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Lost Mines of Southern Arizona

I've been gold prospecting for 11 years, mainly in the Bradshaw Mountains in Yavapai County, Arizona, where I found over 8 grams of placer.

Open vertical mine shaft in San Xavier, Arizona. February 16, 2014

Open vertical mine shaft in San Xavier, Arizona. February 16, 2014

How I Started Prospecting

There are times in our lives when we know not the significance of an experience. Over the years I have looked back in wonder at places I thought were meaningful, beautiful, and awe-inspiring but I had little to no knowledge of what they were about. Later, in the last half of life, remembrances of these geographic spots become more meaningful as time allows an individual to reflect and to learn.

In 1973, I had just returned home from a tour of duty off the coast of Vietnam. Going to the University of Arizona was foremost in my thoughts, and at 24 years of age, I was still living at home.

No sooner did I get home than my dad wanted to get some firewood for the winter. He wanted to go down into what was known in Father E. Kino's time as the Pimeria Alta.

The Mesquite of Santa Cruz River

Ranchers near Arivaca, Arizona grazed their cattle in the generally fertile area not far from the Santa Cruz River. But we had some drought, and the grass was finding it difficult to grow.

Mesquites along the Santa Cruz were using too much of the water, so some of them had to go. It is a custom that under these conditions trucks with chains pull mesquites over to uproot them. The area is heavily bosqued. Folks were permitted to come down and cut the mesquite for free.

Never one to miss an opportunity, we got a chain saw and a bucksaw and headed to the area in a 1963 Chevy Carry-All with a long bed trailer. In about 80 miles we were in Arivaca, where in the early 1700s Spain's westernmost expansion of Christendom was being explored.

Is There Silver and Gold in Those Hills?

It was May, and it was hot. The din from the gas chain saw, frequent sharpening of the chain (mesquite is hard!), and breaks for water made for a time to be pensive. Sitting on a log and facing west I could see mountains. The Las Guijas Mountains rise to the northwest and the foothills of the San Luis Mountains on the south. The Santa Cruz River was very close to us on the east.

I marveled at the scenery. As far as the eye could see was wilderness. The mountains were rocky, the hills sparse with a tan brush, and the river was bone dry. It would perc up soon with the monsoon rains, but right now, life looked precarious.

I wondered how the Tohono O'odham, also known as the Pima, survived in the Sonora Desert long ago. What must the Spanish missionaries and their entourage have thought of this New World place? How could there not be gold and silver in those hills?

The Problem With Sopori and Its Lost Mine or Treasure

One of the difficulties I have encountered in trying to ferret out the truth of what is known about the lost mines of Arizona is the confusion in reporting. It seems as though many of the lost mines are not far from other lost mines, or at least not far based on legend.

As I research, I notice reports resembling other descriptions. I suspect that reports of reports get changed, either because of similarly disorganized tales, modifications due to oral tradition, or like descriptions, for instance, of mine shafts. Many shafts that I have seen in Arizona, particularly those that head straight down in the ground looks the same.

Let's face it, it's a hole in the ground, albeit, perhaps big! Due to the distances that had to be traveled, the early 16th and 17th century Spaniards documented stuff the Indians told them, never having seen a thing. It doesn't necessarily mean the Indians said anything that was false; how does a journalist accurately report what he has not scanned with his own eye?

And what's more, lots of 19th-century American prospectors, mining companies (often started by active or former military officers), and entrepreneurs used those reports as the basis for exploration.

Sopori and Abandoned Villages

Not far from our wood chopping (23 miles northeast of Arivaca) and about 12 miles south of Tubac, Arizona, was an 18th century Pima Indian village named Sopori.

The first reports of mining in the area were around 1740 and documented by Spanish miners. In 1792, Captain Juan Thomas Belderrain reported 150 Spanish families had lived on the Sopori ranch. As of 1750, many villages were abandoned because of the Apache attacks. The area included Sopori, Arivaca ranch, and mining settlements at Agua Caliente.

Present-day Sopori Ranch is over 10,000 sprawling acres in both Pima and Santa Cruz counties, Arizona.

Sopori Legends

Parts of the Sopori Ranch are highly mineralized, so it isn't argued that mining activity couldn't have gone on there. There is a mine shaft slightly south of Sopori Ranch, but this is claimed not to be the Sopori Mine by a number of treasure hunters. Others claim the mine is on the south slope of the Cerro Chiquita mountains northeast of Arivaca.

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Raising further curiosity are old-timers who reported about a lost mine on the property that was packed with church treasure in the 1820s when Franciscan priests fleeing Apache raids drove a carreta ("cart" in Spanish) to a mine shaft. The cache was hidden there. I could not find any evidence that the mine shaft on the Sopori property had been searched for riches.

Another tantalizing tale is that of a large vein of gold that had been worked during the Spanish heyday. The supervisors of the activity were said to be inept, and between their poor operation and the fact that work was disrupted by miners running for their lives from Apaches, and returning none too soon, the vein was somehow lost.

