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White Strangers and Papago Gold, the origin of the Tucson Artifacts?

Bearded Semitic merchant wearing keffiyah, from Hodges Ruin, Tucson, dated to Cañada del Oro period ca. 500-700. Rafael Serrano, after figurine published in Kelly (1978).


A supposed colony of peaceful, white-skinned Old World miners among the Papago Indians is traced to a small place of the same name in the Santa Cruz valley.

Red Rock Legend

The legend of the lost treasure of Red Rock is one of the most famous in the annals of Arizona. A supposed colony of peaceful, white-skinned Old World miners among the Papago Indians is traced to a small place of the same name in the Santa Cruz valley.

Red Rock (population 332 in 2000, T10S R10E) is located in Pinal County north of Tucson, not far from other mining locales such as Sasco, now a ghost town but once a large smelter for the Silver Bell Mine, and Avra (Spanish for “gold” though said by some authorities to mean “open”).

The mysterious CIA aeronautic boneyard of Pinal Airpark lies not five miles south. The landmark Picacho Peak rises on the horizon about ten miles north. To the west stretches the large Ironwoods National Monument and to the east are situated the Santa Catalina and Tortolita Mountains and San Pedro river valley.

This same region boasts the Silver King Mine, the richest silver mine in Arizona, which produced an estimated $42 million worth of silver ore between 1875 and 1900, the fabled Lost Dutchman Mine in the Superstition Mountains, Lost Mine with the Iron Door, or Lost Escalante, Lost Mission, Lost City and Cañada del Oro (“gold gulch”, Oro Valley), not to mention the Romero Ruin and Samaniego Ranch.

A more central location for exploiting the surrounding gold, silver and other precious metals cannot be imagined. Mining history expert Flint Carter draws attention to ten-foot-tall ancient monoliths with line and dot markings near the entrance to Oracle Ridge mines, which have been identified as being in an Ionic script 2,800 years old, contemporary with the Phoenicians and Sea Peoples.

Is it sheer coincidence that there is a town named Toltec nearby, or that the Casa Grande Ruins National Monument (Siwañ Waʼa Ki, “House of the Governor”) stands as a colossal, lonely reminder of age-old trade and commercial ties? See Robert E. Zucker, with William “Flint” Carter, Treasures of the Santa Catalina Mountains (Tucson: BZB, 2014).

The ranchería mentioned in the Papago account may, in fact, be the Romero Ruin, a Hohokam and Spanish Colonial site now part of Catalina State Park. Leland Lovelace, Lost Mines and Hidden Treasure (San Antonio: Naylor, 1956, pp. 109-111. The legend is also told in Thomas Penfield, Dig Here! (Tucson: Treasure Chest), 76-77.

“The route from Tucson passes through a country abounding in exceedingly rich gold mines,” wrote Major P. St. George Cooke, commanding the United States Second Dragoons, in his report to Colonel J. J. Abert, of the United States Topographical Engineers, December 6, 1847.

Major Cooke and his company of dragoons were blazing a trail across the Arizona wilderness to California. It is not clear how he got his information about the “exceedingly rich gold mines,” though he certainly was correct. He did not, however, know the ancient tradition of the Papago tribes through whose territory, south and west of Tucson, he traveled in safety: the tradition about the strangers with the milk-white skin, who came among them mysteriously, and were cruelly slain by the enemies of the Papagoes before the tribesmen had learned the strangers’ history.

Papago without reason for hoarding gold

The prehistoric Papagoes who claimed the region from northern Sonora to the Gila River, lived in a country rich in gold and silver. Finding the precious metal in such profusion in its native form, they used it freely for ornaments and utensils, regarding it wholly for beauty or for common use, since they had no conception of money.

They gave it away freely, never knowing any reason for hoarding it, on the principle that, no matter into whose hand it came, it would eventually serve the purposes of Montezuma. This was their attitude until they learned that gold was the cause of all their trouble with the white men, when the white men came to settle among them.

Foreigners gold-grabbing demigods

In a time so long ago that the Papagoes cannot date it, some gentle-mannered, peaceful white foreigners came among them, lived with them for a little while, and did so many kind things to earn their affection and respect that the Papagoes looked upon them as demi-gods.These strange men wandered about Papaguería collecting all the gold and silver they could find, and in various honorable ways, acquiring it from the natives. Thus they secured a great mass of it.

The foreigners made their headquarters in a ranchería thirty-three miles northwest of the more recent city of Tucson, near the present little village of Redrock, in Pinal County. Somewhere along the road out of Redrock to Silverbell, in a southwesterly direction, they concealed the masses of gold and silver that fell into their hands. In a few years they had a fabulous amount collected and stored. But bear in mind, at this time there was no Redrock, no Silverbell.

What the strangers intended to do with all this treasure is not accounted for in the Papago tradition, thought they tell its destiny. They say that one day a tribe of the Papagoes’ enemies from the north—perhaps the forerunners of the Apaches—fell upon the ranchería and killed everyone there. Not a Papago nor a white stranger was spared.

Unearthed objects making controversy

When the tribesmen from farther south visited the ranchería soon thereafter, they found it in an unwonted silence, leveled with the ground, with not a living thing on two legs or four. They knew at once what had happened.
About twenty-five or thirty years ago, some spears, swords and other objects, marked with archaic Latin inscriptions, were unearthed in this region, and gave rise to considerable speculation and controversy among archaeologists.

By some it was claimed the objects were faked; others believed in their authenticity. If authentic, then one thing is certain; they had at one time been the possessions of inhabitants of Europe, persons above the common class, who had been educated in the language then current for writing. This would apply to almost any country of Europe were the people were literate in the Middle Ages.

Did these objects once belong to the men of the milk-white skin who so long ago came among the Papagoes? And were they the Norsemen of the upper class, educated, literate, skilled navigators and geographers? No one can now say.

The objects described above were found at what was perhaps the campsite of the long-gone foreigners; their treasure cache was no doubt a little distance away. But neither Indian nor white man has ever discovered the huge treasure buried by the strange men from overseas in the prehistoric days. Where they buried it, there it remains.

Donald N. Yates’s new book Merchant Adventurer Kings of Rhoda: The Lost World of the Tucson Artifacts is expected out by the end of the year.


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