By Al Bates

The portability of Arizona Territory’s seat of government—Prescott to Tucson to Prescott to Phoenix—earned it the nickname of “Capital on Wheels.”

It began when Governor Goodwin told the first legislature at Prescott in late 1864, that “permanent” location of the territory’s seat of government was at the discretion of the legislature and the governor, but that he would yield to the legislature’s “knowledge of the territory and of the wishes and interests of the people … to determine that question satisfactorily.”

He added a caution, “I can only urge that no considerations of local advantage, or sectional feeling and jealousy, should be suffered to control a question of so great public importance, but that a point should be selected which will become the centre of population, and aid the development of the Territory.”

The first legislature quickly took up the topic.  First, a motion was made in the Council to locate the capital at Tucson, but that lost in a tie vote.  Then, while a bill locating the capital at Prescott was being considered in the lower house, three amendments were attempted.  The first motion proposed La Paz, a second proposed Walnut Creek.  Third, and finally, a location “at a point within ten miles of the junction of the Rio Verde with the Rio Salado … to be called Aztlan” was suggested.  Each proposal went down by the identical vote of nine to eight.

How serious were these lower house attempts to change the location from Prescott?   Tucson was not mentioned; La Paz had fringe credibility; Walnut Grove seems a strange choice; and the third proposal named an undeveloped area in the middle of nowhere.  So, for the moment, Prescott retained its grip on the title of Territorial Capital.

It was not until Arizona Territory’s fourth legislative session in 1867 that an act was passed—with the support of Governor Richard McCormick—that moved the capital to Tucson.  From Prescott there were instant claims of misdeeds.

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The Arizona State Capitol building in Phoenix—in use since 1901—was created as part of an effort to demonstrate that Arizona Territory was ready for statehood (Photo Courtesy of Author).

The Prescott Weekly Miner claimed that the move was done through fraud in an editorial in the issue of November 30, 1867: “We are assured upon good authority that improper proceedings to the extent of buying three or four members of the Fourth Legislature, and pledging to Governor McCormick to support him for Congress at that place [Tucson].  If this does not come under the head of improper proceedings, we are at loss to know what does.”

While the charges that fraud was used in moving the capital were never proven, the fact remains that Pima County gave McCormick an exceptionally large vote a year later when he was a candidate for Delegate to Congress.  McCormick ran a very poor second to his principal opponent, John A. Rush, in all counties except for Pima where he gained an unbelievable 91.6 per cent of the votes, leading to both victory and cries of voter fraud.

John Marion, the new owner/editor of the Miner vehemently expressed his anger at the move, perhaps feeling that Governor McCormick had cheated him earlier that year when investors including Marion bought the Prescott Weekly Miner from the governor.  McCormick’s reason for selling the newspaper are unrecorded, but when the capital moved south to Tucson, so also did the territory’s public printing contracts move to the Old Pueblo, eliminating a steady source of income for the Miner.

Prescott had its second brush with celebrity in 1877, again becoming the territorial capital when population shifts helped wrest the title back from Tucson.  But a third and final move was inevitable as a new population center was forming between the two rival cities.  In late 1867 Jack Swilling and associates had begun developing an irrigation system in the Salt River Valley leading to the establishment and rapid growth of the new city of Phoenix.  In 1889 Phoenix thus became the final “permanent” territorial capital as Arizona began to shed its raw frontier image.

How drastically times had changed during Arizona Territory’s first quarter century is illustrated by the transportation used for the moves.  The first two moves of the capital (to Tucson and back) had to be made by freight wagon over unpaved roads.  The third and final move (Prescott to Phoenix) was by railroad—even though it had to use a roundabout route through California since, as yet, there was no direct line.

“Days Past” is a collaborative project of the Sharlot Hall Museum and the Prescott Corral of Westerners International (www.prescottcorral.org). The public is encouraged to submit ideas for articles to dayspastprescott@gmail.com.