Juan and Fermin Morales

In the 19th century, two brothers panned the Sopori area for placer gold while also searching for treasure hidden in the outlying wilderness. Brothers Juan and Fermin Morales were referred to as “Guero”, meaning a white person, with blonde hair, or light-skinned. Fermin resided in Arivaca at the time of his death in 1900 and Juan passed away while visiting Mexico. According to locals, they had found the Lost Sopori Mine. The men died with wealth.

An 1864 report reveals that the Arizona Land and Mining Company was working a mine just north of Sopori Rancho thought to be the old San Xavier silver mine. See the photo beginning this article.

The Tumacacori Highlands is a series of connected mountain ranges in western Santa Cruz County, Arizona. The Highlands are northwest of Nogales and are bordered on the east by the Santa Cruz River Valley, that is traversed north-south by I-19.

The Tumacacori Highlands is a series of connected mountain ranges in western Santa Cruz County, Arizona. The Highlands are northwest of Nogales and are bordered on the east by the Santa Cruz River Valley, that is traversed north-south by I-19.

Lost Cerro Colorado Treasure

Speculative history of lost mines gleaned from legend, unsubstantiated Spanish documents, reports of stories in Spanish documents, regional stories, and new theories proposed by prospectors, amateur geologists, and even authors manage to keep tales of lost treasure alive. With the Cerro Colorado Lost Treasure still not found, here is a brief summary of what is thought to be known.

The area in the Cerro Colorado Mountains about 55 miles southeast of Tucson is renowned for tales of lost silver and gold treasure. From 1736-1767, some 4 tons of silver were taken from the area. The tales have it that Jesuit priests had Pima Indians working both gold and silver mines, though mostly silver. Modern-day Jesuits deny this claim.

These mines were supposedly close by in small mountain ranges. The original gold rush from 1734-1736 saw the lion's share of silver removed. After that, mining operations didn't prove too successful. One exception was the Heintzelman Mine, later known as the Cerro Colorado Mine.

Whether by Apache attacks, recalls by Spanish Kings, or Pima Indian uprisings, Jesuits are said to have stashed church treasures in mines that are abandoned. The church wealth purportedly came from the local silver mines. There are Spanish reports of silver ore being transported from Pimeria Alta to California for shipment to the Philippines.

Carreta Canyon and Pajarito Mountains (35° 53′ 39″ N, 106° 23′ 25″ W) are often mentioned, as the stories go, where the silver treasure is buried. Perhaps the most intriguing story is that of the Lost Cerro Colorado treasure. The location of the mine is also up to debate.

The Cerro Colorado Mine was a working mine and its general location is known. There are extant tailings, an old arrastra, and surviving building walls. Over 12,000 ounces of silver per ton was the best grade ore reported. In 1859 the average grade was 770 oz per ton. After that, 225 oz per ton was recovered. The ore was found above 350 feet.

The Poston Family

In 1855, Charles Poston named the Cerro Colorado Mine and the mining company he owned. It had formerly been known as the Heintzelman Mine, the richest mine in the area. Charles Poston and Heintzelman both left the mine and participated in the civil war. After buying the mine from Heintzelman, C. Poston gave the mine to his brother, John Poston, in 1861. The Postons are both well-known figures in Arizona history.

A common theme in Southwestern history is the leaving of military forces to fight in the east during the Civil War. As a result, Apaches and Mexican bandits were emboldened to attack settlers and rob.

Reports claimed Mexican employees stole from the mine and took bullion to Sonora, Mexico. At one point an employee was caught with some silver bullion, but not all. The employee apparently hid it along his journey to the Mexican border, but it has never been found. After his execution, other Mexican employees revolted and stole more treasure from the mine, and ran to Mexico.

The resentful employees told outlaws in Sonora about the mine and the stolen treasure trove. These bandits galloped up from Sonora and stole anything of value while destroying the mine. John Poston and two German miners were killed. The banditos did not find the lost treasure, either.

John Poston's tomb is at the Cerro Colorado Cemetery.

Fort Cerro and Cerro Colorado, Arizona in the United States. An 1864 drawing by John Ross Browne from his book Heintzelmen Mine and Works.

Fort Cerro and Cerro Colorado, Arizona in the United States. An 1864 drawing by John Ross Browne from his book Heintzelmen Mine and Works.

Back to Wood Cutting

It happened quickly. I heard a short reverberating metallic sound and then no engine. My dad turned to me with blood dripping from his short-cropped beard. In 1963, that type of beard was a sign of a nonconformist.

After grabbing his chin, he had a blood smear on his face. I ran about twenty feet to look at the damage.

The chain had hit a hard knot where a branch was emanating from a trunk. Scrub mesquite is hard anyway, but the knots are like stone. The metallic twang had left a 1\2" to 3\4 " cut under the right side of his chin.

