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Archaeology

Archaeology & Heritage Awareness Month

More folklore than fact has been attached to a mine site in the Estrellas that has been called a "lost Spanish mine." Photo by Mason Callejas

Embedded in Arizona is a history rife with facts, folklore and fantasy.

“The structure is one of the more substantial mining structures that I’ve seen. Some people put some hard work into this and the fact that it’s still standing is a testament to their will and their determination to eke out a living based on mining operations.” — archaeologist Aaron Wright

The Wild West was alive long before statehood, and that allure of lawlessness, fame and fortune birthed romantic tall-tales that have survived the test of time.

“One of the things that folklore does is it helps us get a good feeling of our heritage, a good feeling of the legacy that we enjoy,” said Maricopa Historical Society Vice President Denny Hoeh. “And what makes us a person sometimes is some of that background.”

Maricopa is no stranger to lore. An Internet search for historic sites has led many down a dirt path and up a rigorous hike into the Sierra Estrella to test the legend of a “lost Spanish mine.” The area is about an hour’s 4-wheel drive from the city along rough, saguaro-filled, desert trails.

The site contains a mine and well with by a one-room stone house amateur history sleuths claim is one of the oldest, non-religious, colonial structures in the state.

The legend seems to have been first documented by an author who wrote about it in the 1930s.

Excerpts from John D. Mitchell’s “Lost Mines and Buried Treasures Along the Old Frontier” and short stories by other local authors of Mitchell’s time have been cited in historical theories people have about the abandoned site.

Mitchell’s version refers to it as “Don Joaquin and his Lost Mine,” attributing the site to a so-called Don Joaquin Campoy, a Spaniard who allegedly built it with help from Pima and Maricopa Native American tribes in the mid-19th century.

The fable claims Campoy extracted gold from his mine and buried the treasure in a nearby cave.

Mitchell’s book is prefaced by the author’s research methods, claiming “this is not a book of fiction,” but a work of research gleaned from Native American oral history, Spanish and church records and the author’s own credibility documenting stories in the Southwest.

Other questionable theories surrounding the stone structure have alleged its construction occurred even earlier by the Spanish in the 1700s. However, no mining or other records outside modern mid-century writings by Mitchell and others exist.

An Arizona archaeologist recently agreed to travel to the site with InMaricopa and examine the claims.

On the way, desert trails lead adventurers to the base of the Sierra Estrella on Bureau of Land Management property.

The hike is rigorous, but access to the site above is possible so long as explorers follow cairn stone piles and trail markers carved into boulders.

The house emerges from the side of the mountain like a diamondback, with it’s dry-laid stones camouflaged like fossilized scales against its surroundings.

The house with three stone walls and one of mountain siding is sheltered above by saguaro skeletons, wood boards and one iron pipe. Inside, a jar seals notes written by visitors.

One author promotes responsible adventuring in the area to preserve the site he pens as “the oldest structure in Arizona.”

Analysis of the site by archaeologist Aaron Wright of Tucson-based Archaeology Southwest concluded the claim was about “300 years off” from being historically accurate.

Wright examined the home, well, mine and artifacts scattered throughout the area. Altogether, Wright said the home site was constructed around the same time as the mine and well, but its builders used technology and materials not available to those in the 1800s or earlier.

“We have a lot of evidence that it’s early 20th century,” Wright said, sitting at the base of the stone house.

That places the house’s construction around or just decades before Mitchell’s first published account of it, contributing to the mystery shrouding the identity of the site’s builders.

Wright chalks the lost mine stories up to folklore – a common product of the ‘culture of the West.’ However, he said, the site is still an impressive example of statehood-era prospecting and mining.

“The structure is one of the more substantial mining structures that I’ve seen. Some people put some hard work into this and the fact that it’s still standing is a testament to their will and their determination to eke out a living based on mining operations,” Wright said, adding there is not much evidence to support the mine ever producing much, if any, gold.

