Arizona Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Arizona’s arid climate and southwest location combined to play influential roles in its history.

History of Arizona

Arizona’s arid climate and southwest location combined to play influential roles in its history. Lack of rain has placed water at the center of Arizona’s concerns, because without water, economic development is impossible. In the 1850’s, the federal government even imported camels for a route through Arizona. The state was later than others in developing, with a population of barely forty thousand in 1880. On the other hand, the completion of a number of significant dams before and after World War II provided copious water and electric power, and the state’s warm winters attract millions of new arrivals.

Early History

American Indians are believed to have inhabited Arizona for thousands of years, probably as early as 25,000 b.c.e. First to have settled were the Anasazi, ancestors of today’s Pueblo, Hohokam, and Mogollon peoples. Not long before the entrance of Europeans to the region, the Navajos and Apaches arrived. In the sixteenth century, Spanish and Native Americans came in contact with each other. A succession of Spanish expeditions arrived, headed by priests such as Franciscan friar Marcos de Niza, who came in 1539 searching for the fabled Seven Cities of Cíbola. Other adventurers arrived, such as Francisco Vásquez de Coronado, who explored the region from 1540 to 1542. More explorers entered the region later in the century searching for precious metals.

In the next century a number of priests came in search of American Indian souls to save and began erecting missions. Perhaps the most illustrious was Father Eusebio Francisco Kino, a Jesuit mathematics professor of German origin, who went to Mexico in 1680. Kino thoroughly explored the region, covering twenty thousand miles and finding an overland route to California. Kino also founded several missions, including San Xavier del Bac Mission, located near Tucson, established in 1692. It is the only surviving Mexican Baroque church in the United States.

In the eighteenth century, Spanish activity continued. In 1776, when the American colonies declared independence from Britain, Spanish cleric Father Francisco Silvestre Vélez de Escalante undertook important explorations of the Colorado River region. The previous year, Tucson had been founded when a fortress, Old Pueblo, was constructed there. In succeeding years, Spanish troops were busy dealing with hostile American Indians. In the 1780’s they conquered the Yumas, and in 1790 negotiations with the Apaches resulted in a peace lasting until 1822. Peace with the Navajos after their military defeat in 1806 lasted thirteen years.

American involvement in the region began in the 1820’s, when traders and trappers entered the territory. From 1828, trapper, scout, and soldier Kit Carson used Taos, New Mexico, as a base for expeditions, which in some cases traveled through Arizona. Another famous trapper and scout, Pauline Weaver, arrived in 1830 and was active more than thirty years later when he led gold-hunting parties. In these years modern Arizona was part of Mexico, which gained independence from Spain after its War of Independence, begun in 1810.

From Spanish to American Rule

Arizona passed from Mexican to American hands as a consequence of the Mexican-American War (1846-1848). The terms of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo called for Mexico to cede all lands north of the Gila River, which runs through southern Arizona. Thus Arizona became part of New Mexico, which became a territory after its annexation to the United States.

The Gila River border proved problematic, however, when plans for a transcontinental railroad were being drawn up, since the best route ran south of the river. Accordingly, an American diplomat, James Gadsden, American Minister to Mexico, negotiated transfer of the required land. In 1853, by the terms of the Gadsden Purchase, Mexico agreed to sell a strip of territory along its northern border between Texas and California for ten million dollars.

Arizona was still part of New Mexico when the Civil War broke out. In 1861, when Confederate president Jefferson Davis declared New Mexico part of the Confederacy, Kit Carson was asked to raise a force to defend the territory against invasion. When the Confederacy sent troops to the region in 1862, the only Civil War battle on Arizona soil occurred, resulting in Union victory. Thereafter, claims of the Confederacy to the region rang hollow. To ensure its status, however, Congress made Arizona a separate territory in 1863. Prescott was the new territory’s first capital, though the site changed from one place to another until Phoenix became permanent capital in 1889.

Native American Relations

During the Civil War, the area was nearly emptied of European settlers. Yet after the war, when miners and ranchers returned, American Indian attacks became a serious matter. In 1864 Kit Carson led a successful campaign against the Navajos. The defeated Indians were then required to trek, many of them on foot, to Bosque Redondo, New Mexico, some four hundred miles away. The event became known as the Long Walk. They remained there until 1868, when they made the Long Walk Home. The Apaches, however, remained hostile and active in Arizona. With such leaders as Cochise, Mangas Coloradas, and Geronimo, the Apaches were a formidable threat, attacking not only ranches but also towns and even forts. Not until 1886 did the last raiding party led by Geronimo surrender to federal forces.

