account of silver and gold in the Santa Ritas: "In the year 1769 a region of virgin silver was discovered ... on a mountain ridge which hath been named by its discovers Santa Rita."

The Apostolic source goes on to state that troops were sent by the commander of the Presidio of Altar, and the treasure was seized as property of the Crown. Later, the king gave the decree that the silver pertained to his royal patrimony and that the mines should be worked for his benefit.

The discovery is two years after the expulsion of Jesuits, but Franciscan priests were back working the missions by 1768. In addition, Elliot notes, "There are mines of gold, silver and copper which have been worked 200 years by the Spaniards and Indians in their own rude style."

Prospectors and dreamers continue to scour the area.

George Volker, claims director for Tucson Desert Gold Diggers, a local prospectors club, believes that missionaries did mine the area but perhaps left inaccurate records, their accounting practices a mystery. He says there was a significant amount of valuable ore in the area during their occupation, and silver prices of that era made it very profitable. According to Volker, silver fetched what today would be equivalent to $9 an ounce during the 18th century, compared to the current rate of about $4.50 an ounce.

Volker said he and most club members are just hobbyists who enjoy the search. "We are strictly recreational; we are not out to make money," he said. "We have 20 claims in the area, but none would produce enough to make a living."

Lost treasure or not, the stories will continue to be told and the seekers will come with guidebooks and hope. Maybe there is lost treasure, maybe not--but when a trip down a back road takes one through Southern Arizona's dramatic, rugged country and rich history, does it matter?