Although Arizona is the youngest of the contiguous states, it has been home to Native peoples for at least 12,000 years and to Spanish settlers predating American independence. The state’s long history can prove a fertile ground for your genealogy research.
By about 200 A.D., Pueblo tribes began living in adobe structures, sometimes built into caves or hillsides. And by about 450, the Hohokam were farming the Gila and Salt River valleys near present-day Phoenix, eventually constructing a 700-mile network of irrigation canals. A Hopi village, Oraibi, established around 1150, is thought to be America’s oldest continuously inhabited town. Later-arriving tribes included the Navajo and Apache.
The ﬁrst Spanish expedition, led by Father Marcos de Niza, arrived in 1539. De Niza’s report of ﬁnding the fabled Seven Cities of Cibola inspired Don Francisco Vásquez de Coronado to explore the Southwest from 1540 to 1542. Coronado’s party claimed the region for Spain, and a splinter expedition were the ﬁrst Europeans to see the Grand Canyon.
Unlike in neighboring New Mexico (where Santa Fe was founded in 1610), only a handful of Spaniards followed Coronado to Arizona. In 1687, Father Eusebio Francisco Kino began establishing missions in the Sonoran Desert, including San Xavier del Bac in 1700 south of present-day Tucson. Farther south, Tubac became the ﬁrst Spanish garrison (“presidio”) in Arizona in 1752, followed by Tucson in 1775.
MEXICAN INDEPENDENCE MEANS CHANGES
The American Southwest remained in Spanish hands until 1821, when Mexico gained its independence from Spain. Portions of Arizona were in the Mexican states of Alta California, Sonora and Nuevo México. But the Mexican-American War (1846–1848) ﬂipped Arizona’s ﬂag—and the rest of the “Mexican Cession”—to the stars and stripes. And in 1854, the Gadsden Purchase added the ﬁnal slice from the Gila River to today’s southern border.
From its acquisition by the United States, Arizona was part of the vast New Mexico Territory. The refusal of Congress to recognize a separate Arizona Territory led to the southern part of the region brieﬂy siding with the Confederacy during the Civil War. After the “California Column” of Union troops defeated the Confederates, President Lincoln established the Arizona Territory in 1863, with a provisional capital at Fort Whipple (later moved to nearby Prescott).
Although gold had been discovered in Gila City in 1858, Arizona’s fast-growing mining industry would ultimately focus on copper. Boomtowns ﬂourished and failed, leaving the state littered with ghost towns. Tombstone and Bisbee brieﬂy became the largest towns in the state and the wildest in the country, epitomized by the famous gunﬁght at Tombstone’s O.K. Corral in 1881. In the 1880s, the arrival of the railroad meant Arizona copper and cows could readily reach customers nationwide.
Tension between the growing numbers of European and American settlers and Native peoples (dating all the way back to a Pueblo revolt against the Spanish in 1680) continued to bubble over throughout the 1800s. This culminated in the Long Walk in 1864, when the US government forced 9,000 Navajo to relocate from eastern Arizona to Fort Sumner, New Mexico. Other forced relocations followed.
Armed resistance continued for several years, notably in the ongoing Apache and Tonto Wars. Conﬂict largely ended when Apaches under Geronimo surrendered to US General Nelson Miles at Skeleton Canyon in 1886.
Today, several Native American reservations are located in the state, and Arizona (with 20-plus tribes) has the third-largest Native population in the United States. The largest tribes include the Navajo Nation in the northeast and the Tohono O’odham Nation in the south along the Mexican border.
Statehood on 14 February 1912 signaled a population and economic expansion made possible by the previous year’s completion of the Roosevelt Dam, bringing reliable water to Phoenix. Arizona’s third “C,” cotton (after copper and cows) fueled further growth.
The arrival of Route 66 and the completion of Hoover Dam, followed by a wartime burgeoning in demand for aerospace industries, helped Arizona’s population reach 1 million by 1960 (and 7.2 million by 2019). A border state, Arizona has a large Mexican-American population, with some families tracing their lineage in the region to when Arizona was held by Mexico.
1540 Spaniard Vázquez de Coronado explores southeast Arizona and claims the region for Spain 1752 The first Spanish garrison (presidio) is founded in Tubac
Mexico (then including Arizona) wins independence from Spain 1848 The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo transfers vast swaths of land to the United States, including much of modern Arizona 1854 The United States buys southern Arizona in the Gadsden Purchase, establishing the modern US-Mexico border
1863 The Arizona Territory is formed; two years earlier, a separate Arizona Territory supported the Confederacy 1867 Arizona cedes much of its land west and north of the Colorado River (including modern Las Vegas) to Nevada 1886 Geronimo surrenders, largely ending armed conflict between the US armed forces and American Indians in the region
1912 Arizona joins the Union, the last of the Lower 48 1983 La Paz County is created from Yuma County, setting modern county boundaries
It’s easy to start exploring your Arizona ancestors’ history with vital records. Prior to 1909, when territory-wide registration of births and deaths began, individual counties kept these records.
Participating counties sent copies to the Arizona Department of Health Services, which has now made these and later records searchable online with PDF scans. There you can ﬁnd birth records 75 years after date of birth and death records 50 years after date of death. Later records can be ordered from the department online; you must document your relationship to the person.
Arizona has no statewide marriage registration, however. An 1864 law required county recorders to keep marriage and divorce records. This responsibility moved to county probate courts in 1891, and ﬁnally to the superior court clerk after 1912; see www.azcourts.gov/az-courts/az-courts-locator. Finding marriage information once you’ve identiﬁed the correct court, however, can be tricky, as marriage documentation is not the court’s primary focus.
A special census was taken of the newly separate Arizona Territory in 1864, when the ﬁrst four counties—Yavapai, Mohave, Yuma and Pima—were organized. Subsequent territorial censuses were taken; only the 1864 and 1882 enumerations list all household members. All are available at Ancestry.com.
Arizona Territory was enumerated on its own in the US census beginning in 1870, and as part of New Mexico Territory in 1860. These and later headcounts are available at FamilySearch and major subscription sites. The ﬁrst post-statehood census was in 1920. Various “great registers” of voters may also be used as census substitutes and supplements. FamilySearch has these, organized by county, indexed and searchable with images, while Ancestry.com has a compiled collection covering 1866 to 1955.
Early probate records were kept by probate courts in New Mexico Territory, then by Arizona county probate courts. Since statehood, they’ve been handled by the superior courts. FamilySearch has a collection of Maricopa County (Phoenix) probate records, and Ancestry.com has a statewide collection.
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