Arizona History: Tucson

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Courthouse in Tucson, 1898

On August 20, 1775, 40-year old Don Hugo O’Conor, an Irishman, wrote a letter to the Viceroy of New Spain, suggesting that the company of the presidio at Tubac be relocated to San Augustin de Toixon. This date is considered the founding date of Tucson. O’Conor was a infantry colonel of Spain’s army and was commanding inspector of the frontier forts of New Spain. He chose the site because water, pasture, and wood were available. Viceroy Antonio Maria Bucareli y Ursua agreed with his assessment. The move to Tucson probably occurred the following year. Today’s City of Tucson accepted August 20, 1775 as the anniversary date in February 1972. They had spent over a year studying the city’s history before deciding upon this date.

Indians lived in the area maybe for as much as 1,000 years before O’Conor chose the site. Also, Jesuit Father Eusebio Francisco Kino had passed through the Indian settlements in the area as early as 1694. Later he named this particular Indian village San Cosme del Tucson, making it a satellite of the Mission San Xavier del Bac. Lt. Juan Maria de Oliva led Spanish troops here early in 1776 to establish the royal presidio.

A temporary fort of rough logs was built. Then they started work on a permanent structure. Apaches threatened the stockade twice that year. On November 6, 1779, about 350 Indians were conquered by soldiers. A larger party of Apaches attacked the fort on May 1, 1782, but Spanish firepower overpowered them. This last attack sped up the building of the fort and the walls and dwellings were completed the following year.

36 people lived in Tucson in 1804. By 1819 there were 62. Fray Pedro Antonio de Arriquibar was chaplain of the fort and took the census. This town was bounded roughly by today’s Washington and Pennington streets and Main and Church Avenues. The four walls were about 750 ft long and 10 or 12 ft high. Its gate was in the west (Main Ave) wall. There were barracks for soldiers, a military chapel called San Agustin, a well, cemeteries, stables, granary, three plazas, and several dwellings. Most buildings were built against the outside walls. Animals grazed outside the fort where fields were cultivated.

There wasn’t much change when Mexico won independence from Spain in 1821. Military and civilian residents were required to take an oath to swear obedience to the Catholic faith, to preserve the independence of Mexico, and to live harmoniously with the natives and Europeans. Apaches continued to be a problem. The usually friendly Pima and Papago tribes left the area. On December 17, 1846, during the Mexican War, the American flag was raised briefly for the first time over Tucson. Captain Philip St. George Cooke was commander of the Mormon Battalion. He brought his troops through Tucson on his way from Santa Fe to California. He sent word ahead that his troops were coming to purchase provisions. Before they arrived the Mexican commander Antonio Comanduran withdrew his troops and all about 100 civilians out of town. So it was easy for Cooke to take the fort. The Americans flag was raised.

It wasn’t until the Gadsden Purchase, effective in June 1854, that Tucson was officially part of America. Troops didn’t show up until March 1856 to take possession. By that time the town had been growing due to the additional commerce brought in by people on their way to the gold strikes in the west. New gateways were made and chunks of the wall were hacked out to make room for new roads. Solomon Warner, a trader, showed up on Feb 28, 1856 with 13 pack mules and goods. He opened the first general store in what would become the state of Arizona to deal Americans goods.

The people welcomed the Americans because of harassment by the Apaches. In 1858, Tucson became a stage stop on the Butterfield Overland Mail stage express. The stage drove from St. Louis to San Francisco on a very speedy 26 day route. By 1860 Tucson had 600 people, including 8 blacks.

