12 Great Events in the History of Arizona

A little bit of departure from my usual stuff.  This month marks the 100th anniversary of Arizona as a state, and being someone who lived here most of my life, I’d thought I’d share a little bit of history of the place. Basically, I’m hitting the top 12 highlights, with links to wiki articles for the full story.

So where to start.  I could start with the Grand Canyon whose rocks at the bottom are 4.5 billion years old, as old as the earth itself, but that is a bit too far.  Or I could start with the archeological finds south of Chandler, AZ that show humans have lived here for at least 16,000 years.  But instead, I will start with an event that actually had an effect on modern Arizona.  It starts with a Volcano.

1024 – Sunset Crater becomes a Crater

The last time a volcano exploded in Arizona was almost 1000 years ago.  We know the exact date thanks to tree ring studies.  The Sunset crater explosion spewed ash for miles.

Now the cool thing about volcanic ash is that it retains water, making it easy to plant in and grow food.  Combine good soil with a fairly consistent river (known today as the Little Colorado River) and you end up with a good place to live.  The Wupatki ruins are one of the oldest and largest pueblo ruins in Arizona.  What we know about the place is that tribes from all over came to the region to live.  You can find a Kiva, a round ceremonial circle used extensively by tribes to the north, and a ball court, a sport imported from Mexican tribes to the south.  The gathering of many groups to Wupatki meant a sharing of technology, and improved lifestyles.  Pre-Wupatki housing consisted mostly of sticks and mud.  Post-Wupatki housing consisted of rock and mortar.

Eventually, water and resources got scarce and Wupatki was abandoned.  Tribal groups went their separate ways.  The Anasazis moved east and built an even bigger city, known today as the Aztec ruins in New Mexico.  Another post Wupatki settlement was Old Oraibi, Arizona, considered to be one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements in North America.

14th Century – Invasion of the Dine

At some point around the 14th century, the tribes on the Colorado Plateau stopped building cities on the ground, and started building them in well protected places like the sides of cliffs.  The most likely reason seems to be an invasion from the north of nomadic tribes who called themselves the Dine (pronounced Din-Eh).  Their Athabascan language was very foreign, and genetically they are related to natives of Mongolia.  Today we call them the Navajo and the Apaches, and their affect on regional history is still having an impact today.  There is a 600 year feud between the Navajos and the Hopis, that is no longer fought with weapons, now it is fought with lawyers, and still has an impact on politics today.

It is amazing how many people don’t realize that Native Americans are not all the same race.  There are at least 3, with 3 different groups crossing from Asia (the Inuits are the third). Intermixing over the centuries has mostly erased the genetic differences, but linguistically and culturally they all continue to maintain separate identities.

Though generations removed by the time they reached Arizona, one could call the Dine invasion an Asian invasion. If you think about it that way, the Asians beat the Europeans by a couple of centuries.

1539 – An African comes to Arizona

When it comes to who got to Arizona first, Europeans came in last place.  The first non-native to set foot in what is today Arizona, was an African slave named Estevanico.  He was one of only four survivors of a shipwreck on the coast of Florida in 1529.  Led by Cabeza de Vaca, the four men made their way across America, surviving only by “going native” with the tribes they encountered.  When they finally reached New Spain, it was 8 years later.

A Franciscan Friar named Marcos De Niza was planning an expedition north, and wanted the help of Cabeza de Vaca as a guide.  DeVaca turned down the offer, wanting to return to Spain, but as a slave Estevanico didn’t have a say in the matter and was basically drafted.  Marcos De Niza was not a fan of slavery, nor was he a fan of the big savage beast Estevanico had become after 8 years wandering in the wilderness, nor of his harem of native wives.  So De Niza basically let Estevanico go ahead of him, telling him to build a cross when he finds something important.  That is how an African crossed into Arizona before the Europeans did.  Estevanico did not get very far, he was brutally killed by the Zunis, just a few months into the expedition.  Finding out about the death De Niza, a man of peace, was forced to turn around.

He was followed a year later by an invading army led by Francisco Vasquez de Coronado, looking for the legendary cities of Gold, which did not really exist.  The “golden cities” was an illusion caused by the sun reflecting off the mica flakes common in the adobe mud.  Coronado made it all the way to Kansas before returning in disgrace.  His only major discovery was a giant hole in the ground known today as the Grand Canyon.

1540 – 1810  The Pimeria Alta Colony of New Spain

For 250 years, Arizona was ruled by Spain.  Most of that time, Spain considered it worthless desert land and left the natives alone.  But, eventually gold and silver was discovered, so they felt the need to expand their influence, and started moving in.  Arizona actually gets its name from a successful silver mine operated by Spaniards. The most famous of the Europeans to come here was Father Eusebio Kino, a Jesuit priest, and Italian by birth.  He had a mission to bring Christianity to the tribes of Southern Arizona, but he used a carrot instead of a stick.  He brought education and new farming techniques to the natives.  He was also opposed to slave labor and other bad stuff the Spanish brought to the region.  The natives were big fans of Father Kino.