Despite problems with Native Americans, much economic progress was made. Mining made great strides in the 1870’s, and after 1886 grazing prospered despite frequent range wars between cattle and sheep ranchers. In the 1880’s copper was discovered near Bisbee, in the southeast. Eventually copper became an important state resource. Settlement of the territory was assisted by several congressional acts, such as the Homestead Act (1862), which gave land to settlers but required them to develop it to make good their claims. A tremendous boost to the state’s development occurred when the first transcontinental railroad appeared in 1877. Six years later, track for a second railroad was laid in northern Arizona. Population, which was a dismal 9,658 in 1870, jumped to more than 40,000 ten years later and reached 88,000 in 1890. At the close of the century, it was 123,000, and in 1910, just prior to statehood, it passed 200,000.

From Territory to Statehood

With the American Indian menace behind them, Arizonans of the 1890’s agitated for statehood. Not until 1910, however, could Congress be persuaded to pass enabling legislation. Accordingly, a constitution was adopted. Like those of other western states, it provided for the initiative and referendum and allowed recall of public officials. This provision included recall of judges by voters, but President William Howard Taft strongly objected and refused to agree to Arizona statehood unless it was removed. He believed that judicial independence, essential for constitutional government, would be fatally compromised by such a provision. The offending provision was therefore deleted. Upon attaining statehood, however, voters restored the provision.

The constitution provides for a governor elected for no more than two four-year terms. Four other executive branch officials are elected–a secretary of state, attorney general, treasurer, and superintendent of public instruction. These officials form a line of succession if a governor dies, resigns, or is removed from office; they, too, are limited to two four-year terms. Members of the bicameral legislature can be elected to a maximum of four two-year terms. The state’s supreme court justices are appointed by the governor to six-year terms, at the end of which voters decide whether to retain them. The recall provision was most notably used in 1988 to remove a sitting governor.

Social and Economic Progress

By the time Arizona achieved statehood, it had begun the process of advancing from an extraction to a manufacturing economy. With the emergence of labor unions in mines, labor strife became familiar. Among militant labor organizers were the Marxist International Workers of the World (IWW). A notorious event in the state’s labor history involving the IWW was the “Bisbee deportation” of July 12, 1917, during World War I. In this incident, some two thousand persons, most of them copper miners called out on strike by the IWW, were arrested by armed civilians, headed by the sheriff. Those who refused to abandon the strike, nearly twelve hundred men, were loaded onto cattle cars and taken across the New Mexico border. There, they were unloaded in the desert, where they spent two unsheltered days before U.S. troops arrived. Hundreds of civil suits were filed afterward and settled out of court.

Along with neighboring states, the American entrance into World War I gave a significant, though temporary, boost to Arizona’s economy, when the price of minerals skyrocketed. During the two decades following the war, the federal government continued planning and constructing a series of dams and reservoirs that eventually would be of tremendous value to the state’s economy by allowing irrigation, cheap power, and flood control. The Roosevelt Dam had been constructed prior to statehood. After the war, further projects included the Coolidge Dam on the Upper Gila River in south central Arizona, other dams on the Verde and Salt Rivers, and the great Hoover Dam, one of the century’s great engineering projects, on the Arizona-Nevada border. In 1922, the Colorado River Compact devised a scheme for water sharing among seven states, including Arizona. As further irrigation became possible, agriculture prospered. The 1930’s Depression years, however, were as difficult for Arizona as for the rest of the nation.

World War II and Postwar Developments

The state’s economy rebounded through federal spending during World War II, when numerous air bases were opened due to the state’s ideal flying weather. After the war the boom continued. Between 1940 and 1960, population nearly tripled, reaching 1.3 million. Adequate water supplies allowed manufacturing to expand, especially after 1963, when the U.S. Supreme Court awarded the state rights to 2.8 million acre feet of water a year from the Colorado River. By then, Arizona’s extraction economy had been transformed by industrialization.

By the 1990’s the state had undergone a second transformation. Manufacturing accounted for only 12 percent of its income, though high-tech industries were making their mark. Agriculture was just 2 percent and mining a scant 1 percent of state income. The lion’s share was now taken up by services, including a thriving tourist industry. Society had also been transformed by a postwar flight from the eastern and midwestern “rust belt” to the warmer climate and economic opportunities of the Southwest. From a raw frontier territory at the start of the century, Arizona had become a prosperous modern, postindustrial society, with a rich and colorful past and a confident future.

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