History of Tucson

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In 1698, Jesuit Father Eusebio Francisco Kino, on his way north from what is now Mexico to explore possible sites for building new missions, came across an Indian village called Shuk Shon. During the 70 years of Spanish colonial acquisition that followed his visit into the territory later known as Arizona, the place was renamed San Agustin del Tucson, with the hard "c" in the middle still pronounced. Both the saint's name and the "c" were later dropped by Anglo-Americans, with St. Augustine Cathedral downtown now the only surviving memory of the Spanish name.

When Father Kino arrived, people had already lived in the region for more than 2000 years. Anasazi, Mogollon, Hohokam, and O'odham tribes came and went in successive waves of immigration over the centuries. One of the favorite settlements lay at the base of a big hill of black volcanic rock, "Chuk Shon" (meaning, roughly, "village of the spring at the foot of the black mountain" in the O'odham language), an elevation now officially called Sentinel Peak, also nicknamed A Mountain for the large whitewashed letter (for University of Arizona) on its eastern side. In any case, it is one of the best lookout points, commanding a view of the entire Tucson basin.

A few miles further to the South, out of a nearby village named Bac, the Jesuits worked to convert the local Pima Indians to the Christian faith. Today, this is the location of Mission San Xavier del Bac, the "White Dove of the Desert," known for its beauty world-wide.

Though the colonialists from Europe were not exactly considered friends by the Indians of Bac, they seemed the lesser evil compared to the Apache raiders that moved into the Tucson valley, to the extent that the Pima and O'odham asked for Spanish military assistance against the Apaches. The Jesuits, who had to be considered inept in effectively defending the locals, were replaced with Franciscan priests who understood the strategic importance of Tucson. Finally, in 1775, an Irish mercenary in Spanish employ known as Don Hugo O'Connor, arrived to establish a presidio, or military fort here. Though nothing is now left of the structure, El Presidio Park downtown still marks the fort's original location.

Over time, the Apaches agreed to behave more peacefully, colonial New Spain gained independence from the Spanish crown, and the new Mexican government decided to discontinue the frontier mission system. As a consequence, the settlement at the foot of the black mountain gradually disintegrated, vanished into the ground, to be later temporarily used as a landfill. Today, a barren field remains bearing no traces of its long and eventful history.

While the village at the foot of Sentinel Peak slowly disappeared, a new Mexican village slowly grew up around the Spanish presidio, nicknamed the Old Pueblo, an endearing term still used for the city. After the Gadsden Purchase of 1854 following the Mexican-American War, which gave a large part of Sonoran territory to the United States, the village quickly became a new American frontier town, even serving as capital of the Arizona Territory from 1867 to 1877. Now, cattle ranchers moved into the valley, and mining companies began prospecting the mountains for copper and gold. But the real boom came with the arrival of the railroad in 1880, allowing goods and raw materials to be transported at drastically reduced costs.

The railroad brought wealthy entrepreneurs and investors that undermined the influence of the dominant Mexican business community. It also afforded more convenient access to Tucson for Anglo brides, and by the end of the 19th century, Latinos found themselves outnumbered by whites. Although Tucson has drawn many outstanding citizens from its Mexican-American community, with immigration from South of the border now gradually shifting the balance back in its favor, Anglo-Americans continue to have greater public influence to this day.

As Easterners considered Mexican housing primitive, they began replacing the mud-brick adobe buildings with imported brick and lumber first, concrete and steel later, thus drastically changing the look of Tucson. With Anglos pushing into formerly Mexican-American territory, many of the old adobes fell into disrepair and were eventually bulldozed into oblivion. Today, with the adobe style being the rage, many Tucsonans wish that those "primitive" but cool and practical houses were still standing. Luckily, some of the original adobes have been preserved in the Barrio Historico district south of downtown. The uneasy relationship between pioneers, Indians, and Mexicans is well documented both at the Arizona Historical Society and the Fort Lowell Museum, while people interested in the more distant past of Arizona and its original inhabitants will find a wealth of material at the Arizona State Museum. Mexican culture is celebrated during the annual Cinco de Mayo celebrations, and the local Tohono O'odham and Yaqui people keep their traditions alive in the Wa:k Powwwow and Yaqui Easter Lenten Ceremony.

Another ethnic group that made a significant impact on Tucson's economic growth were the Chinese. In the 1870s, the Southern Pacific Railroad started recruiting Chinese men as a cheap and reliable labor force to do the backbreaking work of extending the railroad across the desert. When the job was done, some of the Chinese laborers returned home, but many were hired by local mining companies to work the copper mines. After decades of mutual mistrust and prejudice, their descendants are now well integrated into Tucson's ethnic mix, and proudly present their rich cultural heritage at the Asian Lunar New Year Celebration.

With the discovery of silver and copper deposits at the nearby towns of Tombstone and Bisbee, minerals became the dominant industry in Southern Arizona until copper prices took a nosedive in the 1970s. Many mines were closed at the time, but the effects of decades of strip mining, both in its economically beneficial and environmentally damaging aspects, can still be viewed at the Asarco Mineral Discovery Center.

When the mining business went into a slump, aerospace and aircraft industries moved in to pick up the slack, a development extensively documented at the Pima Air and Space Museum. Since the founding of the University of Arizona in 1891, Tucson has gradually shed its image as a rugged Western town filled with cowboys, miners, and hard-dinking gamblers and replaced it with the marks of intellectual and technological activity. Due to the presence of the university, the city is now home to several hi-tech companies. It is also one of the world centers of astronomy, as certified by the presence of nearby Kitt Peak National Observatory.

Health-seeking tuberculosis patients have been flocking to the dry climate of Tucson ever since the railroad made the harsh desert more accessible to more fragile individuals, and over the past few decades, the city has become the center of a booming health industry. Every year, thousands of visitors from the northern regions, mostly senior citizens, come to stay and enjoy the mild winter sun of Southern Arizona, thus securing the financial health for the numerous spas, resorts, real estate agencies, and Southwestern souvenir shops in the region.

Today, one of the main issues confronting Tucson, just as Arizona's present capital Phoenix and many other cities in the west , is how to deal with urban sprawl. Since the 1950s, city development has run out of control, spawning tacky strip malls along Tucson's street grid and nondescript tract homes at the outskirts, while parts of the old barrio downtown were leveled to make room for 60s-and 70s-style highrises and concrete structures such as the Tucson Convention Center. In recent years, however, Tucsonans have learned to consider their architectural and ethnic heritage as more of an asset helping to attract tourists and conventioners to their city. By the early 1990s, what remained of the barrio had been restored, and the depressed downtown revived with some success by the Tucson Arts District. Still, the controversy over urban development continues, and for the foreseeable future, the diverging demands of job security, population growth, water conservation, environmental protection, and esthetics promise to dominate the political agenda in the Old Pueblo.