San Jose de Tumacacori

San Jose de Tumacacori / Library of Congress

Arizona of centuries ago had all the necessary ingredients for finding, accumulating, hiding, and losing treasures. Deserts. Mountains. Vast, unclaimed, unmapped, wild territory. Limitless mineral riches. Indigenous tribes confronting imperial Spaniard colonizers on the run from the American Army. Lawless stagecoach thieves and lawmen determined to restore order.

Legend has it that fortunes untold have been made—and quite literally lost—in what is now Arizona, U.S. Untold millions lie, the legends have it, just waiting to be discovered. An industry of treasure hunting and treasure hunters are determined to claim their share of the bounty. Here are some of the legends of the fortunes that await the bold.

Tumacacori Mission

Spaniards who came to the Americas established missions throughout what is now Mexico and Arizona, including the Tumacacori Mission in the 18th century. Nearby, the Spaniards also developed the Opati Mine. From that point, things get a bit murky. Legend has it that the Spaniards sealed off that mine after seeing Indians who were working the mine attempt to sacrifice a woman inside. Legend goes on to say that a treasure may have been sealed up inside.

Fast forward to 1891, when a Spanish priest is said to have arrived in the Tucson, Arizona area, where he met with Judge William H. Barnes. That priest showed Barnes a treasure map that had been found in a church vault in Spain. That map led the priest to Tumacacori Mission. The priest and some loyal men followed the map to a hidden chamber holding metal cases filled with gold bullion. So far, so easy! If only it were always so.

The priest apparently didn’t want or need all the treasure, just enough to feed the poor back in Spain. He told the men with him that, if they helped him take a portion treasure to the Southern Pacific Railroad depot in Tucson,  then they could keep the rest for themselves. They agreed.

Long story short, the priest went off to Spain and fed the poor; his treasure-hunting helpers returned to retrieve their portion of the bounty… but couldn’t find it. Though only days had passed since they’d been there, they couldn’t retrace the steps.

Judge Barnes, who still had the priest’s map, also tried to find the remaining treasure without any luck. Or so the story goes. Of course, that means it’s still sitting there… somewhere.

Arizona of centuries ago had all the best ingredients for treasuring hunting. Deserts. Mountains. Vast, unclaimed, unmapped, wild territory. Limitless mineral riches, including gold and silver. Native indigenous tribes confronting imperial Spaniard colonizers on the run from the American Army. Lawless stagecoch thieves and lawmen determined to restore order.

Sierra Estrella: Buried gold

Spaniard Don Joaquin conducted mining exploration in the Sierra Estrella Mountain Range south of Phoenix, Arizona in the mid-1800s. His quest was to find gold. He found some. In those days, mining exploration often went hand in hand with slavery. Indeed, Joaquin is said to have enslaved Indians to dig the gold out of a mine located on Zig Zag Trail. Don’t ask too many questions about the Zig Zag Trial mine; There aren’t too many answers available.

Legend has it that an Indian scout warned Don Joaquin that the American Army was headed their way. Seeking to avoid confrontation with the Army, Joaquin packed up the mine and set out to return to Mexico. Packing up meant loading 3,000 pounds of gold onto 15 mules, then heading up Zig Zag Trail.

Wupatki National MonumentWupatki National Monument
Wupatki National Monument / Anissa Wood / Flickr

Joaquin had his men load that gold into a cave on the trail heading toward Montezuma’s Head. Joaquin had the main body of his men wait for him some distance away, then killed the Indian scout and left the body with the treasure. Oh, and he drew a map—of course, he drew a map. Returning to the main body of his men, Joaquin faced a mutiny. Joaquin was killed, and his map was stolen. The mutineers didn’t immediately look for, find, and retrieve the gold because they were still fleeing the American Army. Map in hand, they kept heading south to Mexico.

Thirty-five years later, Phoenix was visited by an old man with a map—Don Joaquin’s map, legend has it. He hunted fruitlessly, until chased off by hostile Indians, never to return.

Somewhere in a cave in the Estrella Mountain Range sits 3,000 pounds of gold under a pile of bones. Forty-eight thousand ounces at January 2020 gold prices of $1,550USD per ounce. You do the math. Spoiler alert! It’s $74,400,000.

Canyon Station robbery

In 1873, a stagecoach was robbed near Canyon Station, Arizona. Two men made off with a strongbox of gold coins worth $72,000 that were being transported from Prescott to Fort Mohave. Fleeing pursuit with a heavy strongbox of gold coins proved impossible. The robbers apparently stashed that strongbox in the foothills of the Cerbat Mountains. (We really do wish that we could be more precise.) Undoubtedly, the robbers fully intended to return to reclaim their loot. That didn’t happen.

One of the robbers was captured by authorities and killed. The second robber—Macallum or McAllen— died while an inmate at Yuma Territorial Prison in Yuma, Arizona. Despite being interrogated in prison, he never gave up the location of the coins.

Canyon Station is largely lost to history. But if you can find it, you’ve got a head start on finding $72,000 (in 1873 USD) in gold coins. Unless, that is, you believe this downer of a tidbit.

Grand Canyon Railway Station
Grand Canyon Railway Station
Grand Canyon Railway Station / Library of Congress

Some reports say that as Macallum or McAllen lay dying in prison, he told his tale to another prisoner, including the location of the coins. Upon his release, that prisoner reportedly made a beeline to Canyon Station and that gold.

Theft from Wells Fargo

“Bronco Bill” Waters was a cowboy and railroader turned stagecoach robber. As a member of Black Jack Ketchum’s gang, and as leader of his own band, Waters was active in New Mexico and Arizona. So active that stagecoach operator Wells Fargo—who had been victimized more than once by Waters—wanted him eliminated. Wells Fargo sent a posse of lawmen, Jeff Milton and George Scarborough, to take down their nemesis.

In a gunfight outside Solomonville, Arizona, Bronco Bill was wounded. The good news? He was convicted of train robbery at trial, and sentenced to life in prison. The bad news—for Wells Fargo, anyway? The loot Bronco Bill stole from those Wells Fargo stagecoaches was never recovered. It’s been said that it may be buried somewhere outside of Solomonville, Arizona.

What are you doing still sitting there? There are treasures just waiting to be stumbled upon and tripped over in Arizona. Just watch out for all the other treasure hunters who’ve been chasing the same legends for decades.

A deeper dive — Related reading from the 101:

Arizona is not the only place with treasures to be found. 

Some treasure hunters spend thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours fruitlessly… others stumble upon riches.