Phoenix is a vibrant city with spectacular scenery and an ideal climate for outdoor fun. The sixth largest city in the United States, Phoenix is the capital of Arizona. The people of Phoenix are made up of a variety of different cultural and ancestral backgrounds with each group contributing its own unique set of traditions and ways of life. Although comparatively young for a city in the United States, Phoenix has a storied past that is as intriguing as it is exciting. Phoenix played a significant role in making the American Southwest what it is today.
The Earliest Settlers
The first known settlers in the Salt River Valley region, where Phoenix is now located, were Native Americans. The Hohokam tribe flourished for a time, building a complex series of irrigation canals to supply drinking water and hydrate crops. Some of these irrigations canals are still in use. Possibly due to severe drought and subsequent flooding, the Hohokam abandoned the area sometime between 1300 A.D. and 1450 A.D. The Yavapai and Maricopa tribes settled in the Salt River Valley after the Hohokam departed.
Hispanic conquistadors invaded the Salt River Valley in the 1500s, bringing horses, cattle and innovative agricultural techniques. Traders, miners and farmers followed. After the Mexican-American War, the region became part of the United States. In 1865, Fort McDowell was built on the Verde River by the United States Army to subdue Native American uprisings. The presence of the military proved to be a turning point, encouraging the growth of non-native settlements.
A Confederate Civil War veteran, Jack Swilling traveled west to seek his fortune. On a visit in 1867, Swilling observed the Hohokam-built canal paths and realized the region’s farming potential. Swilling commissioned the building of a new series of canals that followed the path of the ancient system. Shortly after, a small community of people settled nearby. Named “Phoenix,” symbolic of the mythical bird that rises from ashes, the town was incorporated in 1881. Arizona became a state in 1912 with Phoenix as its capital.
From Frontier Town to Prosperous City
Phoenix, along with many other western towns, became known as raucous and rowdy. Saloons, gambling houses and a lawless atmosphere contributed to its well-deserved reputation. The arrival of the Southern Pacific Railroad in the 1880s was the first important step toward change. More efficient than wagons, rail service meant that products could go in and out of the region at a much faster rate. Phoenix quickly became a major trading center. New settlers found it easier to travel by train than wagon and a steady stream of immigrants began to arrive.
Significant technological advances in the late 1800s and early 1900s contributed to the growth in population. The Theodore Roosevelt Dam was built between 1905 and 1911 as a water irrigation system and flood controller. The invention and widespread use of air conditioning improved the quality of life, making it possible for people to live comfortably in the hot climate. More recently, the completed construction of the Central Arizona Project (CAP) aqueduct system delivers water from a number of sources, including the Colorado River, to Phoenix and the rest of the central Arizona region, fueling robust agricultural and industrial development.
Phoenix is a city of growth and opportunity. A culturally rich metropolis, Phoenix is home to music venues, museums, world-class cuisine, universities, colleges and professional sports teams. What was once a rugged frontier town is now an important business and cultural hub. Meeting challenges is part of the history of Phoenix. There is no doubt that it will continue to rise above them and prosper.
See the following resources for more information:
The History and Founding of Phoenix
- History of Phoenix – This comprehensive outline covers the history of the Salt River Valley and Phoenix from 700 A.D. to the present day.
- The Hohokam – This capsule of the Hohokam and their culture explains how the impressive irrigation canals were built and possible reasons for the tribe’s departure.
- Hohokam Canal System – This resource contains a brief history of the Hohokam and a comprehensive discussion of the canal system they built and the environmental impact the canals made.
- Hohokam Chronology – This archeological resource discusses the discoveries of Emil W. Haury and Harold Gladwin who excavated a southern Arizona site and discovered, identified and classified Hohokam pottery.
- The Mexican American War – Devoted to the war that, at its end, handed the Salt River Valley to the United States, this comprehensive resource discusses how it started and its lasting effects.
- The Good Ol’ Days: Development of the Salt River Valley – This water history timeline outlines the early attempts and methods to bring more water to the Salt River Valley region for agricultural purposes.
- The Phoenix Indian School, 1896 – This resource reproduces a newspaper article from 1896 that promoted the largest Indian school in the Southwest and discusses the school’s attempt to “civilize” native children.
- A Pima Past – This synopsis outlines the lives of the Pima Indians before, during and after white settlers arrived in the Salt Valley region.
- Phoenix and Arizona Weather History – This National Weather Service Forecast Office resource chronicles the somewhat surprising history of Phoenix weather.
- History of Maricopa County Flooding – A historical account from 1889 to the present day, this resource outlines the floods that have occurred in and around Phoenix.
- Arizona Statehood – This historical account of the day Arizona became a state captures the spirit of the triumphant celebrations.
- Jack Swilling of Arizona – This biography of Jack Swilling includes letters written to his wife after he left her to find his fortune in the west.
- Theodore Roosevelt Dam – This historical outline describes the engineering and construction of the dam.
- Central Arizona Project Water – This comprehensive guide to Arizona water resources discusses how the Central Arizona Project aqueduct was built and how it works.
- History of Railroads and Maps – This historical account discusses the progression of the railroad throughout the United States and outlines the role the Southern Pacific railroad had in the growth of the American Southwest.
- Phoenix Arizona Census Bureau QuickFacts – This statistical analysis from the United States Census Bureau delivers a breakdown of the ethnic population of Phoenix taken from the 2010 census.
- Employment and Wage Estimates – Covering Phoenix, Mesa and Glendale, this statistical resource calculates employment numbers for a wide range of occupations and estimates wages and employment demand.
- Central Arizona – Phoenix LTER – This resource discusses the Central Arizona – Phoenix Long-Term Ecological Research project that scientifically studies the human-induced ecological developments that result from changes in land use.
- Arizona Industry Projections Report – This Arizona Office of Employment and Population Statistics resource reports employment and occupational growth projections for the next two years.
- Phoenix Community Profile – This resource provides an overview of the city of Phoenix. It cites population, and general facts about the area.