How The Legends of the Santa Catalinas Circulated

By Robert Zucker

There wasn’t much known about the new Arizona Territory in the 1850s. People got their basic news mainly from the tabloids and the wild rumors that circulated about recently discovered wealth in the new frontier.

The California Gold Rush had met its peak in the 1860s. Homesteaders and prospectors were searching for new places to stake their claims. The exciting stories of lost Spanish treasures and abundant minerals inspired new hope.

Some of the “official data” that Sylvester Mowry relied on for his 1857 memoir was made available a year earlier from a collection of the Mexico City Department of Foreign Affairs in Mexico. References to these reports were included in a Smithsonian Institute Report [1] and a Congressional Serial Report in 1856. [2]

These materials also contained reports on the conditions of the State of Pimería written by Lt. Cristobal Bernal in 1697 and a letter written by Father Kino describing an expedition with Capt. Diego Carrasco in 1698. The collection also had a letter written by Father Silvestre Veléz de Escalante nearly one hundred years later in 1778. [3] This odd placement of Escalante’s letter may have caused confusion in telling the legend another 100 years later– creating one of those historical anachronisms.

Mowry’s story spread quickly across the country. [4] His narrative, Memoir of the Proposed Territory of Arizona provided the justification for the new Arizona Territory. It became a part of Arizona’s written tradition and its early history. Mowry recited his report in front of many professional organizations. It was published and republished.

As soon as Mowry’s story began to circulate, tales of the “Old Spanish mines and mineral riches in the new Arizona Territory,” were reprinted in newspapers, books, and magazines across the continent. Often, the interpretations would be embellished, but this didn’t stop many enterprising entrepreneurs looking to exploit new options.

Mowry’s account may have first been published in a Raleigh, North Carolina, newspaper in August 1857 [5] in an article about the new Territory of Arizona. It was repeated in a California newspaper that November, [6] a Washington, D.C. newspaper in January, 1858, [7] and presented by Mowry at an address before the Geographical and Statistical Society in New York on February 3, 1859. [8]

The story was published again that November in several mining magazines [9] and later in 1860, [10] 1861, [11] and 1863. [12] [13] Mowry published the same text in a book in 1864 and 1866. [14]

It was reprinted in several Arizona history books that circulated in the late 1860s. [15] Mowry was cited in the Report of the Governor of Arizona to the Secretary of the Interior” and the Annual Report of the Department of Interior of 1899 [16] and reprinted numerous times in the early 20th Century. [17] History became ingrained in the legend.

Col. Charles D. Poston, another Arizona pioneer often called the Father of Arizona, traveled to the new Territory with several others under instructions to explore the area and purchase any of the “old mining ranches, abandoned by the Mexicans.” On December 31, 1856, Poston concluded the purchase of the Arizona Ranch, near Tubac.” The Mexicans called the ranch “La Aribac,” fifteen miles south of west from Tubac. It contained 25 silver mines, with small quantities of gold. They also acquired title to twenty four veins of silver ore in the Santa Rita Mountains, at the south edge of the Catalinas, and the nearby Salero and Ojero mines. [18] The Mexicans worked those before they were ambushed and they hadn’t been mined since the Americans arrived in the mid-1850s. [19]



“Two centuries ago, when the Pilgrim Fathers were struggling with barbarism upon the shores of New England, Spain established an empire amidst her newly-found wealth, and drew millions from the very region where now the Anglo Saxon is erecting a second era of civilization. Years passed, and the 
ivilization of the Jesuit, always superficial and never permanent, faded away. Indian depredations drove those monk miners from their possessions, and we now behold on every hand, the remains of ancient works and old mining establishments, used by the Spaniards when the New World was in its infancy.”

The Weekly Arizonian, Tubac, Arizona, March 10, 1859 [20]

One writer exalted that Arizona’s silver mines were once a rich source of revenue for Spain, and he speculated some of those riches were thought to still be there. But the hostile Apache Indians made it too dangerous to attempt any exploration by venture seekers.

The author described Sonora and Arizona as “dotted with spots where they are reported to have covered up some awful rich mines. Generally these mines are said to be closed with massive doors, but the first plank has yet to be found.” The writer had no doubt that the priests worked the mines, or employed the “idle Indians.” He affirmed the common knowledge that the “Mission of the old Jesuits” had been accused of knowing about the mines and that they were accused of hording their immense wealth in Lower California in the 17th Century. [21] This is the earliest mention of old mines sealed with doors.

Mowry promoted the mineral virtues of the new Territory in an 1859 address to the Geographical Society. He added details about the dozen of operating mines throughout the Southwest. Tucson, at the time, had about 1,000 residents– up from about two hundred. The San Xavier del Bac and Tumacacori missions were both deserted, he said. [22] The publication of an 1878 overview of the new Territory, called “The Handbook of Arizona,” featured hundreds of pages on the minerals and mining opportunities in the new Territory. [23] That eventually piqued the interest of eastern venture capitalists in the next decades. But, the treasures were still out of reach.

Mowry’s career was tinged by scandal, however. He was suspected as a Confederate sympathizer and arrested in Tucson. He resigned his commission as second lieutenant in 1858. After he was released, he returned to Tucson and tried to rebuild his Mowry Silver Mines, nine miles south of Patagonia, Arizona. Mowry bought the mine in 1860 for $25,000. Sonoran Mexicans started the mine before the 1850s, prior to the Civil War. [24] [25] In June, 1862, the Mowry Silver Mines was seized, and he was jailed for nearly six months on a “false, ridiculous, and malicious charge,” he claimed. His mine was placed into receivership under the Confiscation Act, and he suffered “great loss.” [26]

Nevertheless, Mowry’s memoirs were the basis of the Spanish mining legends. His account of the early history of Arizona and Sonora became embedded in the public record and imagination.



