by Earl Hoagberg 

If the earliest settlers had prevailed, many of us would be living in "Granite City, Arizona"--not Prescott, for that was the name the miners themselves gave to the array of lean-tos and shacks along Granite creek in 1864. 

The story of the founding of Arizona's first territorial capital 135 years ago, and the choice of Prescott as its name, is a fascinating chapter in the annals of frontier America.

The location of a capital for the new Territory of Arizona was not specified in the Organic Act, signed by President Lincoln in 1863, though many advocated Tucson as the logical choice. 

Thus, as newly-appointed Governor John Goodwin and other territorial officers traveled west over the historic Santa Fe trail to assume their duties, the question of where to locate the capital was on their minds. 

The issue was partially resolved ten weeks later when the party reached Fort Union. General James Carleton, the post commander, argued against Tucson, citing the strong Mexican and Confederate influences in Arizona's most populous city. 

Carleton urged that the capital be located instead near the Territory's geographic center, where a new gold rush was attracting scores of miners. A month earlier he had dispatched troops to Chino Valley to establish Fort Whipple as protection for the miners and their property. 

On Carleton's advice, the Governor's party set out for Fort Whipple, arriving in the area now known as Del Rio Springs on January 20, 1864. Goodwin quickly determined, however, that the site was not suitable for the new capital. It was simply too far from mining activity along Granite, Lynx, and Hassayampa Creeks, and from a source of essential building timber. 

Less than a month after arriving at Fort Whipple, the governor organized an expedition to find a better location, and to evaluate mineral and agricultural resources. Eighty-four persons went with him, including a military escort and a number of citizens intent on "punishing" Indians that had been raiding and otherwise harassing miners and settlers in the region. 

Goodwin returned from his month-long foray with first-hand experience of the Indian problems facing miners and settlers. Together with a growing number of reports about Indian raids, the experience hardened his determination to act quickly. 

Fort Whipple, he decided, must be relocated to Granite Creek, twenty miles south of Del Rio Springs, and the capital should be sited "on a fine mesa east of Granite Creek and a couple of miles south of the post." The Governor sent his recommendations to General Carleton, who immediately ordered the removal of Fort Whipple to Granite Creek, site of the present-day Veteran's Hospital. 

The Arizona Miner reported on May 25, 1864, that "(The new site) is certainly attractive...and the name of 'Prescott' proposed for the town, will be an appropriate commemoration of the great American authority upon Aztec and Spanish-American history." It was the first public mention of a possible name for the Territory's new capital. 

The town was already informally known by names such as Granite City, Granite Dells, and Gimletville. And there were other suggestions, such as, Audubon, Aztlan, and Goodwin City. How much consideration these names were given is uncertain, but the Miner seems to have settled the issue with its confident declaration a week before. 

Those attending the public meeting at "Fort Misery" (now an historic building on the Sharlot Hall Museum grounds) on May 30, 1864, mainly hoped to have a voice in deciding how lots would be sold in the new town. Niceties like naming the town, and using the upcoming July 4th both to celebrate the nation's independence and properly inaugurate the new town were less important. Yet, these matters, too, were discussed and approved. When the meeting adjourned, a capital had been born and christened Prescott, in honor of the historian William Hickling Prescott who died in 1859 never having seen Arizona, whose name was unknown to early settlers until they read it in the Arizona Miner. 

The name Prescott was the idea of Richard W. McCormick, first Territorial Secretary, and owner-publisher of the Miner. Appointed to his post by his friend Abraham Lincoln, McCormick traveled to Arizona with Governor Goodwin's party. He brought with him "a select historical library (including Prescott's Conquest of Mexico), a design for the territorial seal, and a newspaper press." 

McCormick was the Governor's close friend, and functioned as de facto head of government during Goodwin's frequent absences on territorial business. He became a popular figure, known for his facile pen and polished oratory. With the power of the press - his press! - it's not hard to understand why McCormick's view of a proper name for the new capital prevailed. 

McCormick thought that it was William Hickling Prescott's view that central Arizona was the origin of the Mexican Aztecs and Toltecs. Actually the historian was uncertain about the exact location of their origin, saying only that the Aztecs came to Mexico from "the Northwest." 

The Arizona Miner, in its July 20,1864 edition, probably was expressing McCormick's mistaken views in saying, "...the name [Prescott] was preferred to Audubon and Granite City...because of the Aztec memorials everywhere existing in this region, and confirming the conclusions of the great American historian, Prescott, as to its former occupation..." 

The article went on to list William Hickling Prescott's outstanding professional and personal qualities which, it concluded, "should make us proud to have his name associated with a settlement for which we have faith to believe there is to be a prosperous future." 

(Earl Hoagberg is a volunteer at the Sharlot Hall Museum Archives and Library.) 

Illustrating image

Sharlot Hall Museum Photograph Call Number: (po2279p). Reuse only by permission.
William Hickling Prescott, who had never traveled to the West and died 5 years before our town was founded, wrote a book in which he, incorrectly, supposed the Aztec had come from this region. Richard McCormick, secretary of the Arizona Territory, brought along Prescott's books for his library and, through the power of the press named our city.