History of the Arizona Territory

by Charles Debrille Poston

(edited by Parker Anderson)

(Charles Debrille Poston is regarded by historians as the "Father of Arizona." He led the first exploration of what is now Arizona shortly after the Gadsden Purchase in 1853. A few years later, he helped establish the Sonora Mining Company in Tubac, but was forced to flee after the Union pulled its troops out of the area to fight in the Civil War. Poston ultimately went to Washington, where he lobbied congress and President Lincoln to get the Federal Government to officially make Arizona a Territory, with a Territorial Government. When this happened, February 24, 1863, Poston was elected first Territorial Delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives. As we approach our Statehood Centennial, we would do well to remember the man who played a major role in the shaping of Arizona in its early days. – ed.)

(Following are excerpts from a paper written by Charles D. Poston, the "Father of Arizona," at the request of the Royal Geographical Society of London in 1875, on the subject of the Arizona Territory and its resources and prospects.)

Arizona is a territory of the United States of America. It is formed out of that part of the State of Sonora which was acquired by the United States from Mexico – the portion north of the Gila River having been ceded by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, and the portion south of the Gila River having been purchased by the Gadsden Treaty in 1853, for the consideration of ten million dollars.

A civil government was formed for the recently acquired territory, by an Act of the United States Congress, and approved by President Lincoln on the 24th of February 1863. This act of Congress first defined the name of the new territory as "Arizona", the Spaniards having formerly called it Arizuma after the Aztecs; the name probably meaning "rocky country" from ari – "rock," zuma – "country."

The first account given to the European world of this part of the American continent was the romantic story of Friar Marco de Nica, who made an expedition among the Indians of this region in 1535. He reported a semi-civilized people, living in some houses, dressing in clothes of their own manufacture, tending flocks and herds, cultivating the soil, and practicing the arts of peace. This account led to the celebrated expedition of Coronado, which was organized and conducted under the patronage of the vice-royalty of New Spain in 1540.

The (present) Territorial Capital and seat of the Supreme Court is Tucson, a town south of the Gila, containing a population of 3,500. The most important town north of the Gila is Prescott, named after the historian of Mexico. The town is beautifully located in the lap of the mountains, and is the headquarters of the military department, and contains a population of 1,200 souls. The (total) population of the Territory may be estimated at fifty thousand Indians and twenty-five thousand whites. The latter are principally engaged in agriculture, mining, and commercial pursuits.

In several parts of the Territory are to be found the ruins of a pre-historic race. Near the Pima villages are the "Casas Grandes," or grand houses of the Aztecs, or Toltecs, or whoever inhabited this region thousands of years ago. They have left no history, but the relics of a civilization which puzzle the antiquarian.

The debris and remains of broken pottery would indicate that this city covered an area of about ten miles, but of all of the houses which formed the city, the shadow of but one remains (ed. note – Poston is referring to what is today the Casa Grande National Monument). It seems to have been a citadel or granary, as it is situated near the center of the city. It was built of mud pressed in molds, and dried in the sun, and was composed of many small apartments, none of them very high. Five rows of joists may yet be counted, indicating five stories, and from the fact that they are all burnt off to the wall, this house seems to have been destroyed by fire. About ten years ago, I extricated one of the joists from the wall, and placed it in the Smithsonian Institution at Washington; it bears evidence of having been cut with a stone axe.

The city which formerly existed here was furnished with water by a canal from the Gila River, which also irrigated a valley of land now desolate. The remains of the canal indicate a width of ten yards and a depth of four.

As to the former inhabitants and their history, all is left to conjecture. We know nothing of their origin, their manner of life, their politics or religion, of their loves or hates, of their mortality or their immortality. The only monument of their existence stands there, in the solitude of the desert, as mysterious, as silent, as unreadable as the Egyptian Sphinx.

One hundred miles south of this monument of a perished race stands another monument of another civilization. It is the mission church of San Xavier del Bac, erected by the Jesuits A.D. 1658. In the dim mirage of the desert, these architectural sentinels stand comforting each other. In the archives of the Society of Jesus may be found an interesting account of the wanderings of Father Kino in this mysterious country. The Jesuits followed up these explorations by establishing missions among the natives, many of which remain to the present day in a somewhat dilapidated condition. The avarice and tyranny of the Spaniards, who were engaged in mining in the vicinity of the missions, exasperated the Indians to revolt, and in 1680, the Apaches commenced a war of extermination. The wily Jesuits gave it in charge to their neophytes to preserve the sacred buildings, and assured their converts, with the sublime faith of their order, that as sure as the sun shone, water ran, and grass grew, that they would one day return and resume their sacred duties.

It was one of the strange episodes of life, that during my service as Superintendent of Indian Affairs in Arizona, under the Government of the United States, it was my fortune to reinstall the Fathers of the Society of Jesus in their ancient mission of San Xavier del Bac. The Indians received them with firing of rockets, ringing bells, strewing flowers, and every demonstration of joy.

(With the Arizona State centennial approaching, what better way to connect with Arizona’s history than to get to know "the Father of Arizona," Charles Debrille Poston through an original play entitled "Building a State in Apache Land," presented by Sharlot Hall Museum’s Blue Rose Theater. The play, presented in Chautauqua style, was written and will be presented by Parker Anderson directly from Poston’s writings. "Charles D. Poston was on the scene and tells it like it was!" The play opens Friday, September 16th at 7:30 p.m. at the museum. There are six additional performances over two weekends. For dates, times and tickets call 928-445-3122.)

Illustrating image

Sharlot Hall Museum Photograph Call Number:(map025/Poston) Reuse only by permission.

This Butterfield map of 1859 shows the Arizona region as part of New Mexico Territory (est. 1850). It wasn’t until 1863 when President Lincoln signed the legislation to establish the Arizona Territory that the boundary for the new territory was changed to the present day north-south border with New Mexico. Inset is Charles Poston (courtesy National Archives) who worked tirelessly to gain territorial status for Arizona.

Illustrating image

Sharlot Hall Museum Photograph Call Number:(Historic American Buildings Survey – public domain) Reuse only by permission.

San Xavier del Bac Mission near Tucson is pictured here by photographer Leo Goldschmidt in 1887. After years of abuse and decline, Charles Poston was instrumental in re-establishing the priests to the vacant and decaying church which was re-opened in 1859.

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