During his time in Pimeria Alta, Kino established 24 missions and towns, including what is today Tucson, Arizona.

1847 – The Mormon Batallion

In 1810, Mexico gained its independence from Spain, and Arizona became part of Mexico.  Some “Mountain Men” from America occasionally came into the territory, but except for a few mining operations, nobody bothered the area since the natives in the region were considered rather vicious.  One of those Mountain Men was famed explorer Kit Carson, who was the first American to traverse Arizona from east to west and back again.

America’s first war of aggression was to move against Mexico in 1846 in hopes of seizing the land from Texas to the Pacific Ocean.  America had already established interest in California before the war started, and were anxious to take over.  What they did not have was a land route to California, the only way to get there was boat trips around South America.  The closest they got to California was a road to Santa Fe.  Meanwhile, the Mormons were recently chased out of Nauvoo Illinois, and were now holed up in Council Bluffs, Iowa.  They wanted permission to establish a colony in the “promised land” of Utah, and made a deal with the US government to supply men to build a road from Santa Fe, New Mexico to San Diego, California.  The 2000 mile march of the Mormon Batallion was one of the longest in military history.  They basically blazed a path following routes established by the previously mentioned Kit Carson and others.  During the entire march, they never actually saw a battle, but they came close to hunger and dehydration a couple of times.

The truth is, they got very lucky.  The best path across Southern Arizona is the one that follows present day I-10 to I-8.  After heading south from Santa Fe, they completely missed an important right turn at Dos Cabezas, and ended up going around the Chiricahua Mountains.  That pass was called the Apache Stronghold, and would become a dangerous and deadly pass to travelers during the Apache Wars.  Had they gone that way, they would have no doubt been attacked by the Apaches.

1853 – The Gadsden Purchase, or Congress proves that they are a bunch of stupid morons.

Every history class in America has a map of America carved up into what year the US acquired the land, and there is this little sliver of land in the southern New Mexico territory called The Gadsden Purchase.  I doubt anyone ever asks why we bought the land from Mexico, or why it was necessary to do so, and even if some kid in class asks the question, I doubt the teacher can provide the answer.

So I will tell you the answer: Congress is filled with a bunch of stupid morons.

We won the Mexican War and proved our “Manifest Destiny” from sea to shining sea.  The question before the people negotiating the Treaty of Hidalgo is, “Where do we draw the Southern border?”  Well the dominant northern state oriented congress wanted to draw the line as north as possible, because Southern Arizona and New Mexico is south of the Mason-Dixon line and therefore could become a slave friendly territory.  So they drew the border to follow the Gila River because “We could just boat down the Gila River to get to California.”  and so that is what Congress decided.

Stupid thing #1: The Gila River is dry 9 months out of the year.  When it is not dry it is either in the form of dangerous rapids through narrow canyons, or shallow washes not deep enough for a boat.

Stupid thing #2: The US just spent a ton of money and the hard work of the Mormon Battalion building a road south of the Gila River to San Diego which we just gave away back to Mexico.

Stupid thing #3: Slavery was already outlawed in the New Mexico territory in 1810 when Mexico was still in charge.

After the idiotic mistakes made by Congress, Ambassador James Gadsden went to Mexico to negotiate a purchase.  Mexico needed the money and actually offered  most of northern Mexico and all of Baja California for a decent price, but instead Congress again only authorized the bare minimum to get the road built by the Mormon Battalion back into US hands, again because they were afraid of adding more slave state territory.  (sigh!)

1871 – The Camp Grant Massacre

Under Mexican law, land claims by native peoples were recognized.  Under the Treaty of Hidalgo, the US was obligated to recognize those claims.  They didn’t.  Under US law, if you don’t have a deed you don’t own the land, and the Native Americans rights to the land in newly acquired territories were treated the same as the Native Americans in the rest of the US.  They didn’t have any land rights.  Were the natives angry about this? You Bet!

It was the Apaches who put up the biggest fight.  The period from 1848 to the 1886 surrender of Geronimo became known as the Apache Wars.  It was the reason the southern half of the New Mexico territory (calling itself Arizona a popular name for the region when Mexico was in charge) joined the Confederate States of America.  After the US recalled their troops to fight the Civil War, Texas sent troops to Tucson in exchange for CSA territory.  The arrangement only lasted a few months, the US sent in volunteers from California to chase out the Texans, resulting in the Battle of Picacho Peak, the western most battle of the Civil War.  In 1862, President Lincoln would split the New Mexico Territory in half vertically, the western half would retain the name Arizona.

