Just how did Arizona get its name? That question has been asked by historians and citizens for as long as there have been American historians and a place named Arizona. We know that the first use of the name Arizona in American history wasn't for our current state but for an area of land in 1855 that was located south of the Gila River and west of Mesilla, New Mexico. This land was formed into Arizona County of the New Mexico Territory in 1860.
When Captain Sherod Hunter rode into Tucson in January 1862 with 54 Confederate mounted riflemen, he occupied the "Arizona Territory" for the Confederate States of America. The Union's California Column would drive the Confederates from Tucson by June 1862 ending the South's occupation.
On February 24, 1863, right in the middle of the American Civil War, President Abraham signed the Organic Act that created for the Union the Territory of Arizona. The land area was that which we know today except for a triangular shape of land in the extreme northwest corner of the territory that today would include the the City of Las Vegas, Nevada. That triangular piece of the Arizona Territory, was called Pah-ute County, and what happened to it is another story on another day on this blog.
So the land we know as Arizona was now a territory of the United States but where did this unique and wonderful name, Arizona, come from? For twenty-five years we taught our students that the name Arizona came from two Tohono O'odham words - Ali meaning "small" and Shonak meaning "place of a spring." Ali-shonak - "place of the small spring." From Ali-shonak the word evolved over the years through mispronunciations into Arizona.
But now a ranger working at Tumacacori National Historic Park has come up with an idea for the origin of the name Arizona that is gaining much attention and acceptance. His name is Donald T. Garate' and we must admit, we think Ranger Garate' has finally got the story right.
Ranger Garate' believe that the name Arizona comes from the Basque language and means 'the good oak trees." He has been researching this question for over 30 years and his evidence is very compelling. His whole theory with footnotes can be found on a pdf file at this link - http://www.nps.gov/tuma/upload/Arizonac-Article.pdf
Here are a few of the highlights of his research...
1. The Basque people were common among the Spanish conquistadors and settlers in the New World. If the word "Arizona" came from American Indian words, then why is there an Arizona, Argentina and six villages named "Arizona" in Brazil? Costa Rica has a town named "Arizona" as well as an Arizona village in Guatemala and Honduras. All of these Central and South American "Arizonas" are in areas where Basque settlers made their homes.
2. Jesuit Luis Marciano, writing at 1:00 a.m. on Tuesday, May 8, 1736 is the first to make reference to a place called Arizona. From this letter and many others, Arizona was a general area whose landscape was covered with oak trees on the far northern frontier of the Spanish Empire.
3. In 1736 Bernardo de Urrea writes about living on the Arizona Ranch. He was the chief justice for the Arizona Judicial District. His ranch, covered with oak trees, was located some 15 miles south of Nogales, Arizona. Today the Arizona Ranch would be found in Sonora, Mexico.
We think that Ranger Garate' has finally discovered enough facts and evidence to proof that Arizona comes from the Basque words "aritz" meaning "oak", "on" meaning "good" and "a" meaning "the - Aritzona, "the good oak trees." Over time the "t" was lost and Arizona became the name for our beautiful home.
One final thought - plan a visit to Tumacacori National Historic Park and ask for Ranger Garate'. His knowledge of this area of Arizona is incredible and you will come away knowing so much about this part of Arizona and more of our amazing history.
Arizona - "the good oak trees"