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Treasures of the Santa Catalina Mountains

The first ‘recorded’ discovery of gold in the Cañon del Oro [1] was in 1843 by Spanish Colonel Antonio Pascual Narbona, who made his find as he commanded a military expedition against the Apache Indians in the area. [2] [3]

According to this version of history by historian Donald Page, on June 29, 1843, Narbona and his troops camped at a water hole by the north end of the lower canyon where they washed out some placer gold nuggets from the creek.

This often-repeated story has some fact. In 1843, a Commander Narbona did chase some Apaches around the Santa Catalina Mountains on that date. [4]

There was a Spanish army officer named Antonio Pascual Narbona. He was the acting commander, or Alférez, of the Tucson Presidio in 1794. [5] [6] [7] [8] But, after he served as governor of New Mexico, he died in 1830. [9] [10] This Narbona does fit the title and location, but he died thirteen years before the reported find.

Col. Narbona, however, did have a son also named Antonio Narbona who fought Apache Indians and lived during that time period. Senior Col. Narbona’s son is the likely person named in this legend. 

But, outside of Donald Page’s claim, there is no report of Narbona’s gold discovery. Noted historians James Officer [11] and Hubert Howe Bancroft [12] both mention Narbona’s expedition against the Apaches on that day. But, they leave out any reference to gold.

 According to historical accounts of the event, Junior Antonio Narbona, the military commander of the Santa Cruz territory, assembled a force of two hundred and forty one soldiers and Indian allies in Tucson to fight against the Apaches on that June 29th.

The troops set out from the Tucson Presidio that afternoon and rode east toward the San Pedro River, probably along the south end of Rincon Peak. Several times, threatening Apaches yelled out insults to the passing troops. When a small contingent was sent into the Catalinas to challenge them, the Indians vanished.

The Apaches attacked Narbona’s camp on July 3rd in a frontal assault, but fifteen Apaches were isolated and “wiped out.” Narbona headed back to Tucson with some victory the following day. [13]

There is no other account of anyone in the group finding gold nuggets on their way out of Tucson on the date that Page attributes to Narbona’s discovery. But, they were gone for four days before they returned.

It would have been impractical to find gold on June 29, the day they left. They would have departed from Tucson that afternoon, found gold nuggets at the Cañon del Oro on the northwest side of the mountains, and then, headed to the southern range of the mountains and then east towards the San Pedro before they camped by Rincon Peak, all within one day. That is nearly one hundred miles of travel on horseback which is highly improbable.



[1] Cañon del Oro was the common spelling used in newspapers and books at the time.

[2] Lost Jesuit Mine with the Iron Door, by Donald Page, Desert Magazine, October 1956, pages 12 (“there his troopers washed out a little gold.”).

[3] Lost Gold and Silver Mines of the Southwest, Eugene L. Conrotto, 1996, page 116 (“camped here and found placer nuggets”). Conrotto repeats a similar story told by Page. He probably got his sources from Page.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Narbona, Antonio (1773-1830, March 20), UAiR BID # 19876, University of Arizona.

[6] Military Awards of 1817, noted from March 7, 1808 in 1 1817 letter referencing “Antonio Narbona, acting commandant of the Tucson presidio.” http://www.library.arizona.edu/

[7] “When the first fighting of the Mexican independence movement began in the fall of 1810, the Tucson presidio was commanded by Captain Antonio Narbona,” from Hispanic Arizona, 1536-1856, by James E. Officer, 1989. Page 89. Antonio Narbona Sr. was born in Mobile, Alabama in 1773 when the city was part of Spanish Louisiana. He died in Arizpe in 1830. Page 362.

[8] Spanish Colonial Tucson, Peacetime Presidio 1792-1821. University of Arizona. Page 107.

[9] Narbona, Antonio, UAiR BID # 19876, University of Arizona. Born 1773 in Mobile Louisiana and died March 20, 1830 in Arizpe, Sonora. Narbona was the New Mexico governor from 1825 to 1827.

[10] Encyclopedia of Frontier Biography: G-O, by Dan L. Thrapp. Pages 1041-1042. Also, above 198.

[11] Hispanic Arizona, 1536-1856, by James E. Officer. Pages 169-170. Officer calls him Francisco Narbona on one page and then Antonio Narbona on the next page. Other sources refer to him as Antonio Narbona.

[12] Ibid and Arizona and New Mexico, 1888, by Hubert Howe Bancroft, page 405.

[13] Ibid.


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