There are a lot of gold diggers in Arizona.
More specifically, Arizona is host to a mine’s worth of gold legends.
These legends are so common in the Southwest because of Spanish and Anglo influences, according to Bill Hartmann, a planetary scientist who has written books on the Coronado era in Arizona.
“These Americans come in and hear these stories but don’t understand Spanish culture,” he said. “They picked up story fragments and loved to spin yarns.”
According to Jim Turner, a Tucson historian, people who come to Arizona “seem to think none of us ever got the idea to go look for gold.”
“This is tremendous buried treasure territory,” said Jim “Big Jim” Griffith, a Tucson folklorist. “This was rich gold and silver mining country.”
In fact, searches for buried treasure began over 500 years ago, during the Spanish colonial period.
“In the 1530s, the Spanish started picking up rumors that there was a trading center to the north,” said Hartmann.
Cabeza de Vaca, a Spanish conquistador who was shipwrecked in Galveston, “was wandering around Texas and somewhere in there he was given a copper bell which they were told came from the north.”
Since the bell was evidence of metallurgy, they “put together that there was another empire that probably had gold and would be another Aztec or Inca empire.”
Unbeknownst to the Spaniards, the copper bell actually came from Michoacan, an empire they already knew about.
“There were lots of clues,” said Hartmann, referring to how Sonoran natives would talk about Cibola, seven towns to the north. This piqued the Spaniards’ interest even more.
About 20 years later, Coronado began his march, passing through the Valle de Sonora and came to a north-flowing stream, the description of which fits the San Pedro River, according to Hartmann.
“They were south of Tombstone but could have had hunting parties in the area,” said Hartmann. After about two days, they crossed into New Mexico “about where the I-10 is now.”
The Spanish made their way through New Mexico to the fabled Cibola, which turned out to be giant Zuni pueblos.
“They kicked the Indians out of the pueblos, stole their clothes, abused the women, tortured the men,” said Turner.
The Spaniards were asking about Cibola when a Plains Indian, called “El Turco” by the Spanish, told them about a place called Gran Quivira, where “they eat off of golden plates and silver apples grow on trees,” according to Turner.
Hartmann said the Spaniards had been attacking cities in Albuquerque and Pecos, and the nervous Indians gave them guides to take them to Quivira.
Hungry for treasure, Coronado’s expedition followed their guides up to Kansas. They returned to Mexico with no gold to show for their trek.
Not all gold legends involve long journeys. One of the most famous is the Mine with the Iron Door.
“When I came here in 1960 I was hearing about the Mine with the Iron Door,” said Hartmann.
“In the 1700s, it was said that there was a Jesuit mission near Oro Valley,” said Turner. “There’s some gold there. Legend has it that these Jesuits had mines in the Catalinas and a big cave where they stored it.”
He noted that there was no such Jesuit mission; the furthest north the Jesuits went into Arizona was the San Xavier del Bac Mission, though there is evidence of an outpost near Marana.
“A sudden order came to the Spanish military and all captains and commandants were told to open this order at midnight and get rid of all the Jesuits. Before they were kicked out, the Jesuits sealed up the cave with an iron door. If you look at the Catalinas when the sun rises, the light will hit the door to the cave and make it gleam.”
However, there are several issues with this legend, according to Turner.
“Where did they get the iron to build the door?” Turner asked. “They got the order at midnight and the priests were rounded up the next day. If you face the Catalinas from here at sunrise, the sun is in your face, how would you see the door?”
Additionally, the same legend exists in New Mexico and northern Mexico.
“The Southwest is full of stories of lost gold mines,” said Hartmann. “And there’s always some reason why–either the map was lost, the miner didn’t draw a map, or didn’t tell anyone where it was.”
Gabby Ferreira is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Click here for the photo.