Arizona’s Wandering Capital

On December 27, 2015 · 2 Comments

The article I discovered was more than a year old, although it was new to me when I spotted it. The title intrigued me, Did You Know: Capital Of Arizona Moved 4 Times Before Settling In Phoenix. No, actually I didn’t know that. I’ve featured similar stories of wandering capitals for other states such as Ohio, Georgia and Alabama. Why not one about Arizona capitals too? The article provided a nice overview so that I could explore some of the stranger aspects and then the actual locations of its multiple former capitol buildings.

Mesilla, New Mexico


Wpdms arizona new mexico territories 1863 idx.png
Wpdms arizona new mexico territories 1863 idx“.
Licensed under Wikimedia Commons.

For instance, the first Arizona capital was actually located in New Mexico although not according to the United States government. The Confederate States of America had a surprisingly strong presence in the neglected farthest southern reaches of the western desert. The New Mexico territory encompassed an area occupied by modern New Mexico and Arizona at the time. The Confederates claimed the southern half as Arizona during the Civil War, placing their eastern capital in Mesilla when troops under Col. John Baylor arrived in February 1862. No signs remained of their original capitol building although it stood where the historic Fountain Theater was constructed in the 1870’s and still operates today (map). The Confederate government wouldn’t last long there. Union troops drove Baylor and his rebellious forces into Texas a few months later.


Prescott


Sharlot Hall Museum: Governor’s Mansion
Sharlot Hall Museum: Governor’s Mansion by Rosa Say on Flickr (cc)

The United States government looked unfavorably upon the Confederate incursion as one would expect. It diluted Confederate sympathies by cleaving Arizona from the western half of New Mexico rather than the southern half. Prescott became the Arizona capital in late 1863 at nearby Fort Whipple (map), an Army base. A few months later the capital moved into the town of Prescott proper and into more suitable accommodations. A large log building served as the seat of government as well as the governor’s home. It was sold as a private residence when no longer needed, when the capital finally wandered away to a new location for good. The building was preserved at its original location and now forms the backbone of the Sharlot Hall Museum (map).

As the museum explained,

The log house served as both home and office for Territorial Governor John Goodwin and Secretary Richard McCormick. In September 1865, when Goodwin was elected Territorial Delegate to Congress and returned to the east, McCormick brought his new wife Margaret out from New Jersey, and he soon became our second territorial governor… In 1867, the Territorial Capital was transferred to Tucson, and Governor McCormick went with it.


Tucson


Charles O Brown House
Charles O Brown House by javacolleen on Flickr (cc)

The capital would remain in Tucson for the next decade, from 1867-1877 (it had also served as the western Confederate capital briefly during the war). However, Arizona didn’t build a dedicated structure to house the territorial government. The permanent location for its seat of government continued to remain unsettled, with political forces nearly evenly divided between choosing Prescott and Tucson. Instead the territorial government met in several privately-owned facilities spread throughout the town at any given time, most famously the Congress Hall Saloon. I had a difficult time finding the exact location of the saloon because it was torn down in the early 1900’s. However I finally did track the site down to a spot along one of Tucson’s major road — Congress Street (named for the saloon). The cross streets were Congress and Meyer (map) although Meyer no longer extends through there anymore.

The Congress Hall Saloon played a prominent role in the history of Tucson. Charles Brown was its proprietor, and his home still exists at 40 W. Broadway Boulevard, a couple of blocks to the east of the old saloon. Not only did the saloon serve as an informal territorial capital it also hosted an 1871 meeting "of prominent townsmen… during which the municipality of Tucson was organized and officers elected." It was one of the few structures of a suitable size in an emerging frontier town so it didn’t matter that alcohol served as its primary purpose for existence.


Phoenix


Arizona Capitol Museum
Arizona Capitol Museum by Matthew Hendley on Flickr (cc)

Political wrangling continued. The capital moved back to Prescott in 1877 where it remained until 1889. Finally, the legislature settled on Phoenix. This time the location stuck. This was a compromise choice placed about halfway between Prescott and Tucson. If politicians couldn’t decide on one town or the other at least they could stick it in the middle. A new capitol building (map) soon emerged on the spot and remained in service until the 1960’s when replaced by the current capitol building adjacent to it. The original Phoenix structure then became the Arizona Capitol Museum.

Old sympathies died hard on the frontier and more than a few recalcitrant Confederates remained in Arizona decades after the Civil War ended. Arizona became a state on February 14, 1912. That was fifty years to the day from when Colonel Baylor declared a Confederate Arizona on February 14, 1862, establishing its capital in Mesilla.

On December 27, 2015 · 2 Comments

2 Responses to “Arizona’s Wandering Capital”

  1. Peter says:

    On a trip to Phoenix about ten years ago I was rather surprised to see that literally just a couple of blocks west of the Capitol is a neighborhood that, if not exactly a ghetto, is not the sort of place where one would want to linger after dark. Arizona probably vies with Connecticut for the dubious title of Shortest Distance from the Capitol to the ‘hood.

  2. Joel says:

    When is the last time a US state moved its capital? It seems like it used to be much more common than it is today.

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