Over the next decade Tucson became known as a lawless place. There was only an alcalde, or justice of the peace, to maintain order. There was no jail. Wrongdoers were usually just flogged at the public whipping post. During the civil war, troops were called back east so Tucson was defenseless. Sympathies at Tucson were pro-southern so when Captain Sherod Hunter rode in with 200 mounted Texans on February 28, 1862, to take the town for the Confederacy, there was no resistance. Union supporters left and the confederate flag was hoisted. Soon they got word, though, that Colonel James H. Carleton, was coming east from California with his 1,500 man California Column and would be arriving first in Yuma, then Tucson. There was a skirmish at Picacho Pass north of town between an advance guard of the Column and scouts from the rebel force. This was the only Civil War battle to be fought in Arizona. The rebels withdrew and headed back east. On May 20, 1862, Carleton retook the town and placed it under martial law. The Americans flag went back up. Carleton was also credited with returning law and order to the town. A military force was placed near what is now the downtown area of the city. A permanent post was later established called Camp Lowell. The camp was later moved some miles northeast of town and redesignated Fort Lowell. The fort was abandoned in 1891 when the Apaches were no longer a threat.

On Feb 24, 1863, Lincoln signed the document that separated Arizona from New Mexico and gave Arizona territorial status. By now Tucson had almost 3,000 people. There were many saloons, general merchandise stores, a barber shop, newspapers, a new Pima County Court House, a public school, and an academy for young ladies, run by the Sisters of St. Joseph. In 1871 some residents and a group of Papago warriors attacked an Apache Camp living under the protection of the army at Camp Grant about 50 miles north of town. 125 of them were killed. Later President Grant indicted 100 men for murder. The trial lasted 7 days, but it took the jury only 19 minutes to come back with an acquittal. The event became known as the Camp Grant Massacre. It did not bring an end to the trouble with the Apaches. It wouldn’t be until September 1886 when Geronimo and his followers surrendered.

The first military telegraph line hooked Tucson with the rest of the world in 1873. A huge party was given to celebrate the occasion. On March 20, 1880, the Southern Pacific Railroad laid tracks to Tucson. It was a holiday for school children and many ceremonies and speeches were given. Now the population was up to 7,000. That year the Sisters of St. Joseph opened St. Mary’s Hospital. In 1881, the first telephone exchange was installed. The next year the first street lights, powered by gas, were installed. In 1885, the 13th Territorial Legislature agreed to set aside $25,000 for a state university at Tucson. Before the funds could be released the town had to provide 40 acres of land suitable for a campus. J.S. Mansfield, a regent appointed by the governor, selected a site east of town. He persuaded the owners to donate it to the territory. In November 1886, the owners, a pair of professional gamblers and a saloonkeeper, deeded the land to the university. Five years later the school opened with six teachers, 36 students, and one unfinished building. Old Main housed all classrooms and labs, library, and living quarters for some of the faculty.

In 1896, mule drawn streetcars started operating. In 1906, electric street cars began a three-mile loop route between the downtown and the University of Arizona campus. On February 14, 1912, President Taft signed the proclamation declaring Arizona the 48th state. In 1931, the street cars were replaced by gas powered busses.

One of Tucson’s prized possessions is Kitt Peak. It is the site of the nation’s first national observatory. Today over one dozen telescope domes are on the peak. About 500 astronomers and 50,000 tourists visit each year. Before Kitt was open there was no observatory open to all U.S. astronomers. At the time Palomar Observatory in California was privately owned and some U.S. astronomers didn’t like that. They felt their competitive edge in the Cold War would be lost. Congress created the National Science Foundation after World War II and astronomers felt this was the perfect opportunity to get the foundation to pay for a national observatory run by a university consortium. The Association for Universities for Research in Astronomy was created. More than 150 mountains were considered, then the choice was down to five sites. After two years of testing, Kitt was picked. Kitt delivered sharp images. The mountain top was clear and remarkably dry. It was far enough away from town that lights didn’t interfere, but close enough that people who worked there could live near by. Over the years Tucson has adopted certain light reducing policies to make sure it doesn’t interfere with the observatory. The consortium had to buy the property from the Papago Indians, now called the Tohono O’odham Indians. At first they wouldn’t sell. Then the astronomers took tribal leaders to the University of Arizona to let them look through a 36-inch telescope. Finally an agreement was reached. They pay an $11,000 a year lease, plus give qualified Indians preferential treatment in hiring. It was built for a cost of $6.8 million. The lease was signed on Oct 3, 1958.