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Treasures of the Santa Catalina Mountains

The “Mission of Ciru”

By Robert Zucker

Donald Page, a historian, author and miner, explored the idea of the Spanish influence of the ruins in the Cañada del Oro during the 1920s. Page’s notes tracked down the legends of the ruins. [1]

Could the Mission of Ciru be the old Santa Catalina Mission? Both could be one in the same. Or they could be two different missions located in the same area?

In 1927, Tucsonan Glenton Sykes encouraged Page to examine some ruins between Montrose and Romero Canyons on the west side of the Santa Catalina Mountains.

They walked up a steep slope to a mesa, close to an old black walnut tree by the Cañada del Oro. They found several stone lined pit houses, multiple room adobe walls and a “Spanish type of stone walled building.” The stones were laid in mud mortar. They also found the remains of a Mexican type structure. The entire group of buildings was surround by the remnants of a stone wall. [2]

The Mexican ruins could have been the remains of the Romero building– now called Romero Ruins.

Page made several trips to the ruins and wrote about his experiences in a journal that detailed the location and description of the site. [3]

Page had noted [4] that Tucson pioneer Sam Hughes first reported he saw ruins in 1858. Tucsonan Agustin Tomé told Page, in 1902 a man who wanted to know the location of a placer mine near the “Mission of Ciru” had approached him. [5]

The place was attacked by Indians and burned and the “padres and the other Spaniards being killed.” The flames were seen by travelers and reported at the Presidio of San Agustin de Tucson. A relief party sent to investigate, but arrived too late. [6]

Tomé told Page that he heard Archbishop Salpointe claim those were the ruins of the “Mission of Ciru.” He also heard Salpointe say there were Indian excavations done on top of the hill.

The Mission of Ciru was possibly located at the Cañada del Oro on the western slopes of the Santa Catalina Mountains, Page suggested. In the legends, the presence of a mission near a mine is evidence that the missionaries were complicit in operating the mines, according to Page.

In 1956, Page wrote a magazine article that claimed the lost mine was “located close to an early Spanish mining camp on a mesa in a nearly inaccessible part of the mountains.” Page said, the Jesuits owned the mine and camp and later built a church. The mine was worked until their expulsion in 1767. A “group of mysterious ruins lie on a small mesa east of the lower end of the canyon (Cañada del Oro) may be a link to the lost mine.” [7] 

Could the Mission of Ciru legend, the “Ciudad Nuevo Millas” (City Nine Miles), be the connected to the ruins? Page ponders that it would have to be located nine miles from some specific spot. Tucson was nine miles away at the time and the ruins were over 18 miles from the Presidio site. [8]

Remains of the mud-packed mortar southwest wall of one of the ruins described by historian Donald Page.

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The Quest for the fabled Mission of Ciru

The following article about the infamous Mission of Ciru is reprinted from Ron Quinn’s book on hunting for lost Spanish treasures in Southern Arizona, “Searching for Arizona’s Buried Treasures.” [9]

Don Page and several colleagues once visited Cañada del Oro that winds its rocky way down the western slopes of the Santa Catalina Range. There, they discovered a number of old stone ruins on a small flat overlooking the canyon.

Roy (Purdie), our partner, heard the following from Don Page:

They dug and discovered that two different Indian cultures had once lived there before the stone structures were built on top. Spanish explorers that were working a mine somewhere in the surrounding vicinity, as several arrastras were found later, undoubtedly erected the dwellings. Don and his friends made the discovery sometime during the mid 1940s. Don also claimed the “Mission of Ciru” once stood at this location. If he were correct, it would make the settlement older than Tucson. Most historians disagree with his findings, with some saying there never was such a mission. Take my word for it, there was. 

Roy had obtained Don’s notes, so we made our own search of the region. We never found the arrastras, but Don had stated they were located east of the ruins. Also, a faint trail led toward the towering mountains, but was lost after a mile or so. Don always believed there was a hidden mine somewhere in the area, and that it was once worked by the residents who occupied the small village. But, he also felt no “iron door” would have covered the entrance.

During our search of the site, we did locate the ruins and the area where Page claimed the small mission once stood, but found no trace of its remains. The area is now designated as Catalina State Park, and the ruins and mine, if one does exist, might fall within its boundaries. I believe the ruins do, as the park covers some 5,500 acres and most of Cañada del Oro. No digging or collecting is allowed.

Several years back, the mayor of Kearny, Arizona supposedly found a sealed mine or a tunnel in this region. He wanted a permit from the state to excavate the site, as he believed it “might” contain one of the treasures hidden by the Spanish padres. If it was unearthed, he was willing to split with the state 50-50. His request was denied.

Soon afterwards, a state official said that if there is such a treasure, it should belong totally to the state. Did the mayor discover the Iron Door Mine? We will never know, but he isn’t the only one to claim finding a sealed mine in that area.

