Tumacacori National Historical Park

Where is Tumacacori National Historical Park?

Tumacacori (pronounced tooma-cockery) is located in Tumacacori, Arizona. The park site is approximately 50 miles south of Tucson and 20 miles north of the Mexican border town of Nogales on Interstate 19.

Tumacacori’s visitor center has our vote for one of the prettiest visitor centers we’ve seen, and it is a designated National Historic Landmark.

The park features:

  • Visitor center with gift shop and bookstore
  • Park film
  • Guided tours – check with the park for times
  • Self-guided tours
  • Ruins of two additional mission sites – available for 4-hour guided tours only
  • Hiking
  • Picnic tables
  • Special events and demonstrations – check with the park for times and dates
  • Museum
  • Admission fees apply for entry

Access the park’s website here.

Visitor center courtyard and garden, constructed in 1939.

Why is Tumacacori significant?

As with all of the southwestern US missions, Tumacacori’s lands were once the home of Native American people. Southern Arizona was the homeland of the O’odham (pronounced ah-dum, similar to autumn) who were hunters, gatherers, and farmers. Padre Eusebio Kimo, a Jesuit priest, founded the first area mission in 1691 along the Santa Cruz River south of the current park site. He named the new mission San Cayatano de Tumacacori. Shortly thereafter, Padre Kimo founded a second mission, San Angeles de Guevavi, about 15 miles upriver from the first Tumacacori. Another Jesuit priest founded the area’s third mission, San Cayatano de Calabazas. Tumacacori National Historical Park protects the ruins of the three missions and is located on the Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail.

San Jose de Tumacacori Church

In 1751, more than 100 people, including two priests, were killed when O’odham rebels staged a rebellion. The fear of additional raids caused many of the mission’s residents to leave. Therefore, in order to make a better home for the mission’s residents, Padre Kimo’s first Arizona mission was relocated to what is now the park site and renamed San Jose de Tumacacori.

Mission San Jose de Tumacacori church

Mission San Jose Tumacacori’s second church was never fully completed, although it was dedicated in 1822 and used until Tumacacori was abandoned in 1848.

Ruins include the footings of the original Jesuit church and part of the convento (the priests’ living quarters).

In 1767, the Spanish governor ordered all Jesuit priests out of his domains and into exile. He then sent Franciscan priests to replace them. Therefore, it was under the direction of Franciscan priest Fray Gutierrez that construction began on Tumacacori’s three-story church in 1800. 

A view of the nave from the front doors.

Still partially covered in their original lime plaster, the thick adobe walls continue to stand strong. A baptistry was to the right of the front doors, and above it on the second story was the choir preparation room. The choir loft was once above the front doors, and the sacristy (priest’s office) was to the right of the sanctuary. Worshipers stood or knelt during mass as there were no pews in the church.

The sanctuary.

Shadows of picture frames and other embellishments that once adorned the church are still visible. Some original paint and stenciling can still be seen as well.

East view showing the church’s white dome and the white barrel-vaulted ceiling of the sacristy.

The Bell Tower

Scalloped niches were used to hold statues of saints.

Tumacacori church’s three-story bell tower begins at ground level with the baptistry, the second level choir preparation room, and the third level arched tower. Originally each arch held a bell, and the bells were rung several times a day for various reasons. Nobody knows what happened to the original bells, but they were likely taken by vandals and melted down for other uses. Constructed of fired bricks, the tower was to have originally been covered in white plaster, but that was never done. It is uncertain whether the tower was to have had a white dome to match the church. Interestingly, the adobe walls of the baptistry and choir preparation room are nine feet thick in order to hold the weight of the bell tower.

San Jose de Tumacacori Cemetery

Most missions had a church cemetery, and Tumacacori was no different. White walls surrounded the little cemetery which is located behind the church. Nooks that would have held the 14 Stations of the Cross are still visible in the thick wall. There are some graves in the Tumacacori cemetery, although none of them are original to the functioning mission. Sadly, the cemetery’s original graves were desecrated by vandals and grave robbers after the mission was abandoned. Then adding insult to injury, the cemetery was used for a time as a cattle corral.

Mortuary chapel

The round building above sits in the middle of the cemetery and is the unfinished mortuary chapel, which when completed was to have had a white domed roof. Mortuary chapels were used to hold vigils for the dead before they were buried.

This view shows the mortuary chapel with the church in the background.

Years later, people in the surrounding community began burying their dead in the cemetery. The last burial, an infant, took place in 1916.

The Museum

Set up in time-line style, the outstanding museum covers the history of the area beginning in prehistoric times and continues through the abandonment of Tumacacori. The museum features, artifacts, dioramas, exhibits, and art, all depicting life around and at Tumacacori.

This display shows how the O’odham people lived before the Spanish missionaries arrived.

The priests that administered the area missions kept immaculate records of marriages, births, deaths, baptisms, and other pertinent information about the people who lived there. Today the park has a free online database of the records for anyone who wants to search them by family name. Learn more about the database, Mission 2000, here.

Handwritten records were kept by the priests.
A depiction of farming at the mission.

Residents of Tumacacori grew squash, corn, beans and other crops. Orchards were also planted, and crops were irrigated using a water diversion system called an acequia. The six wooden santos (saints) that once stood in Tumacacori’s church now reside behind glass in the park’s museum. We apologize for the glare.