Hoeh said folklore is usually peppered with bits of truth, and these stories are important to people because it provides them a sense of connection to those who may have lived and worked before them.

“Things like the old Spanish Mine and the house that is up there that’s built of rocks, it becomes a symbol that you can hold and touch that may be able to help people and give people a better feel for the legacy and heritage that we have in this area,” Hoeh said.

No matter where the legends of the mine originated, or how much of it is rooted in truth, Wright said the site and the area surrounding it is an important part of local history.

“Where we’re at has a lot of history to it, and building upon that history from the O’odham and Pee-Posh people, you do have Arizona history on a small scale here in the Sierra Estrella,” Wright said.


This story appears in the March issue of InMaricopa.

Despite being located on private property, the petroglyphs have seen a lot of outside interference. Photo by Michelle Chance

By Michelle Chance

An estimated 200 Hohokam petroglyphs are etched into a pile of boulders that lay nestled at the base of a mountain range just outside the city of Maricopa.

Orange and sand-colored animal figures sprawl in suspended animation across the giant black boulders. Archaeologists say this ancient art was created by Native Americans between 800 and 1,300 years ago.

It is one of many rock-art sites that straddle the edge of nearby communities, many of them safely concealed somewhere in the Sonoran Desert.

However, this particular location seems to be hidden in plain sight. In fact, the petroglyphs are located right off of a rural road and are well known to local residents who drive by it every day.

More about Archaeology & Heritage Awareness Month

Accessibility to these ancient symbols has been a delight to nearby residents who appreciate the cultural history – and the mystery – of the glyphs. However, it has made the theft and destruction of the rock art easier, too.

Gina D’Abella moved near the area almost 30 years ago and enjoyed hiking the mountains that house the petroglyphs.

“As I would go there throughout the years, I could tell people were trying to chip away or steal the petroglyphs that were there,” she recalled.

D’Abella said she never witnessed anyone harming the site in person, but archaeological records indicate there is considerable evidence of theft and damage to the petroglyphs.

An archaeological clearance survey from 1998 estimated less than one-fourth of the original petroglyphs remain.

In addition to signs of petroglyphs being etched and chipped away, the report noted evidence in the soil of heavy equipment being used to remove whole boulders from the site.

David Boloyan is the archaeologist who authored the report nearly 20 years ago. He said if left unprotected, the entire site will eventually be destroyed.

Photo by Michelle Chance
Photo by Michelle Chance

“Some of them stick in your mind more than others, and this is one of them,” Boloyan said of the petroglyph site.

Although not noted in official records, Boloyan said after his report was submitted, he found what could be indications of an ancient ceremonial complex surrounding the area of the petroglyph site. He said preservation efforts should be made for more than just the petroglyphs, if indeed a larger archaeological complex once existed there.

“I think that’s an incredibly important geographical point in their mythology and just regular culture,” Boloyan said regarding the Hohokam people and those who are believed to be their decedents.

Elaine Peters, director of the Ak-Chin Him-Dak EcoMuseum, said the community has been involved in trying to preserve the petroglyph site since the state sold the parcel it sits on as private property more than 20 years ago.

The petroglyph property owners also own the archeological site.

Even though the local tribe is not responsible for protecting the site, Peters said Ak-Chin is still interested in preserving it, as most local sites have an ancestral connection to the O’odham people.

“People would take their kids to the site because the petroglyphs do tell a story,” Peters said. “Whether it is hunting, spirituality or what have you, they do tell a story.”

Aaron Wright, preservation archaeologist with Tucson-based nonprofit Archaeology Southwest, said surrounding geography suggests the petroglyphs could have served as shrines along an ancient Hohokam migratory trail.

Photo by Michelle Chance
Photo by Michelle Chance

“These petroglyph sites along trails quite possibly are related to how the trails were used, how people used the landscape and the types of ritual activities they undertook on long journeys,” Wright said.

The excursion toward preserving this ancient site is still a rocky one.

