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Untold Arizona: Who Is Buried In Juan Bautista De Anza's Grave?
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This is the story of two men who died 250 years apart, one in what’s now Mexico, one in what’s now Arizona.
There’s a mystery, not to the cause of the first man’s death, but to the details inside the brooding walls of Nuestra Señora de la Asuncion. High in Sonora’s hill country is a white marble testament to the fabled explorer Juan Bautista de Anza.
And then there’s a man who tried to unravel that mystery before he died. And those who continue to work on it to this day.
And there’s a woman who was violently murdered in all of this. More on all that in a moment.
First Anza: The famed explorer led expeditions from Arizona into California and eventually founded the city of San Francisco. When he died, he was buried back in this tiny town of Arizpe, what served as the provincial capital for the Spanish superpower.
Northern Mexico is strewn in the aftermath of the contentious periods that led up to Arizona’s statehood in the early part of the 20th century. The dim caves that served as prisons for the Apache resistance, memorials to the violent revolution fought at what’s now the U.S.-Mexico border. And everywhere, the graveyards and testaments to the dead.
Father Agustín Mendoza wraps up a sermon inside the church’s rough walls. The mausoleum to Anza sits to his right. And at the church’s center sits another grave, this one shrouded in glass, the uniformed skeleton of what was once a tall man lies prone inside.
"Pues la historia confunde a los dos personajes." Mendoza said history has confused the two men.
The modern understanding of the confusion is that the glass mausoleum in the center of the church is actually the body of Manuel Echegaray, a Spanish officer of Anza's time.
"Pero se quiere corroborar haciendo la exhumación del cuerpo." Mendoza explained no exhumation ever occurred, so tests have never been done on either body.
Five years ago, the town asked the National Park Service for help. And the Park Service turned to Phil Valdez, a historian and then president of the Anza Society.
"I immediately packed my bags and went to Arizpe," Valdez said.
That’s when they learned the body there wasn’t Juan Bautista de Anza's.
"The mixup occurred back in 1963 when the priest of Arizpe, Sonora was wanting to replace the floor of the cathedral," Valdez said.
And it wasn’t until 2013 when Valdez said his expedition found that Anza was actually buried to the side of the church.
He said the mixup occurred when those researchers used the wrong copy of a death certificate to identify Anza. The wrong copy left out the words: en la capilla de Nuestra Señora de Loreto, a small chapel to the side of the cathedral.
Valdez said the false certificate was issued when Anza's widow provided documents to obtain her widow's pension after he died.
"I wanted everything that was going to be done accurately, correctly if you will, with no embellishment. Tell it like it is," Valdez said.
But doing so is going to be tough. This story started in the 1700s but it’s still growing.
Arizpe’s town historian, 72-year old Carmen Pellat, was murdered at her home in 2015, and the only private museum dedicated to Anza just across the street from the church is now a shuttered building, locked in litigation over the still unsolved murder.
All of which leads this story up north of the border, Anita Badertscher is the Park Service’s interpretive officer at Tumacacori National Historic Park. She succeeded the man many credit with trying to tell all of Anza’s story, including where he was buried. Don Garate wrote one book of his anticipated three.
"He finished that book and the second book would have been the history most relevant to that area, right here, that people are really interested in, but unfortunately Don died of a really aggressive brain cancer in 2010 and never was able to complete more than two chapters," she said.
The rest of his research sits in files in a store room, a story waiting to be told.
We may never learn just who is buried beneath that white marble block in Nuestra Señora de la Asuncsion. Father Mendoza said Mexico is still working to secure the authority to dig there.
"Si nosotros excamavamos aqui, vamos encontrar muchos cuerpos." Mendoza said there’s another problem: The church was built on a cemetery.
If someone starts digging into the floors of this church, they’re going to unearth more of the dead.