Melhok Ki

Melhok ki

This melhok ki, which means ocotillo house in the O’odham language, is an example of a traditional O’odham dwelling. Melhok ki walls and roofs were constructed using the cane-like branches of the ocotillo. Sometimes mesquite branches and other woody plants found in the desert were used as well. Then once the framework was complete, the structure would be covered in mud inside and out. Some of the mission residents would have lived in traditional homes like this one while others lived in more modern adobe dwellings near the church.

Goodbye Tumacacori

This artist’s depiction shows what Tumacacori might have looked like with the completed church.

With the hardships of the Mexican-American war, increasing Apache raids, and harsh weather conditions, the last residents took their santos and left Tumacacori in 1848. Their destination was another mission that was located about 25 miles to the northwest. Sadly, the church and other buildings of Tumacacori fell victim to vandals and into disrepair. Then after 60 years of deterioration, President Theodore Roosevelt protected the site by establishing Tumacacori National Monument in 1908. When the site was redesignated as a National Historical Park in 1990, the Calabazas and Guevavi ruins came under the park’s care.


Thank you for joining us at Tumacacori!

You might also enjoy these other national park sites:

Pecos National Historical Park

New Castle, Delaware and First State National Historical Park

Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park

Safe travels, y’all!

Mike and Kellye

As always, we strive to be as accurate with our information as possible. If we made a mistake, it was unintentional. (Hey, we’re only human!) Our suggestions are for places that we’ve heard good things about but haven’t visited personally, and our opinions are our own.


45 thoughts on “Tumacacori National Historical Park

  1. A lot of history on this one Kellye. I think more people who visit the Missions have to understand how hard it was to be a missionary in those days. It took forever to reach your posting, the missionaries were largely on their own in hostile territory and in many cases, no help was available in times of trouble. Thanks for sharing. Allan

    1. Thank you, Allan. I can’t imagine the hardships of the priests and the residents, especially having to leave their home and finding another place to live. Mike and I probably should be more grateful for how easy we have it today.

  2. What an overwhelming building from the outside. These old missions and missionaries weren’t the greatest at getting along in the communities that they were trying to catholicize. It’s an interesting part of the history though and often with great architecture left behind. Maggie

  3. I always love old missions like this with their simple beautiful architecture, even if the history behind the building is less beautiful. The Santos that they carried from the mission are a real treasure and I’m so glad that they and the mission were preserved. Another great post on your trek through the southwest 🙂

  4. Interesting history and architecture. When I see these stories, I always wonder what was there before, before these buildings, before these missionaries… Native peoples did a fabulous job of ‘leave no trace’, a motto so many parks now ask of us.

    1. Most of the missions we have visited were pueblos before they missionaries came along. I guess we’re left with artist’s renderings and our imagination now. Thanks so much for reading and for your comment.

  5. Very interesting! Isn’t it amazing how some details of the ruins (stenciling) can still be seen? I always enjoy when National Parks feature films and especially tours. Those offerings help me to get the most out of my visit. The museum sounds excellent, too. Thanks for the tour!

  6. It’s so intriguing and interesting how each mission, these little enclaves of society, all have their individual histories and stories. Every one of them seems to have an illustrious history one way or another.

  7. The sites at the Tumacacori National Historic Park might look unassuming, but they certainly pack a lot of history, rich and sad. It’s one thing to learn about the decline of the mission and its missionaries, but another to learn that it was on indigenous land, taken from its people. The history has multiple layers and facets to it, and it’s really fascinating to discover this place in southern Arizona.

    1. We agree that there was a lot of turmoil surrounding the missions of the southwest. It’s great that the parks do a great job of telling the history from all sides. Thank you for reading and for your comment, Rebecca!

  8. I’m glad that this place got the protection it deserves. So sad to read that the little cemetery was used as a cattle corral at one point. As troubling as this period of history is to me, learning about it and cultivating an awareness of the events that occurred in these missions seems very important. The architecture that survived is elegant and unique, thanks for presenting it so well Kellye.

  9. Another fascinating historical site. I find the concept of missionaries so hard to fathom today – my great grandfather was a missionary priest in Asia, converting people to Christianity – and he ended up being Bishop in a number of then colonial countries such as Singapore. I have really mixed feelings about it, and I’m glad that many of these places acknowledge the awful events that happened.

    1. At least in America, terrible events did sometimes surround the missions, but I also see the side of the native people who felt forced to change everything they had ever known. And then they were left on their own. I’m certainly glad it’s different today.

  10. Thank you for this comprehensive report about a place that would really fascinate me to visit. I love the semi-ruined church (so photogenic) while the museum sounds and looks excellent. I’m pleased that at least the santos were preserved and returned to their rightful home, although wouldn’t it be great to see them back in the church itself?!

      1. Yes, that must be the reason – also the church, being ruined, probably doesn’t have climate control and heat or damp could damage them.

  11. Wonderful history lesson and I appreciate the pronunciations included. I always try to guess but have yet to be right. I’m learning a lot from your posts! I don’t think I was every taught anything about out west except maybe the gold rush.

  12. Glad to hear that this area with all its ruins and history was protected and preserved. Thanks for taking us on a virtual tour. It’s another one to add to the list for when we make it back to Arizona.

  13. I had never heard of Tumacacori before, so thank you for introducing this place to us and writing about its history. I’m glad the U.S. government eventually decided to preserve those ruins so they wouldn’t be forever lost to the ravages of time.

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