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Treasures of the Santa Catalina Mountains

Naming the Santa Catalina Mountains

By Robert Zucker

Father Eusebio Kino is credited to have named the Santa Catalina Mountains during his first journey through Pimeria Alta in 1697. [1]

Early Spanish settlers also called the mountains “La Iglesia,” the Spanish word for church since the looming mountains looked like a cathedral. [2] One of the visible peaks from Tucson is Cathedral Peak that resembles church towers.

Is it Catalina or Catarina?

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, there was puzzlement about the correct use of either Catalina or Catarina for the proper name of the mountain range.

In Father Kino’s 1699 account of an exploration into Pimeria Alta that he took with the Spanish military, he wrote the name of the nearby missionary outpost as “Santa Catalina”– using an l instead of r. [3]

In the 1800s, the mountains were known as “Sierra de la Santa Catarina.” [4] Early cartographers also used the name Santa Catarina in maps before the 1900s. This seemed to cause confusion.[5] “Santa Catarina” was used in honor of Catherina of Alexandria (The Church calendar had removed “and suppressed from the cult of saints,” the name of Catherina of Alexander in 1969 [6] ).

The issue of whether the correct usage is Santa Catarina or Santa Catalina came up in 1881 when The Pinal Drill newspaper noted the argument between the two uses. The Arizona Weekly Citizen considered them to be the same mountain range and decided to settle on the Catarina portion being in Pinal County and Catalina portion in Pima County (“…and the saints are in heaven.”) [7]

The question if the name is actually Catalina and not Catarina was an issue once again when United States Deputy Mineral Surveyor L.D. Chillson wrote a letter to the Arizona Weekly Citizen in 1881. He asked for a solution to a “vexed question” he had often been asked. The editors replied with a plea for “some of the fathers of Arizona (to) answer the conundrum.” [8] At the time, most newspapers had been using both names, even in deed records, to describe the same mountain range. Chillson owned several mining claims in the Cañada del Oro that also used either version of the name.

Chillson got his answer a week later when the Citizen declared the proper name to be Santa Catalina, while Santa Catarina was a local corruption of the name. [9] Seven months later, the U.S. Postal Service established the Santa Catarina Post Office near the Canãda del Oro in 1882.

After the beginning of the 20th Century, Santa Catalina became the popular name for the entire mountain range.  In this book, either name is used depending on the citation.

Return to Treasures of the Santa Catalina Mountains Index.


[1] “Luz de Tierra Incognita,” libro ii, 60,” Manje. November 10, 1697.

[2] “New Mexico and Arizona State Parks: A Complete Recreation Guide,” by Don Laine and Barbara Laine. Page 204; and “Arizona Place Names,” by Will C. Barnes, page 389.

[3] 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: http://universityofarizona.worldcat.org

[4] “Arizona Place Names,” by Will C. Barnes, page 389.

[5] “The Centennial Gazetteer of the United States,” By A. Von Steinwehr, 1874, page 825; “Memoirs of the Academy of Sciences, Volume 13,” by the national Academy of Sciences, 1886, page 463; and repeated “Catalogue of the meteorites in North America,” by Oliver Cummings Farrington, 1915, page 463.

[6] “Monday Memo,” Vol. 2, No. 8, Diocese of Tucson, May 10, 2004.

[7] The Arizona Weekly Citizen, Tucson, A.T., February 6, 1881.

[8] “A Mooted Question” by L.D. Chillson,  The Arizona Weekly Citizen, Tucson, A.T., September 18, 1881.

[9] The Arizona Weekly Citizen, Tucson, A.T., September 25, 1881.

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