Legends of the past: 9 of the oldest cities in Arizona

Legends of the past: 9 of the oldest cities in Arizona

Photo courtesy of Canva

By Teresa K. Traverse

November 1, 2023

As the 48th state to join the Union, Arizona is relatively new, but it still has a ton of fascinating history—especially stemming from its location smack dab in the middle of the Wild West. If you’re looking to do a deeper dive on this subject, we’ve compiled this list to help you learn more about some of the oldest cities in Arizona. From mining settlements that have dropped in population over time to the Grand Canyon State’s largest city, here are nine of the oldest cities in Arizona and how they got started. 


Incorporation date: 1909 

Estimated population: 7,920

A popular stop for those traveling from Phoenix to Las Vegas, Wickenburg is named for Henry Wickenburg, who, like many before him, came to town searching for gold. He eventually founded the Vulture Mine, where more than 340,000 ounces of gold and 260,000 ounces of silver were mined over its decades in operation. The nearby Hassayampa River was another reason the town flourished. Wickenburg and other miners founded the town back in 1863, and it was officially incorporated in 1909. 


Incorporation date: 1900

Estimated population: 24,795

Founded in 1866, Florence claims to be the sixth-oldest non-Indigenous settlement in the Grand Canyon state, according to the city’s website. Due to the city’s location just south of the Gila River, early settlers re-dug the prehistoric canals and used them to irrigate their fields. That and the fertile grounds gave Florence the reputation as an agricultural center, according to the Greater Florence Chamber of Commerce

Florence became the county seat of Pinal County. A silver mine found about 30 miles away brought plenty of prosperity and no shortage of problems. In 1878, the city became known as “the Garden City” due to its lush grass. The town was finally incorporated in 1900. Today, you can visit the McFarland State Historic Park, with a center located in an old adobe brick building that once served as a jail house, dance hall, and hospital. 


Incorporation date: 1899

Estimated population: 475

Located at an elevation of 5,000 feet in the Black Hills of Arizona, Jerome was inhabited by the Hohokam people between 700 and 1125 AD. In the late 16th century, Spanish explorers were looking for gold but left after deciding the copper mines weren’t worth checking out—but those same copper mines paid off in a big way for those who were willing to work them, and the town eventually thrived. In 1875, the first mining claims and a mill site were purchased by United Verde Copper Company. The camp was named Jerome after Eugene Jerome, a major financier of the United Verde Copper Company. Jerome was such a boom town that in the early 1900s, nearly 15,000 people lived there. Today it’s closer to 500. 


Incorporation date: 1894

Estimated population: 75,907

After Arizona became an American territory in 1848, Congress sent out individuals to explore uncharted territories. Lt. Edward Beale was sent to build a road in northern Arizona. He told Congress that Flagstaff was rich in water, grasslands, and timber, but due to Flagstaff’s isolation, it was nearly impossible to ship those goods anywhere to utilize them. One group of emigrants was planning to settle in Winslow but, after finding it already settled, decided to move on. They stopped in modern day Flagstaff. In honor of the centennial, the group raised an American flag on a pine tree. That marker eventually became the name for the town of Flagstaff. 

Sheep ranchers found a home in the town since wool doesn’t spoil and could survive long journeys. In 1880, the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad began to lay track from Albuquerque to California, which brought plenty more people along the route. When the railroad finished construction in 1882, Flagstaff was established as a railroad, livestock, and timber town in addition to a service industry of merchants, cafes, and hotels that catered to cowboys, lumberjacks, train travelers, and sheepherders. The town became incorporated on May 26, 1894, and the lumber, cattle, and sheep industries continued to thrive. 


Incorporation date: 1883 

Estimated population: 512,498

Mesa was founded in 1878 by Mormons who created an original townsite of just 1 square mile. The city’s first school, the Little Adobe School, was built in 1882. Mesa was incorporated in 1883 after local residents voted to do so, according to the Arizona Museum of Natural History


Incorporation date: 1881

Estimated population: 47,603

Located in northern Arizona, Prescott was founded back in 1864 as the territorial capital of Arizona. Prescott is named after historian and author of “The History of the Conquest of Mexico,” William Hickling Prescott.  It was actually founded by Congress and President Abraham Lincoln to help secure riches for the Union during the Civil War. Prescott’s buildings were entirely made out of wood, and most of the buildings in the business district burned down in 1900. Prescott was rebuilt with buildings made out of stone or brick, and it remained the capital until 1889, when that title was transferred to Phoenix. 


Incorporation date: 1881

Estimated population: 1,644,409

One of the oldest cities in the Grand Canyon State is its current capital city, Phoenix. According to the city’s website, Phoenix got its unofficial start when Jack Swilling of Wickenburg stopped his horse near the White Tank Mountains. He stared out at a vast swath of farmland and realized all it needed was water. He eventually set up the Swilling Irrigation Canal Company, which created canals that brought water to the city. 

Here’s the generally accepted story of how Phoenix got its name: In 1868, Swilling’s Mill began to take shape in the area around his canal company. Swilling, a former Confederate soldier, wanted to name the area Stonewall after Stonewall Jackson. Others wanted Salina, but neither name took. Darrell Duppa was the one who suggested the name Phoenix, since the city was being built on the ruins of a former civilization founded by Indigenous folks. Phoenix was officially recognized by the Yavapai County (where it was located at the time) Board of Supervisors on May 4, 1868, but not incorporated until Feb. 25, 1881, when the town still had a population of 2,500. 


Incorporation date: 1881 

Estimated population: 1,309

Southern Arizona’s Tombstone is perhaps best known as the site of the OK Corral gunfight, and it is one of the oldest cities in all of Arizona. It was founded in 1877 by Ed Schieffelin, who was there on a scouting voyage against the Chiricahua Apaches. He would leave camp to search for rocks even though he was warned by others that he would only find his own tombstone. He did find a silver mine, however, which was named The Tombstone, according to the town’s Chamber of Commerce. You can still visit Schieffelin’s actual tombstone, located just 2 miles from the town. 


Incorporation date: 1877

Estimated population: 546,574

And the oldest city in Arizona (drumroll, please) is Tucson. It was founded on Aug. 20, 1776, an event that is celebrated annually at La Fiesta de San Agustín. The city had already been inhabited by the Hohokam natives for 4,000 years before, in the late 1600s, Spanish missionaries and soldiers got to the area and built some landmarks that are still standing today. These include the famed Mission San Xavier del Bac and Presidio San Agustín del Tucson. One of the nicknames for the Presidio? The Old Pueblo, which remains one of Tucson’s nicknames to this day. In 1854, as part of the Gadsden Purchase, all of Arizona was legally purchased from Mexico and became part of the United States. Tucson was incorporated as a city in 1877, making it Arizona’s oldest incorporated city, according to Visit Tucson

BONUS: Oraibi Village

Although never formally incorporated into the United States, we couldn’t finish this list without mentioning Oraibi Village, known as the oldest continuously inhabited community in the US. The history of this Hopi village is fascinating, as it may have been founded back in 1100, according to Atlas Obscura. Today, it’s populated by Hopi traditionalists. Little is known about this place since photography is not allowed, and while outside visitors are not banned, they’re also not welcome. 

READ MORE: 6 strange UFO sightings in Arizona and what we know (and don’t know) about them


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