The Lost Gold of the Tumacacori

Judge Barnes and the Mysterious Spanish Priest

By Gregory McNamee


From the time Europeans first arrived in what is now Arizona, the region's lore has been full of tales of lost gold mines and forgotten treasures, of "Apache gold and Yaqui silver," in folklorist J. Frank Dobie's words. Occasionally, a find will lend credence to such stories, such as the suit of Spanish conquistador armor that now rests in the main exhibit hall at the Arizona Historical Society in Tucson. But more often than not, the stories are the real treasure to be found and cherished as gems of local imagination.

In 1891, the Phoenix Republican contributed to the lode of legend by reporting a mysterious encounter in Tucson. It seems that Judge William H. Barnes, chiefly known for his ability to make endless speeches on civic themes, had received a late-night visit from a gaunt man in vestments who had a curious tale to tell. The man, who said he was a priest from Spain, produced a map that he claimed to have found in the vault of a church in his homeland. Etched with strange-sounding words that were quite familiar to the good judge -- Tumacacori, San Xavier del Bac, Nogales -- the map had led the supposed priest to the terra incognita of the Arizona Territory, where it promised to reveal the trail to a vast treasure.


  The priest asked Judge Barnes to recommend the services of a few good churchgoing men to help him in his quest. When he had assembled them, the priest led the company off to Tumacacori Mission (about 45 miles south of Tucson on I-19), where one of the men produced a shovel and dug a hole at a certain distance from the ancient church's altar. The priest descended into a small hidden chamber, returning with several metal cases full of gold bullion. That was all he needed to feed the poor of his parish, he said, and he promised that if the men would help him bring his treasure to the Southern Pacific Railroad depot in Tucson, they could keep the rest of the loot for themselves.

  The priest returned to Spain, bullion in tow, having left a small donation with his fellow priests at Saint Augustine Cathedral in downtown Tucson. A few days later, his eager assistants made their way back to Tumacacori, only to find that "either the landmarks had changed or they did not follow the directions of the chart closely." Judge Barnes, who now had the map, went there himself with no success. One of his friends later claimed to have found an old mine shaft by following its directions, but the veins seemed to have been played out years and years before.

The map, of course, has long since disappeared. And no good resident of Tucson has ever admitted to having taken part in the effort to uncover the treasure it promised to produce. Corroborating evidence would, naturally enough, ruin what otherwise is a fine old story, which, like all lost-treasure stories, offers the hope of rediscovery.

The Republican reporter, by the way, assured his readers that, through his source, he knew exactly where the mine was -- but he wasn't telling.


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