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Treasures of the Santa Catalina Mountains

The Lost Santa Catalina Mission

The Legend: There is a lost mission in the Santa Catalinas.

The History: There was a mission called Santa Catalina. It may have been in the Santa Catalinas at one time.

By Robert Zucker

The following is the first full account of the forgotten Spanish Mission of Santa Catalina.

The legend of the lost mission is another one of the mysteries hidden in the backdrop of the lost mine legends. This mission has a lot of history and legend of its own.

While some ruins and early mining activities are found in the Santa Catalina Mountains, proving this mission’s existence is more elusive. But, numerous records from the 1700s document its existence.

A Jesuit mission in the Santa Catalinas is one of the main threads in the legends of the Catalinas.

The Lost Mission of the Santa Catalinas legend is rooted in some truth. Historically, there was a missionary outpost named Santa Catalina (or Santa Catarina). [1] It existed for nearly 70 years and then disappeared.

During his first expedition in 1697 into the northern reaches of Pimería Alta, Father Kino named one Indian village as Santa Catalina del Cuytoabagum. [2]

In the late 1690s, the Jesuits established at least four missions and visitas [3] in the Santa Cruz Valley: [4] [5]       

  • 1692-present: San Xavier del Bac - Mission [6]
  • 1692- before 1767: San Cosmé de Tucson - Visita
  • before 1767-1850s: San Agustin de Tucson – Mission
  • 1699- before 1767: Santa Catarina del Cuytoabagum-– Visita [7]


In Father Kino’s 1699 account of an exploration into Pimería Alta he took with the Spanish military, he wrote the name of the nearby missionary outpost as “Santa Catalina”– using an l instead of r. [8] Different authors use with the l or the r in their manuscripts. Their use is preserved in each of their accounts.

The original location of Santa Catalina was at least 30 miles west of the Santa Catalina Mountains, near Picacho Peak and about 45 miles northwest of the San Xavier del Bac Mission.

One translation says “La Mision de Santa Catarina, sobre el Santa Cruz” was a rancheria of Santa Catarina de Cuituabagu and its fields at Akohin. [9] Cuituabagu means the “well where people gather mesquite beans.” [10] The village was also called Cuitoakbagum (Kuitoakbagum), [11] Coytoabagum [12] and Cutcia vaaki, [13] depending on the author and time period. [14]

The San Xavier del Bac, south of Tucson, is the only mission that remains standing and active. The location of San Cosmé and San Agustin [15] are documented near downtown Tucson. But the placement of the Santa Catalina has been reported in several areas. At one time, it may have been also located along the Cañada del Oro, according to early Spanish documents.

Although the Santa Catalina mission faded from history, it may have played a part in the legends of the Santa Catalina Mountains. Whether this was the long, lost mission of the legend, it is not fully authenticated. However, the similarity in name– and proximity– is worth consideration.

There are several preserved early Spanish maps with the location of the Santa Catalina visita. But, there are discrepancies exactly where it was located.

During Father Kino’s lifetime, the mission was originally near Picacho Peak. [16] It may have been moved somewhere near the Cañada del Oro after Kino’s death. [17] [18] [19]

The early map drawn by Kino in 1701, places ‘Santa Catalina’ on the west side of the Santa Cruz River, [20] near Picacho Peak Pass (about 40 miles northwest of Tucson). On Kino’s map, the Sobaipuri nation includes the Santa Catalina Mountains. All maps drawn over the next century were based on Kino’s original map. Copies were duplicated in Europe, usually London or France. The French maps used the name St. Catherine or St. Catharina. Kino wrote in his diary the name of the nearby missionary outpost as “Santa Catalina” using an l. [21]

Maps drawn as late as 1757 [22] also place the “S. Catalina” on the west bank of the Santa Cruz River. An Amsterdam drawn map in 1765 also marks ‘S. Catarina’ on the west bank. [23] The map Herbert E. Bolton used in his book on Kino also placed the site on the west riverbank of the Santa Cruz and called it ‘St. Catherine.’ [24]

On a map that covers the period between 1727-1741 about life after Kino’s time, ‘S. Catharina’ is placed on the east side of the river and closer to the Santa Catalina Mountains. This map legend marks the spot with an image of a church, the same icon used for S. Agustin and San Xavier del Bac. [25]

This conflicts with other maps of the era that just copied the original with no modifications. But, the new location is backed up by a document signed by several prominent Jesuits at the time. In the years after Kino’s death, Santa Catharina was described in a document as being “seven (leagues) to the east (of San Agustin mission).” [26] Seven leagues are about 24 miles. [27]

If it was east of the Santa Cruz River, this location points to the Cañada del Oro at the Santa Catalina Mountains, not north to Picacho Peak.

There are no ruins or indication exactly where this mission and nearby village stood when it was located by Picacho Peak. There are ruins near the Cañada del Oro. Those ruins are still shrouded in mystery.



[1] There are several spellings used in handwritten manuscripts, journals, reports and maps: Catalina, Catarina, Catharina and Catherine. (Editors note: Depending on the author cited, either spelling is used. The default choice is the current spelling of Catalina.)

[2] “Guide to Catholic-Related Records in the West
about Native Americans,”
 Marquette University. 2006. States that Santa Catarina operated from 1699-1767 (closed). Santa Catarina del Cuytoabagum Visita (Pima) [Rio Santa Cruz]

[3] A visita is a village where the missionaries would visit to conduct baptisms and other services.