By 1871, a lot of the fighting with the Apaches had subsided enough that the US was withdrawing troops.  This did not sit well with merchants who depended on the troops for income.  A peaceful band of Apaches took up residence outside Camp Grant,  then on April 30, 1871, a group from Tucson attacked the peaceful band slaughtering up to 144 mostly women and children (the men of the tribe were in the mountains hunting).  The people that were responsible were caught and tried, and found innocent.  Arizonans did not consider killing “Indians” to be that big of a crime.

Back east, news of the event made headlines, and got a sympathetic ear from President Grant.  The Camp Grant Massacre was not the first mass act of genocide against Native peoples, nor was it the last, nor was it even close to the biggest, but it did change US policy towards Native Americans leading to the autonomous reservation system we have today.

1881 – The Gunfight at the OK Corral

What can I say about an event that has been discussed in dozens of books, and portrayed in dozens of movies, even in an episode of Star Trek.  What I can tell you is that the legend is far more glorious than the reality.  Tombstone was never a really violent town.  It was mostly a mining town famous for drinking, gambling, and prostitution, and in its heyday did not have a reputation for murder.  Most of the big entertainers of the day (on their way to California) made a stop to perform at the Bird Cage Theater.  The upper decks of the theater had brass beds where the prostitutes plied their trade.  Big windows allowed you to watch the show below, and people below had an obscured view of what was going on above.  The song “I’m just a Bird in a Guilded Cage” was written about the prostitutes at the Bird Cage theater, before being adopted by Tweety and Sylvester cartoons.  As for gambling, below the stage was a poker table that housed a card game that went on continuously, night and day, for 12 years.  Dozens of famous people at the time played in that game including Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, and Bat Masterson.

This is the kind of stuff Tombstone should be famous for, but the thing everyone talks about is the Gunfight, a battle that lasted about 30 seconds leaving 3 dead, 3 injured, and 3 unharmed.  Few people bother to mention that at least two of the Clanton-McLaury side were unarmed, making it somewhat of an unfair fight.  The legend is much bigger than the reality.

The Gunfight at the OK Corral has become a symbol of the lawless west. As Cracked.com pointed out recently, it is a reputation not deserved.

1885 – The Thieving Thirteenth Legislature

Arizona politics is notorious. The recent furor over SB 1070 is the latest in a very long line of political controversy in Arizona.  Politics here is contradictory to most of the rest of America.  Conservatives tend to be more Libertarian rather than of the social conservative variety.  This leads to many contradictions.  Arizona was one of the first to allow women to vote and was the first to allow the recall of judges, and one of the first to allow public petitions to override the legislature, and even the state constitution.  Recent reforms include public funding of state races and a citizens commission to draw new lines for congressional and legislative districts, stuff a lot more states should be doing.  Arizona has had four female Governors, can any other state say that? And yet, these “progressive” reforms are coming from one of the most conservative states in the country.

The strange politics of this state can be traced to 1885 and the 13th Territorial Legislature.  Up until 1885, Arizona had relied on troops fighting the Apache wars to provide for their economy.  With only a small band of Chiricahua’s left to fight, Arizona needed new sources of revenue, and new institutions to modernize the state.  The Territorial Legislature spent money like crazy, creating a prison in Yuma, an asylum in Phoenix, a teacher training school in Tempe (eventually to become Arizona State University), and a college in Tucson (eventually to become University of Arizona).  They also created bonds for roads, bridges, and trains to transport goods and connect to the rest of the US.

The good that the “Thieving 13th” did to the state is still recognized today.  And yet at the time, the massive deficit spending was considered criminal, and in the next election, all but 1 of the members of the legislature were voted out of office.

1911 – Roosevelt Dam and the Salt River Project

OK, we got ourselves some much needed institutions, now all we need is basic necessities like water and power.  The Phoenix metro area wasn’t very big yet, but they had already outgrown the irrigation system built by the Hohokam some 500 years earlier.  It was time to upgrade.  In 1902, federal funding was granted to build Arizona’s first hydroelectric dam.  Roosevelt dam was constructed out of brick, between 1903 and 1911. Until it was enlarged and covered over by concrete in 1996, Roosevelt Dam was one of the worlds largest masonry constructions.  Three other dams were eventually built along the Salt River, then more along the neighboring Verde and Gila Rivers supply much of the water and power to the Phoenix Metro area.

1912 – Arizona becomes the 48th State

Its 1912, election year, and President Taft is looking to be remembered for being more than America’s fattest President.  So he proposes filling in the blanks and making New Mexico and Arizona into full fledged states.  Arizona actually got its paperwork and new constitution submitted first, but President Taft was not happy with the provision allowing for the recall of judges and told them to change it.  New Mexico came in and became the 47th state on January 6, 1912.