Walt, our second partner, heard an interesting story from a rancher that once lived in this vicinity:

A family arrived in Tucson with their son for a two-week vacation at an uncle’s. The boy had never read any literature concerning Arizona’s lost mines, but he was raised in the country and knew the outdoors. One day he asked if he could explore the canyon nearby, which happened to be Cañada del Oro. The lad was about 17 and was given permission, but told by his uncle to remain in the canyon as people had been lost in the rugged terrain. He agreed, so off he went with a full canteen.

After hiking and looking the country over for a while, he decided to climb from the canyon floor. From his vantage point the young lad could make out a portion of the highway, perhaps two miles away, also, several rooftops could be seen reflecting sunlight. Breaking his word about not leaving the canyon, the adventurous lad began exploring the terrain. When he left the canyon it’s not known if he climbed to the left or right.

An hour or so later he came upon some leaning flat rocks. In the narrow opening separating the two he spotted an old wooden door with an ancient padlock hanging from it. Near the entrance were several rusted mining tools and the remains of a blunderbuss, an old fashioned short gun with a large bore and flaring mouth. The wooden stock had long since rotted off. Not aware of the countless tales of lost mines and treasures, the youngster didn’t become overly excited at his discovery. To him, it was nothing more than some old abandoned mine.

Upon his return the boy told what he had found while out exploring. He did so before realizing he was admitting he left the canyon. After a brief chewing out from his parents the uncle asked if he could again find the location. He answered, “Yes.” The discovery of the blunderbuss had triggered his uncle’s interest. In the ten years of living in the area, the uncle never heard of anyone finding a site as described by his nephew. Later that evening the uncle told the story surrounding the “Mine with the Iron Door.” 

Early the next morning all three began the long hike up the canyon, following the boy’s tracks that were still visible in the soft gravel. After a few miles the group climbed from the canyon’s bed and began their search. They looked for well over two hours, but the youngster became confused after awhile and couldn’t relocate the leaning rocks. Occasionally they came upon his tracks in some soft earth, only to lose them again. The mine was never found, even though the three made frequent trips before the family returned home.

What the boy apparently found was the diggings worked by the residents of the small settlement perched atop the flat hill. The blunderbuss could date the mine, as they were used during the 1700s and even earlier. Why it was left outside is unknown unless a guard was posted there and was killed by Indians that hated the invasion of the Spaniards. Also the remaining miners could have been run off or killed by the same group of hostiles. What lies beyond that wooden door could be nothing or a king’s ransom in gold.

The boy’s story is intriguing, but questionable in two ways. First this area has been searched for countless years, and why this lone site near the leaning rocks was never found boggles the mind. During the Great Depression many individuals worked the gravels along this canyon. Enough gold was found to help keep body and soul together. Undoubtedly these same men searched the surrounding country for the source of the placer gold being discovered in the canyon. If the entrance to this mine were not concealed, as the boy stated, surely it would have been found.

Also questionable is that this tale is strikingly similar to other tales of the Southwest. Somebody accidentally stumbles across something while hiking the desert, but doesn’t realize at the time what he has found. Later he relates the story to another who is familiar with the area and its stories. When informed what he might have discovered the party can never retrace his steps back to the site, and another tale is added to all the rest creating more confusion.

Even if this assessment is correct, a mystery still remains. The location of the hidden mine Don Page felt was associated with the Cañada del Oro arrastras. The mine he suspected could easily exist, and it’s possible the young boy happened upon it, sealed with a wooden door and an “iron” padlock. [10]

[1] “Data Relative to Spanish and Indian Ruins on Mesa Between Montrose and Romero Canyon Known as the “Rancho Viejo” or “Mission of Ciru”,” by Donald Page, 1927. Arizona Historical Society. MS 0641.

[2] “Data Relative to Spanish and Indian Ruins,” by Donald Page. Page 1.

[3] Ibid and “Data Relative to Spanish and Indian Ruins.” Donald Page papers, Arizona Historical Society. S 1214 E.

[4] Ibid. Page 3, “On his notes of June 20, 1915, p 39.”

[5] Ibid. Page 3. January 29, 1928. Page writes: “Agustin Tomé [an early Tucson settler living in the Tucson area by at least 1865] ... tells me that the late Bishop Salpointe claims that the ruins were those of the Mission of Ciru.”

[6] Ibid. Page 3. No year was given in Page’s report, but it could have been the 1751 Pima Indian Uprising.

[7] “Lost Jesuit Mine with the Iron Door,” by Donald Page. Desert Magazine, October 1956.

[8] Ibid. Page 3. Page doesn’t speculate about the use of the word milla for mile, instead of liga for league. One league would be abour three nautical miles. Nine leagues would be 27 miles.

[9] “Searching for Arizona’s Buried Treasures, A Two-Year Odyssey,” by Ron Quinn, 2013. BZB Publishing, Inc. Reprinted with permission.

[10] “Searching for Arizona’s Buried Treasures, A Two-Year Odyssey,” by Ron Quinn (2014). Reprinted by permission. Ron Quinn spent two years with his brother and two friends in the Tumacacori Mountains in the 1950s where they discovered 82 bars of gold buried in the hills.

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