Boloyan’s 1998 report recommended the state require the property owners to construct a fence around the entire property, including the petroglyph site.

Peters said Ak-Chin supported the recommendation.

“The reason why we have no control is because it is on private property and it is off the reservation,” Peters said.

Although a fence was eventually built around the property, one was never constructed around the site itself, leaving the petroglyphs vulnerable to further vandalism nearly two decades later.

“The reason why the fence was asked to be put in was because it was going out of the state’s hands and into private ownership, and the fence would help to protect it,” Peters said. “You kind of become a steward of the site if you are purchasing an area where there is an archaeological site.”

The property has since been sold several times. One of the original property owners said the state never required her and her late husband to build a fence because it was a recommendation, not a requirement.

Peters said the tribe would be willing to collaborate with current property owners on preservation efforts of the petroglyph site as long as it followed the original recommendations of fencing the area.

The mortgage on the property is owned by Alerus Financial of Scottsdale.


This story appears in the March issue of InMaricopa.

Photo by Michelle Chance
Photo by Michelle Chance

Around the time the United States began its fight for independence from Great Britain in eastern North America, Spanish explorers on the other side of the continent were making their territorial marks.

What is considered by some to be one of the most influential of those exploratory missions passed through what is now Maricopa’s backyard. The Bureau of Land Management is taking action to preserve the historic route, the Juan Bautista de Anza Trail.

Cheryl Blanchard, a BLM archeologist, is spearheading the Anza Trail preservation project. She said the trail can be clearly found deep in the monument.

“Right now, we have a general idea of where it is,” Blanchard said. “Except in the (Sonoran National Monument); there is some stuff marked there.”

It is, however, difficult to reach.

“At this point you can hike in there or take horse,” Blanchard said.

BLM wants to educate people about the remarkable story behind the Anza Trail.

In 1775, the Criollo son of a landed family from Basque, Juan Bautista de Anza, was granted an exploratory commission to settle what was then known as “Alta California,” northern California today.

At the time, Russian, British and Spanish explorers were vying for control of the Northwest and its vast resources. Anza was tasked by the Spanish viceroyalty in New Spain to travel to Alta California and establish a settlement. His party made its way northwest through Arizona and into California, where they eventually founded a settlement on the southern point of a large tidal inlet they called San Francisco.

Though Anza officially embarked on the journey from the presidio at Tubac in southern Arizona, he built up his expedition much farther south with settlers from as far away as Culiacán Rosales and other towns in the modern Mexican states of Sinaloa and Sonora.

The 200 colonists led by Anza and several native guides represented 30 families, most from Culiacán, who comprised a diverse demographic of Criollo (pure blood Spanish born in the New World), mestizo (indigenous-Spanish mix) and African slaves.

The expedition was a full-service mobile town with blacksmiths, weavers, ranchers and livers; anything and everything one might need to seed a community from scratch.

After learning a hard lesson from a failed expedition several years earlier in which they failed to secure sufficient water sources, Anza led his party north following river systems wherever possible. Under the guidance of their native navigators, for a time the group followed what are now known as the Santa Cruz and Gila rivers north and west across the future Phoenix valley and into the Sonoran Desert.

The party then crossed into California via Yuma, made its way to the coast and headed north via modern-day San Diego and Los Angeles. They eventually settled in the Bay Area.

The 1,200-mile trail, not inclusive of the 600-mile Mexican segment, is at times wide and indiscernible. However, hidden in not-so-accessible places in the Sonoran Desert National Monument just west of Maricopa, there is faded but recognizable evidence of the trail that will hopefully remain preserved.

The Juan Bautista de Anza Trail is one of 19 national trails in the United States and continued to be used by future explorers and frontiersman for much of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, including the Mormon Battalion and Butterfield Stage Line.

 

Sources: NPS.gov/Juba and Anza.UOregon.edu


This story appears in the March issue of InMaricopa.