A Brief History of Tucson

From ancient Native American peoples to Spanish missionaries to Mexicans and gun-slinging cowboys, Tucson is an area rich in history and cultural diversity, which continues to distinguish the region today.

Once home to prehistoric people hunting woolly mammoths, Tucson today is a thriving city with an area population exceeding one million. It is a widely held belief that Tucson is the oldest continuously inhabited city in the United States.

The history of life in the Tucson valley began around 12,500 B.C. with the migration of Paleo-Indian and Archaic hunters and gatherers. A 13,000 year-old woolly mammoth kill-site has been confirmed southeast of Tucson. Tucson’s first inhabitants roamed the area hunting mammoth and bison between 12,500 and 6,000 B.C. Archaeological evidence suggests settlers lived in agricultural communities along Tucson’s Santa Cruz River more than 12,000 years ago.

Between A.D. 200 and 1450, the Hohokam Native American tribe thrived by farming the valley. Many area “pit houses” attest to their presence.

In 1540 the famous Spanish explorer Francisco Coronado led his expedition into Arizona in search of the “Seven Cities of Gold.” The expedition traveled north from Mexico past the back-side of the Catalina Mountains. Coronado National Forest is named for him.

In the early 1600’s, Spanish Jesuits traveled from Mexico to establish missions and convert the natives to Christianity. One of the Jesuits was Father Eusebio Francisco Kino, who passed through the Tucson area where he found a bustling Indian community nestled along the Santa Cruz River. Kino named the Indian village “San Cosme de Tucson” after “schook-son,” the name the Indians used. Schook-son means “spring at the foot of a black mountain” (today called “A” Mountain). Kino established the Mission San Xavier del Bac in 1699. It wasn’t completed until 1797. During this period, there was constant traffic between Mexico and Tucson as the empire-building Spaniards pushed their New World boundaries northward from Mexico City.

In 1757 the Mission San Augustin was established on the west bank of the Santa Cruz River. Construction of the mission and the convento was completed in the 1790’s.

In 1775, Hugo O’Conor established the Presidio of Tucson, a walled city. This is the year that marks the official birth date of the City of Tucson. Mines and ranches came into being at this time. By 1782, Tucson was serving as a military outpost.

Tucson became part of Mexico when Mexico fought for independence from Spain in 1821. After the Gadsden Purchase in 1854, Tucson fell under the jurisdiction of the United States. Tucson became known as a rowdy frontier town. Shootouts took place frequently and men rarely went unarmed on the streets. Outlaws and upstarts frequented Tucson saloons. Still, the city thrived.

In 1863, Arizona became an official territory of the U.S. During the Civil War, Confederate soldiers from Texas marched unopposed into Tucson, but were routed three months later by the California Volunteers who raised the flag of the United States over the Old Pueblo.

Between 1867 and 1877, Tucson held the title of territorial capital. When the trans-continental Southern Pacific Railroad arrived in 1881, Tucson was still a sleepy Mexican-appearing village of a few hundred inhabitants. It was during this time that Wyatt Earp, his brothers, and Doc Holliday passed through Tucson on their way to Tombstone. More than once, Wyatt came to Tucson for “business” purposes.

But, by the turn of the century, the Old Pueblo had become the business and supply center of a large territory, and was rapidly gaining renown as a health resort where Easterners came to relax and soak up the desert sunshine.

The University of Arizona was established in Tucson in 1895.

By 1900, Tucson had grown to a population of 7,531 and was the largest city in Arizona.

By 1910 the population swelled to 13,913. On February 14, 1912, Arizona became the 48th state in the Union.

By 1920, the city’s population had grown to 20,292, then to 36,818 in 1940.

On September 23, 1927, Charles Lindbergh landed his famous Spirit of St. Louis airplane in Tucson.

On January 25, 1934, famed outlaw John Dillinger was caught in Tucson, along with his gang.  Dillinger was renting a home at 927 N. 2nd Ave. (known as The Dillinger House) where he was captured.  The heavy oak bench Dillinger was handcuffed to still sits in the breezeway of the Tucson Train Depot.  Some of the firearms captured with Dillinger and his gang, including two Thompson sub-machine guns, are on display in the lobby of the downtown Tucson Police Station. 

By 1950, Tucson’s population had reached 120,000 and by 1960 it nearly doubled to 220,000. In 1951, famed aviator Howard Hughes broke ground on Hughes Missile Systems, now known as Raytheon Missile Systems.

Today, the metropolitan Tucson area has passed one million in population. Blessed with the natural beauty of the Sonoran Desert, a close proximity to forest-covered mountains and the Sea of Cortez, and an average of 360 sunny days a year, Tucsonans embrace an outdoorsy lifestyle. Words like laid-back, casual, and friendly are generally used to describe a “typical” Tucsonan.

Tucson is home to the University of Arizona, Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, and Raytheon Missile Systems. The city’s biggest industries are electronics and missile production.

Tucson’s unique past and rich mix of cultural influences remain important and are preserved and celebrated through numerous historic landmarks, festivals and traditions that help make the southwestern city a unique gem in the desert.