[4] This list is from “Guide to Catholic-Related Records outside the U.S. about Native Americans,” Marquette University, 2006. Archdiocese of Durango, Mexico. “The Jesuits established their missions Nueva España (also known as the Mexicana Province) in Mexico in 1571 and were expelled in 1767. Their province established and administered the following missions in the United States.”

[5] “Mission Architecture as Exemplified in San Xavier del Bac, including a complete list of the Missions in the Southwest.” 1919. By Prent Duell, A.M., published by the Arizona Archaeological and Historical Society, Tucson, Arizona. Page 129. Santa Catarina is opposite Picacho Peak.

[6] “San Xavier del Bac- belonged to the Rectorate of Nuestra Soñora de los Delores and was the cabeccera of the visitas of San Cosmé de Tucson and Santa Catarina del Cuytoabagum.” From “Empire of Sand: The Seri Indians and the Struggle for Spanish Sonora, 1645-1803,” edited by Thomas E. Sheridan. Page 153.

[7] “Guide to Catholic-Related Records in the West about Native Americans,” Marquette University. 2006.

[8] Kino writes: “Sa Catalina,” from “Kino’s Report on Exploration,” 1699, page. 7. Holographic copies at the University of Arizona Libraries Digital Collection. Online example of handwritten notes.

[9]  “Commentary by Father Bonaventure Oblasser, on article in “Arizona and the West,” Vol. II, No. 2, Summer 1960 entitled: “The Unlucky Jesuit Mission of Bac,” by J. Augustine Donohue, S.J. Note (9) From a collection of notes and manuscripts of Frank Pinkley, “Kino Pimería Alta Missions,” Tumacacori National Park, United States Department of the Interior. Page 343. This author uses the spelling of Catarina in some spots and Catalina in others. Akohin is also called Actun, Agtun and Aquituni by different authors.

[10] “Tucson: The Life and Times of an American City,” by C.L. Sonnichsen, page 11-12.

[11] Spelling used in “Spanish Colonial Tucson, Continued Jesuit Proselytizing, 1756-1767,” Southwest Library, University of Arizona. Page 18.

[12] Carrasco used Coytoabagum. The Pima name used by Manje was Cuitaubagu. The Franciscan name was Aktciny, from “Hispanic Acculturation of the Gila River Pimas,” American Anthropological Association, Vol. 63, No. 5, Part 2, October 1961, Memoir 90). Page 334.

[13] “Another cluster of mounds in the neighborhood of Picacho,” from “Aquituno Ruin (Akutchiny),” Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections, 1910. Vol. 52. Pages 418-419.

[14] Santa Catarina de Caytuabaga (1699, Mange 92); Santa Catarina del Cuytoabagum (1699, 15 leagues from San Cosmé de Tucson; Kino, in Bolton 1948, 1:206); Santa Catarina de Cuituabagu (1774, village of 200 in 40 houses SE of the Picacho, near the Oiuar mentioned by Anza, in Bolton 1960, 376). “Place Names of Southern Arizona and Northern Sonora,” by Alan H. Hartley, Logotheras.

[15] “San Agustin: The Original Tucson,” Archaeology in Tucson, Vol. 1, No. 3, Spring 1987. Newsletter of the Institute for American Research. Page 1.

[16] Picacho Peak State Park is located nearly 50 miles north of Tucson and 30 miles south of Casa Grande, Arizona.

[17] See the upcoming section in the year of 1732:  “7 leagues to the east” of San Agustin.

[18] “Tucson, The Life And Times of An American City,” by C.L. Sonnichsen. Page 11.

[19] Donald Page report (upcoming). Page calls a site at the Cañada del Oro the Mission of Ciru in the Pueblo Viejo (“old town”).

[20] “Navigation Methods of Kino,” by Ronald L. Ives. From “Arizona and the West,” map insert after page 215.

[21] Kino writes: “Sa Catalina,” from “Kino’s Report on Exploration,” 1699. Page. 7. Holographic copies at the University of Arizona Libraries Digital Collection. Online example of handwritten notes.

[22] Named as Ste. Catalina. “Carte de la Californie, Levee par la Societe des Jesuites,” map drawn by Padre Miguel Venegas, London. 1757.

[23] 1765, Isaac Tirion, Kaart van het Westelyk Gedeelte Nieuwe, Amsterdam.

[24] Inside front page, written as St. Catherine, from “Earliest print of Kino’s Map of Pimería Alta, 1705.” Published in “Kino’s Historical Memoir of Pimería Alta,” Vol. 1. Spain in the West, Vol. III, by Herbert Eugene Bolton, 1919.

[25] Inside cover of “Pimería Alta: Life After Kino’s Time,” George P. Hammond, Prof. History, University of Southern California, Los Angeles. Reprint from New Mexico Historical Review, 1929. Map is dated 1727-1741.

[26] “Oficiales varios al rey. “Conquista y conversion de la Pimería alta.” California y Nuevo Mexico,” 1737 submitted by several missionaries, including Ignacio Javier Keller. Also see “Pimería Alta After Kino’s Time,” by George Hammond, 1929. Page 229.

[27] One league, unit of distance, equals about 3 miles or so. The actual measurement varies depending on who makes the measurement. It is based on the distance a person, or horse, can walk in about an hour. The Spanish legua is close to 2.6 miles or 4.2 kilometers. From “How Many? A Dictionary of Units of Measurement,” by Russ Rowlett and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.