Arizona came back with a revised constitution without the recall of judges.  Originally Arizona was to be made a state on February 12th, but that coincided with Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, and it was thought improper (this despite it being Lincoln who created the territory in the first place).  It was finally made a state on February 14th, 1912, resulting in the nickname the “Valentine State” for a while.  Because of the large number of copper mines, they tried to be the “Copper State”, which was lame since California already claimed to be the “Golden State”, and Nevada the “Silver State”.  In an effort to bolster tourism, we now call ourselves the “Grand Canyon State”.

Once we achieved statehood, the first thing we did was amend the state constitution to allow the recall of judges.

1928 – The Invention of Freon

Before 1950, the only attraction Arizona had was a few fringe industries known as the “Five C’s”: Citrus, Copper, Climate, Cotton, and Cattle.  If you weren’t part of these industries, the only reason to come to Arizona was for health reasons, like Frank Lloyd Wright did in the 1930’s.  It was miserably hot here most of the year.  Still is, except today we have Air Conditioning.

Before modern AC, houses were built with a screen porch.  Wet sheets were hung over the screens, and the evaporation would cool the porch.  The entire family would sleep on the porch during the summer.  With electricity came swamp coolers, consisting of a water pump continuously moistening a canvas mesh and a fan sucking air through the mesh and blowing it through the house.  Swamp coolers are still extensively used today, but during the humid months generally between mid july and mid September, the cooling effect of swamp coolers completely fails.

It was the invention of modern air conditioning, that led to rapid growth.  Between 1950 and 1960, Phoenix tripled in size, and doubled again every decade until 2000.  Phoenix is now the 5th largest city in America, and air conditioning is the #1 reason.

There you have it 12 great historical events that shaped modern Arizona.  Happy 100th Birthday, Arizona.


  • Viva Arizona! I did not know some history details and was very amazed to find out that Native Americans are not all the same race. Very useful reading.

  • Slight correction to your 1912 entry: Oklahoma became a state on November 16, 1907.

  • “very amazed to find out that Native Americans are not all the same race.”

    We have many different points of origin in time and space. 🙂

    Native people hold to traditions that say they have always been there, archeology is starting to find hints of at least 40,000 years for the first bands. Anthropologists are scum who are generally discounted by natives for exploitative re-interpretation of native cultures in ways that align with western stereotypes (something they still do, even when an ‘educated savage’ gets right in their face and says “we don’t do that” they’ll say we do. Like somebody coming into your house, seeing you eating pizza, and saying “nice curry”…)

    Erm so yeah…

    Some very different groups. Some connection may have existed down south between native people there and Polynesians as well – going one direction or the other. Which would explain the very different features of my cousins there from my cousins in North America.

    And I personally suspect the reason the Basque language is so similar to native languages is likely that Native Americans settled a piece of Europe way back when, and then mixed into the local people – since that language shows up in only one point in Europe but in many in North America; that’s the logical direction of the migration.

    The ‘thieving 13’ sounds a lot like the reactions to both the New Deal and to the current economic stimulus. Historians often see the value with hindsight that political arguments of the day cloud.

  • Thanks for the history lesson. I have really enjoyed reading this.

    I don’t want to get into a political discussion here, but the libertarian philosophy that is an endemic characteristic of the non-coastal western states is very refreshing and a good example of state’s rights responsibilities executed well.

  • Ralph Hollingsworth

    Just a quick note – my wife and I took a senior audit class in archeology at the University of Colorado in the Fall, 2011 semester. Our instructor, Dr. Bamforth, is credited with the famous Mahaffy find in Boulder, 3 years ago. This caused me to do some further research on the first inhabitants of the Americas. Your mention of 3 separate peoples has been further clarified by recent DNA analysis. They are now known to be one race.

    Dr. H

  • This was a very neat piece to read… I was stationed in Arizona many many moons ago, and this short history lesson (albeit infused with a bit of editorial license) was an entertaining and informative break in my day.

    As a Wisconsin native, other than the invention of cheese or the birth of Brett Favre (oops.. Aaron Rogers)… I would be hard pressed to find 12 important moments in history.

  • Thanks For the help it would be more interesting if you added some more facts

  • Bobby :
    It is very interesting.

  • Very interesting reading. That explains Ariane’ s country music taste…I am studying everything I can, so the stories I am planning can be faithful to the personality of the character.

  • i wish you put better historical events that happened near the years we live to day not the ancient times but still well done all in all this was a helpful article on helping me find great information on a state project for the state i chose:ARIZONA:]

    • If you want more recent big historical events, the governorships of Evan Mecham and Fife Symington were plagued with controversy. In between the two was Arizona’s first (of four) female Governors.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.