Arizona Family History Research
This entry was originally written by Dwight A. Radford and Nell Sachse Woodard in Red Book: American State, County, and Town Sources.
Although early Spanish explorers came into what is present-day Arizona in the middle 1500s, it was considerably later before settlement began. Under the Spanish crown, an area extending south from the Gila River (corresponding to that portion which became part of the Gadsden Purchase) was part of the Primeria Alta (land of the Upper Pima), which included the northern part of Sonora in Mexico.
In their search for the fabled cities of gold, Spanish expeditions encountered the Hopi and Zuni, sandstone villages of centuries-old, cliff-dwelling civilizations, and the more recently arrived nomadic Apache and Navajo. Governor Diego Ortiz Parilla established a fort at Tubac in 1753, and Tucson was founded in 1775. Marauding Apaches later forced the Spanish out of the region, although Tucson remained under a Mexican flag until the 1840s. Garrisons occupied the presidios at Tucson, Tubac, and Santa Cruz beginning in 1826, with their surrounding settlements precarious because the Apache had not conceded the frontier to Mexico.
Mexico’s independence from Spain in 1821, and the Mexican War (1846–48), provided the opportunity for the United States to acquire the region north of the Gila River. The Gadsden Purchase in 1853 added the area south of the river. Both were part of the New Mexico Territory until the Arizona Territory was separated from it in 1863.
Treks to the west for California’s gold, primarily along Cooke’s Wagon Route in the south, brought some settlement to the territory, principally along the Gila and Santa Cruz rivers. The Civil War produced only minor skirmishes, while the intensity of conflict between the Apache and the newly forming mining, cattle ranching, and trading establishments heated up in the two decades following the war. Railroad lines between Albuquerque, New Mexico, and San Bernardino, California, included a stop at Flagstaff in the northern part of the territory. As part of the network of transportation from east to west, more people entered the territory.
The history of Arizona’s frontier days has been often chronicled on television and in the movies, not always accurately. Tombstone, Cochise and Geronimo, the O.K. Corral, and the Earp brothers, among others, have left their indelible marks on many, providing a striking contrast to life today in Arizona’s suburban developments.
A more populous settlement, and statehood, had to wait until the twentieth century. Arizona became a state in 1912, after a long struggle for that status. The ethnic composition of its population reflects its history. Mexican, Native American (Navajo, Hopi, Havasupai, Yuma, Cocopah, Mohave, Apache, Pima, and Maricopa among them), and those with frontier heritage all comprise a prominent portion of the political and economic life of the state, alongside the more recently arrived health-seekers and retirees from other parts of the United States. In the recent past, attention has been directed toward preserving, making accessible, and microfilming early Spanish and Mexican records, along with those developed during the territorial and statehood periods.