How did Tucson miss being first territorial capital?


By Al Bates, Special to the Courier

During the lengthy debates in the US Congress about splitting a new territory to be named Arizona from New Mexico Territory, the popular assumption was that the new territory’s capital would be located at Tucson—and that stipulation was included in an early version of the Arizona Organic Act. But it did not happen.

How was it that Tucson was bypassed in favor of Prescott as the choice to become Arizona Territory’s first capital city?

 

The most common answer is that “Tucson was a hotbed of rebel sympathizers” or a similarly easy but inaccurate answer. It also could be said that Prescott won because it was in the midst of a gold rush of great promise and Tucson was not, but that too is only part of the story.

 

It was true that Tucson’s minority of white American residents had been mostly sympathetic to the Confederate cause, but that was just one negative factor in the ultimate decision. Besides, the most strident of the rebel sympathizers had fled or had been arrested when James Carleton and his California Column flushed the few rebel troops in Arizona “back to Texas” in 1862.

 

On the other hand, though Tucson was the largest community in the territory, it was not growing as rapidly as the area around Prescott, and the mostly treeless adobe village had little to offer in the eyes of eastern newcomers. General Carleton for one expressed extreme dislike for Tucson—a view shared by most eastern visitors of those times—and was quick to recommend the diggings at the Central Arizona Highlands as the appropriate site for territorial governance—well before Prescott was founded. It was Carleton who influenced Governor Goodwin to change his governmental party’s route of entry from New Mexico into Arizona so as to bypass Tucson and head directly to the gold fields.

 

Among the duties the Arizona Organic Act assigned to John N. Goodwin, Arizona’s first serving territorial governor, was to select the site for a territorial capital, but that was far down a list of priorities that began with the definition of three judicial districts that would stand in for counties in the first election of a bicameral legislature. The next necessary event enabling the first election was a special census (non-Indian only) used to apportion legislative seats among the three districts.

 

While the census was ongoing in the spring of 1864, the governor spent almost two months in the Gadsden Purchase area, providing him with an extended opportunity to evaluate Tucson as the location for the capital. Evidently he came away with an opinion similar to that of General Carleton.

 

The first territorial election was held July 18, 1864. Still the governor remained mum—at least in public—about when and where the legislature would meet. A hint to his intentions had emerged when construction began across Granite Creek from the Prescott town site of a large residence to be shared by the governor and Territorial Secretary Richard McCormick.

 

Then, on July 20 the Arizona Miner newspaper let the cat out of the bag, stating that, “As is now known that the governor will convene the Legislature at Prescott, . . .” The article went on to explain how a suitable structure to be built by Van C. Smith would be rented for the legislature’s use.

 

Here, Prescott sealed the deal by providing something that Tucson did not have, a place for the legislature to meet. (Tucson at that point almost completely lacked public buildings and had few accommodations for visitors.)

 

The Governor’s August 24 announcement that the legislature would meet at Prescott thus came as no surprise to Miner readers. But that was not the end of the story.

 

When Governor Goodwin addressed the Legislature’s opening session in Prescott he raised the question of where the “permanent” Territorial Capital should be—and then left the selection process to the legislators. It took three years for the legislators to rip the title from Prescott and to fix it on Tucson. However, that belated honor would not last for long, with the capital returning to Prescott for a time before its final move to Phoenix.

 

                                                                     © Michelle Young 2012