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Spanish mine

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.