Posted by: Brad Nixon | November 19, 2019

Old, Original Tucson: Presidio Park Plaza

I’ve recently described some highlights from this summer’s visit to Tucson, Arizona, including the Carnegie library building, the Santa Fe train station, historic architecture on the University of Arizona campus and Saguaro National Park (follow links to those posts).

Saguaro NP M Vincent 5647 680

At least one more portion of Tucson is worth at least an hour or two: the oldest section of the city, established by the Spanish.

In 1777, the Spanish army began constructing a fortification enclosing 11 acres that are now part of the city’s downtown. The Presidio San Augustin de Tucson was completed in the 1780s, enclosed by adobe brick walls ten feet high, with two towers, each 20 feet tall.

Few remnants of the original wall exist, although the perimeter of the Presidio is marked in a number of public areas by lines inscribed in various pavements. A portion of the wall is being reconstructed, but was not ready for viewing when I visited.

There’s a museum, housed in some preserved structures from that era. We started our walking tour early, to beat the midsummer heat, and were there before it opened. I can give you a glimpse into a recreation of the courtyard that would have housed stables and work areas.

Tucson Presidio Brad Nixon 5543 680

It’s worth noting that the Presidio was a base of operations, as well as both a defense against and a show of force to intimidate the native inhabitants of the area, who’d occupied the Santa Cruz River valley for perhaps 12,000 years. Some “American history” is Eurocentric, and overlooks some harsh realities.

Pima County Courthouse

Next stop on our walking tour was the 1929 Spanish Colonial Revival county courthouse.

Pima Courthouse Brad Nixon 5558 680

As you can see, renovation to the building prevented us from getting a good view, seeing the interior, or even the attractive courtyard on the opposite side, which is the front of the courthouse.

Still, we could admire the sculptural portal and the blue-tiled dome, glowing in the desert sun.

Pima Courthouse Brad Nixon 5544 680

The courthouse sits astride the northern perimeter of the original Presidio wall, at least one portion of which is built into the structure. Once reconstruction is complete, visitors should again be able to walk through the courtyard and central tower of the courthouse.

Plaza de las Armas/El Presidio Park

A wide, paved area west of the courthouse was originally the largest open space within the Presidio, used for military drills and formations. Later, it became the site for public gatherings and fiestas. Now, as you can see, it’s a rather formalized public space, which sits atop a large parking garage that serves the courthouse and nearby government buildings.

El Presidio Park Brad Nixon 5547 680

The sculptural fountain is by Charles Clement, 1970. Whether or not it has water at any time, it did not during my visit.

The plaza is a nexus for a number of surrounding buildings, including Tucson City Hall Tower, built in 1967 on the plaza’s western edge. Not the worst of ’60s civic architecture.

Tucson city hall Brad Nixon 5556 680

No public space is complete without statues, and Presidio Park has its share.

Soldado de Cuera (Leather-Jacket Soldier)

(Click on either photo to enlarge.)

The statue represents one of the elite mounted Spanish frontier soldiers of the late 1700s. Their multilayer leather vests (cuera) could stop an arrow. According to Wikipedia, their armament included a musket, pair of pistols, a bow and arrows, a short sword, 10-foot lance, and a bull-hide shield. They had the reputation of being fiercely accomplished horsemen.

Mormon Battalion Monument

El Presidio Mormon Brad Nixon 5551 680

This monument commemorates a unique passage of American history. In 1846, Church of Latter Day Saints president, Brigham Young, had yet to begin the congregation’s migration to present-day Utah. Much of the congregation lived near the edge of the frontier, in Illinois, Iowa, and Missouri, where they experienced considerable prejudice from other settlers. A delegation from Young to the U.S. government in Washington arrived just days after the U.S. had declared war on Mexico, the Mexican-American War.

In exchange for federal assistance and land concessions to the west, the church agreed to provide a contingent of several hundred volunteer soldiers to fight for the U.S. in the war. A volunteer unit of more than 300 Mormon soldiers (and four women, engaged as laundresses), led by U. S. Army officers, marched west from Council Bluffs, Iowa, headed for San Diego, California. They marched across demanding territory, reaching Tucson on December 16, 1846. Their arrival scattered a smaller Mexican force, resulting in the first American occupation of Tucson.

El Presidio Mormon Brad Nixon 5550 680

Mexico reclaimed the city soon after the battalion’s departure, although Tucson became a permanent part of the U. S. in the 1854 Gadsden Purchase.

The Mormon Battalion completed its arduous 1,900-mile (3,057 km) march to San Diego in late January, and served another five months defending occupied areas against Mexican incursions in a number of locations, including Los Angeles. The sole example of a religious unit serving in the U. S. military.

Your Walking Tour

Presidio Park is adjacent to modern downtown Tucson, including shops and restaurants along Congress St. and Broadway. A useful walking tour map is available at Note that the top of the map is west, not north.

There is some metered street parking in the area, some of it free on weekends. My recommendation is to park in the large public garage beneath the Plaza, 165 W. Alameda St. $2 for 2 hours, $1 per additional hour. Shaded!

The Presidio San Agustin del Tucson Museum is at 196 N. Court Ave. Click on the link for hours, admission prices and additional parking information.

I welcome additional comments about these and other downtown Tucson highlights.

Licensable, high resolution versions of many photographs in this post, and select images from other Under Western Skies posts are available on Click on the linked photos, or CLICK HERE to view the Underawesternsky photo portfolio.

© Brad Nixon 2019. Acknowledgment for some details to the City of Tucson website and Wikipedia. Saguaro NP photo © M. Vincent 2019, used by kind permission.


  1. I wasn’t aware of the Mormon Battalion until seeing the Tucson monument. Thank you for the fascinating details of this part of American history.
    I’d like to know more about those four women who accompanied the battalion and their experience on the grueling journey.


    • What little I know is that along with volunteer soldiers, the Mormons were asked to recruit some number of (specifically) women to serve as laundresses — a rare paying job for a woman at the edge of the frontier in 1846.
      Even then, the army had a well-defined set of job descriptions. There were cooks, wagoneers, quartermasters, saddlers, blacksmiths, doctors (there was a doctor/surgeon with the Battalion, whom the Mormons distrusted), etc.
      I agree: I’d like to know more about those four women who walked 1,900 miles, often through literally uncharted territory. Impressive.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Those are beautiful pictures! Great post! Loved your photography…Cheers, and greetings from Espanya!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hola, Francisco. Muchas gracias. And hello to you in Espagna.

      Liked by 1 person

      • De nada, un placer

        Liked by 1 person

      • You have now pushed my grasp of Spanish to its ultimate limit. Gracias.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Nice pictures of Tucson, I really like the fountain, it really looks California-ish.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’re right, I think. With that southern sun in midsummer, it could well be California and not Arizona.


      • Ah ha, thats true, I knew Tucson was Arizona, I wasn’t thinking there.


      • Fear not. It’s another country from yours. I don’t keep the orientation of Canadian states clear in my head, and there are a lot fewer of them than our 50. And, honestly, your comment is dead-on. That could very well be a cityscape almost anywhere in the American southwest, including southern California.


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