[1] First published in 10th Annual Report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institute. Proceedings of the board up to March 22, 1856. Pages 307-309.

[2] Also published later that year in the Congressional Serial Set, 1856, U.S. Government Printing Office. Pages 307-309.

[3] Ibid. “Buckingham Smith, esq, has copies of those in the royal archives in the city of Mexico.” Prof. John Henry, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institute.

[4] News article first published his story in Evening Star, Washington, D.C. January 7, 1858. Many others followed. See upcoming footnotes for dates and publications.

[5] The New Territory of Arizona, Semi-Weekly Standard, Raleigh, North Carolina, August 19, 1857. Also, Weekly North Carolina Standard, Raleigh, North Carolina, August 19, 1857.

[6] Notes upon the New Territory of Arizona, in the Journal of Commerce in the Daily Alta California on November 27, 1857. California Digital Newspaper Collection. Available sources of information about the new territory included notes of Col. A.B. Gray, Major Emory and Hon. John R. Bartlett in their reports and in the appendix to R.A. Wilson’s book “Mexico and Its Religions” compiled about his travels through Northern Mexico in 1853.

[7] Evening Star, Washington, D.C., January 7, 1858.

[8] The Geography and Resources of Arizona and Sonora, by Sylvester Mowry, 1859. An Address Before the American Geographical and Statistical Society.

[9] The full article, dated November 1859, included Mowry’s accounts and was “compiled for the Mining Magazine from the various Reports and Statements of Messrs. Brunckow, Ehrenberg, Poston, Mowry, Park, Emory, Bartlett, Parry, Schott, Gray, Blake, Ward, Wilson and others.” The same article is published in “Mining Magazine: Devoted to Mines, Mining Operations, Metallurgy” in 1860, Pages 1- 7.

[10] The Mining Magazine and Journal of Geology, Mineralogy, Metallurgy, Chemistry and the Arts, Vol. 12, by Thomas McElrath, Jewett Tenney, William Phipps Blake, George M. Newton. 1860. Pages 2-8.

[11] Arizona or the Gadsden Purchase, from Our Whole Country, or, the Past and Present of the United States, by John Warner Barber, Henry Howe. 1861. Pages 1445-1448.

[12] A second edition published as The Geography and Resources of Arizona and Sonora, An Address Before the American Geographical and Statistical Society by Sylvester Mowry, graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Late Lieutenant Third Artillery, U.S.A., Corresponding member of the American Institute, Late U.S. Boundary Commissioner, etc. A New Edition with an Appendix, San Francisco and New York, A. Roman & Co., 1863. Since his first speech I have made several journeys in Sonora and Arizona, and have resided about a year at my place, the Mowry Silver Mines’ in Arizona.

[13] The Geography and Resources of Arizona and Sonora, by Sylvester Mowry. Published by A. Roman & Company, 1863. From an Address Before the American Geographical and Statistical Society.

[14] Arizona and Sonora, by Sylvester Mowry, 1864. Mowry’s Address Before the American Geographical and Statistical Society, 1859 was republished.

[15] Some books include: Out Whole Country, or The Past and Present of the United States, by John Warner Barber and Henry Howe, 1861, Pages 1445-1448.

[16] Excerpts regarding the Apache raids and silver mines were cited in the Report of the Governor of Arizona to the Secretary of the Interior, 1899. Part of the United States Congressional Serial Set of Annual Reports of the Department of the Interior for the Fiscal Year ended June 30, 1899, Miscellaneous Reports, Part II, Washington, 1899.

[17] Some publications includes The Loyal West in the Times of the Rebellion, by John W. Barber, 1865; All the Western States and Territories, from the Alleghenies to the Pacific, By John Warner Barber, Henry Howe, 1867; Report of the Proceeding of the Annual Session, Volume 8-10, by the American Mining Congress, 1906.

[18] Report of the Sonora Exploring and Mining Co. to its Shareholders, 1857. Pages 3-5.

[19] “The Silver Mines of Arizona,” Evening Star, Washington, D.C. August 18, 1858.

[20]  “The Mineral Wealth of Arizona,” The Weekly Arizonian, Tubac, A.T. March 10, 1859. Also published in the “Morning Leader,” Cleveland, Ohio, March 10, 1859.

[21] “Mining Stories and Realities,” The Weekly Arizonian, Tubac, Arizona. July 7, 1859.

[22] See Arizona and Sonora: the Geography, History, And Resources of the Silver Region of North America, By Sylvester Mowry. Harper & Brothers, New York. 1864.

[23] The Handbook of Arizona, by R.J. Hinton, San Francisco, 1878.

[24] Mowry Mine (Patagonia Mine; Enterprise Mine; Phoenix Mine), Mowry Hill, Mowry Wash, Mowry, Patagonia District, Patagonia Mtns, Santa Cruz Co., Arizona, USA. Mindat.org

[25] Guide to the Sylvester Mowry Letter, Historical Note. Northwest Digital Archives. Sylvester Mowry died in 1871.

[26] Arizona and Sonora, by Sylvester Mowry. 1864. Page 62-63 and footnote. Mowry was arrested June 8, 1862 under order of General Charlton, commander of New Mexico on a “charge of treasonable complicities with the rebels.” A board of investigation appointed by Charlton determined that Mowry “had given aid and comfort to the enemy” and there was sufficient reason to try him before a military commission. His property was seized and he was jailed. He was unconditionally released November 4, 1862  under order from the U.S. War Department since there was no evidence presented to the board. Mowry filed a grievance alleging illegal seizure. The property passed from military to the civil authority. There are no documents about the outcome. Mowry went on to start up some new mines, the Olive and the Esperanza, nearby the old Mowry Mines. He blamed “personal hostility” on the part of General Charlton for his misfortune.


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