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Tucson History

It’s hard to believe that the scorched alluvial desert in which Tucson sits is the oldest continually inhabited place in the United States. But that is the contention of some archeologists, who date the first Indian civilizations there as far back as 200 A.D. (The first appearance of nomadic Native Americans, however, is far earlier, perhaps around 10,000 B.C.) The secret to recreating Tucson’s ancient past is in mentally refilling its dry riverbeds. Then you can imagine it

as the fertile marshland that it long ago was, upon the confluence of three rivers fed by runoff from the Catalina Mountains. Between 200 and around 1450 the predominant culture were the Hohokam Indians. But just before the time of European intervention, the Hohokams (meaning “the vanished ones”) inexplicable disappeared and were descended by the Papagos, Pimas, and Tohono O’odham.

Don Francisco Basque Coronado
Recorded history of the area begins in 1542 with the exploration led by Spaniard Don Francisco Basque Coronado, who passed through searching for the storied but nonexistent “Seven Cities of Gold.” (Coronado would be stymied by the Grand Canyon and then rerouted as far as Kansas before giving up.) During the next centuries Spanish Jesuits entered this newly chartered territory on religious and political missions. The most significant of these was the Franciscan Father Eusebio Kino who founded the Mission San Xavier del Bac in 1692, which still stand to the southwest of the city. Kino lived largely with Pima Indians and it is from them that Tucson got its name, originating from the word schook-son, meaning “spring at the foot of a black mountain.” The spring in question is the now dry Santa Cruz River and the mountain refers to Sentinel Mountain, which today is emblazoned with a giant letter “A.”

Hugh O’Connor
Tucson was founded as a city for the Spanish in 1775 by an Irish-born explorer named Hugh (or Hugo) O’Connor. A walled presidio, still delineated in the downtown, was built to mark off the city and provide defense from raiding Apaches. The presidio functioned mostly as a way station from passers through and as a military outpost. In 1821 it became the territory of independent Mexico, and very shortly afterward, with the Gadsden Purchase of 1854, it fell into the territory of the United States.

Arizona Capital
The first notoriety this minor frontier town received as part of the U.S. came in 1862 when Confederates from Texas marched into the city unopposed, hoping to use it in establishing a Pacific seaport. (The Federal Navy had blockaded all eastern ports.) They did not stay long, however, being routed out by California Unionists soon after appearing. At this time, Arizona became an official territory, with Tucson as its capitol until 1877, when the distinction moved to Phoenix.

The initial step in the great growth spurt that has come upon Tucson in the last century was the arrival in 1880 of the transcontinental railroad. Now the city had become a destination in itself, rather than a mere stopover junction on the road to California. It had particular status as a place for health resorts. The first population boom came just before Arizona was granted statehood in 1912. By 1950, Tucson’s population was 120,000; a decade later it had doubled. Today it numbers nearly 700,000 and is expanding faster than ever. While once small civilizations lived easily on the rivers, today this immense population is maintained by water canalled in hundreds of miles from the Colorado River in Havasu City. It is indeed a remarkable destiny for what was once a remote desert presidio.


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