Phoenix Arizona History

Native American Period

It is believed that the Native American Hohokam people occupied the area that is now Phoenix. For more than 1,000 years, this group occupied the land and created roughly 135 miles of irrigation canals, making the desert land arable. Paths of these canals still exist and would later be used for the modern Arizona Canal, Central Arizona Project Canal, and the Hayden-Rhodes Aqueduct.

Periods of drought, severe floods, and the coming of Spanish explorers led to the abandonment of the area. Some family groups did continue to live near the Salt River, but no large villages existed.

Early United States period

Old railroad construction

The area was under Spanish rule from 1539 until 1821 when the Valley was seized by Mexico. Mexico controlled the Valley for 27 years when it was given over to the United States.

The United States took control of the area that is now Phoenix after the Mexican-American War ended in 1848. The Salt River Valley was contested ground during the American Civil War with the Confederates controlling Tucson and The United States controlling Fort Whipple (now Prescott, Arizona). Despite this there was no conflict since the area was not militarily important.

In 1865 the US Army created Fort McDowell on the Verde River to quell Native American uprisings. A year later Hispanic workers serving the fort established a camp on the south side of the Salt River This permanent settlement was the first in the valley after the decline of the Hohokam. Eventually, other nearby settlements would form and merge to become the city of Tempe, but this community was incorporated after Phoenix.

Founding of Phoenix

The history of Phoenix as a city begins with a wealth seeking American Civil War veteran named Jack Swilling who had come west in the 1850s and worked primarily in Wickenburg. In 1867, Swilling observed the abandoned river valley and considered its potential for agriculture. Water was the only piece missing from the area since the terrain and climate were optimal for farming. Swilling solved the water problem by looking to the old Hohokam ruins and canals.

Swilling had a series of canals built which followed those of the ancient Native American system. A small community formed that same year about 4 miles (6 km) east of the present city. Many names were considered for the newly established community and a few were used for a short time such as Pumpkinville. Finally, Lord Darrell Duppa suggested the name "Phoenix," as it described a city born from the ruins of a former civilization. In May 4th, 1868 Phoenix was officially recognized as a new town and in October 20th, 1870 a 320-acre section of land was selected for a townsite.


By 1881, Phoenix had outgrown its original townsite-commissioner form of government. The city was incorporated with a population of approximately 2,500, and on May 3, 1881, Phoenix held its first city election. A new City Hall was built in early 1888 at Washington and Central. Phoenix was also named the state capitol of the Arizona Territory at this time.

Once Phoenix was connected to the Southern Pacific and Santa Fe railroad lines it became a trading and processing center.

Dedication ceremonies of Roosevelt dam

Modern Phoenix

Under President William Howard Taft, Phoenix became the capital of Arizona on February 14, 1912. The city was chosen over Tucson or Prescott because of its central location. Dam construction helped to control the unpredictable Salt River, thereby increasing the settler population. Phoenix became the state’s largest city over the next few decades. By 1920, Phoenix was host to 30,000 people.

World War II brought many changes to the city of Phoenix. The economy shifted to that of a military distribution and production center, rapidly turning into an industrial city with mass production of military supplies. Luke Field, Williams Field, and Falcon Field, coupled with the giant ground-training center at Hyder, west of Phoenix, brought thousands of new people into Phoenix. The introduction of air conditioning also aided in the expansion of the city by making summers more comfortable. Retirees began to flock to the city because of the region’s mild winters.

By 1950, over 100,000 people lived within the city and thousands more in surrounding communities. There were 148 miles (238 km) of paved streets and 163 miles (262 km) of unpaved streets.

In recent years Phoenix has maintained a massive growth streak that is second only to Las Vegas. The city has seen a 24.2% expansion since 2000. In just 50 years, the city has grown from 100,000 to 3 million – half the population of the entire state of Arizona. In 75 years, we expect to be over 5 million people strong and growing.

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