With pressure from my shirt, I tried to stop the bleeding. Then I saw chin bone. I wanted him to sit on a log and let me tend to it, but he was recalcitrant and said it was nothing. Firmly, I said, "Sit down!" For some reason he obeyed?

Emergency Wound Care

In the glove compartment was a plug kit for a flat tire. My pocket knife was sharp—I tried to shave his neck near the wound with my right hand while holding the opening together with my left. Then, he held the wound and I got the kit rubber cement and sat with him with an index finger and thumb opening up and down like a crab.

Clear strands of glue were stretching up and down. The dry air and a balmy slight breeze helped it set up. It was getting thicker and stickier. Drying his neck with my shirt, I applied the cement and pressed a band-aid into it. You can't tie a band-aid to sweaty skin.

So there we sat, literally bumps on a log, facing east toward the Santa Cruz River, a place of great history. A shattered mesquite gave us a moment's peace. We drank water and were silent. The band-aid held and the blood was already clotting. We started working again, at his command, and finally got our 2 cords of wood.

We gulped more water and then I drove home.

In the 18th and 19th century, this rather arid land and barren area, by some opinions, probably saw a lot more action than any of us can imagine. I still want to head just west of that area and explore those mountains. It won't be for desert wood, it will be with visions of early Southwestern American treasure!

1909 photo of the Santa Catalina mines.

1909 photo of the Santa Catalina mines.

Helvetia Photo Details

Helvetia Camp, basin, and mines. Crest of Santa Rita Mountains in background. Looking east from the ridge of Tiptop Mountain, at an elevation of 4,300 feet.

From left starting at second peak in the upper left, through the center of the following mines: Heavy Weight, Copper World, Mohawk, Leader, Isle Royal, Old Dick, and Omega. Pima County, Arizona, 1909.


  • Dig Here! Lost Mines and Buried Treasure of the Southwest, by Thomas Penfield, 1962,1966, 2004, retrieved from Google Books, pp. 49-51
  • Lost Ledges of the West, by H. Glen Carson,1991, retrieved from The Rocker Box website
  • The United States Congressional Set, volume 2166, pp. 1-182, 1880 retrieved from Google Books, Mindat, and the Hudson Institute of Mineralogy, 1993-2017
  • The Handbook to Arizona: Its Resources, History, Towns, Mines, and ..., by Richard Josiah Hinton, Stanford University Library,1878, pp. 221-223
  • Tony Davis, October 29, 2004, Historic Sopori Ranch Sold for $22M, retrieved from, Tony Davis, October 29, 2004
  • Ron Quinn, retrieved from Entertainment Magazine, Searching for Arizona's Buried Treasure, May 17, 1988. Originally from Southern Arizona Trails, Vol. 3, No. 84, May 17, 1988, Page 19 & 22-23.
  • Cerro Colorado mine, retrieved from United States Congressional serial set, Volume, 1352
  • Forum, retrieved from, March 2007 through January 2008
  • Sherman, James E; Barbara H. Sherman, 8/15/1969, Ghost Towns of Arizona University of Oklahoma Press
  • Sylvester Mowry, Arizona and Sonora, 1864, Chapter III, Early Mines, and Mining, Arizona Library

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2017 John R Wilsdon


John R Wilsdon (author) from Superior, Arizona on March 27, 2019:


I have researched this and cannot find a mine with such history around San Manuel. That doesn't mean it never existed. Afterall, it is supposed to be lost. Hope you can have another try at it. Thanks.

Koopg on March 26, 2019:

Have you heard of a lost mine in the mountian range northeast of San Manual? My uncle was a big adventurous man, hunting,trapping and exploring the region. At one time we set off to see this mine but couldn't get there because of rain and we were hiking a wash to it. He had told us that the mine was run by a father and his two sons, then the army came to get his two sons to fight in the indian wars, they refused and then there was a shootout killing all three. This story has intrigued me for years. If you could send me an email on this i would appreciate it.

John R Wilsdon (author) from Superior, Arizona on June 26, 2017:

You are right. Repeated washings with clean water can be almost as effective as using soap or antibacterial preparations. But then, you didn't know my dad. He was a very tough-minded person who hated doctors. I dealt with a number of his issues.

I go to gold claims in the southwestern part of the Phoenix valley where there are many abandoned shafts. Usually they have high fences built around them with warning signs. Many have iron works in front of the openings that are bolted to rock. Others are periodically blown up and collapsed. It is a very dangerous thing to be poking around those places. Thanks for the comment, and glad you enjoyed it.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on June 26, 2017:

Wow! Your dad was lucky in that the rebound from that chain saw could have been much more deadly. That was quick thinking on your part as to bandaging. I am just wondering what the doctors thought of it when he had a chance to get some medical attention? I would have worried about infection.

There are many old mines of different types scattered throughout our country. Many are posted with warnings to stay out due to potential collapses, etc. Your account was an interesting history lesson.

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