Native Peoples and the Spanish
The Tucson region is one of the oldest continually inhabited areas in the United States; there’s a record of human existence in the valleys and mountains of Southern Arizona going back some 12,000 years.
In the 1930s, University of Arizona archaeologists began an archaeological dig on the Tohono O’odham Reservation southwest of Tucson, in Ventana Cave, named for a nearby hole in a rock outcropping that resembles a window (ventana is Spanish for window). Over the course of the dig, the archaeologists found a record of more than 10,000 years of regular human use of the cave, including 39 bodies of “pottery-bearing” and even “pre-ceramic” peoples.
While such hunter-gatherers living light on the land likely dominated this area for thousands of years, the first relatively complex culture to settle in the river valleys around Tucson—including the Santa Cruz River Valley south of the city, and the San Pedro River Valley to the southeast, were the Hohokam people. They lived in the region, farming using irrigation canals, from about A.D. 200 to about 1450.
By the time the Spanish arrived in what is now Southern Arizona, and what at the time was the far northern edge of the New World, the Hohokam were gone and their likely ancestors, the Tohono O’odham (“the desert people,” called the Papago for centuries) and the Akmiel O’odham (the “river people,” called the Pima for centuries), had settled in the Tucson area at the base of Sentinel Peak west of downtown and along the area’s rivers, which in those times were likely year-round streams that provided an abundance of food and other resources.
It is widely believed that the name Tucson came from the Pima word schookson, which roughly translates to “spring at the foot of Black Mountain“—the black mountain in this case being the basalt Sentinel Peak.
The Spanish also found another group of indigenous people living in Southern Arizona, the Apache. An Athabaskan tribe that moved into the area a century or more before the Spanish arrived, the Apache were at that time a semi-nomadic, hunter-gatherer culture that had a habit of raiding their neighbors and drawing the unending ire of the Spanish, then the Mexicans, then the Americans, before finally being defeated by the U.S. Army after a long and bloody war. Their descendants now live on reservations in northeastern and central Arizona.
While the famed Coronado expedition to discover the mythical Seven Cities of Cíbola moved through southeastern Arizona in the 1540s, it wasn’t until the 1690s, when the hardy Jesuit adventurer Father Eusebio Francisco Kino began his journeys into Southern Arizona and Sonora, that regular contact between the Spanish and the natives began. Kino brought cattle with him to the region for the first time, and established several long-lasting missions including San Xavier del Bac near Tucson, to this day still celebrating Mass in its dark, cool interior.
By the 1750s the Spanish crown had established a presidio or fort at Tubac, which was moved to the Tucson valley in 1775. Southern Arizona comprised the northern reaches of the Spanish New World empire, though it was sparsely populated and a violent, dangerous place to live. Spanish cattle ranchers and other hardy settlers fought Apaches and others for the right to live in the region, but for decades the north would remain too isolated and too dangerous to grow much.
The Mexicans won their independence from Spain in 1821 and so took over administration of the vast northlands. The wilderness was exploited somewhat for its resources, used for cattle ranching and placer mining by tough Mexican explorers, but mostly it was too far from the center of power and had too many dangerous Indians to be of much worth to the new nation.
© Tim Hull from Moon Tucson, 1st Edition