This blog explores the history of Phoenix, Arizona and a little bit of Los Angeles and San Francisco, California

Why people came to live in Arizona


Every time my friends from California visit me, I see Phoenix, and Arizona, through their eyes. And while there are a lot of things that they like, such the abundance of parking spaces, I do notice that there is always that question hanging in the air - “why would anyone want to live in such a harsh climate?”

Now don't get me wrong, I love Phoenix. And the climate hasn't been a problem for me. My career has been spent in air-conditioned buildings, I have always had an air-conditioned car, etc. It may get to 115 degrees out there, but I'm in cool comfort all of the time.

Yesterday, as I was staring out into the desert at the Casa Grande Ruins, I was asking myself again “what were people doing here?” Yes, the river flowed right nearby, there appeared to be plenty of accommodations for living, and even places where games were played (I love that part!), but really, it was in the Sonoran Desert, which has been an extremely harsh place since the last ice age, 10,000 years ago. And the answer, of course, is the same as the reason people populated the entire planet after wandering out of Africa, they needed space. And yeah, some people were in what are known as “marginal areas”, that is, pretty much the last place that anyone would choose to be, but it's a place. You can put labels on the groups of people who lived in what is now called Arizona, but they're just people.

The next big group of people who arrived in the area that includes Arizona were the Spanish. You know, conquistadors, people looking for gold. And if you remember your history lessons, you remember that even though Christopher Columbus was Italian, he sailed with the financing of Spain. He was looking for the spices of the Orient, didn't find any, and went home. Of course, people who went to the trouble of going to such a disappointing place came back with stories of treasure, especially gold. The conquistadors didn't find the cities of gold (because they never existed), they just pretty much made a mess of things and killed a lot of people.

The next wave of people from Europe were also from Spain, but their interest wasn't gold, it was salvation. People like Father Kino were interested in teaching their religion to the people that the conquistadors had discovered, or what was left of them. Spain established churches, or missions, from what is now modern-day Mexico up through California. Take a look at a map and run your finger up from Mexico, through Tucson, along the Gila River, through Yuma, across the California desert, and then from Los Angeles to Monterey. The Pacific Coast Highway is El Camino Royale, the (Spanish) King's Road.

Nowadays there are so many hard edges, like freeways, and state and county boundaries, that it's just about impossible to imagine Mexico, Arizona, and California as just one continuous place. But it is. And people have lived there for centuries, and for their own reasons.

Image at the top of this post: Pueblo Grande looking southeast towards where Tempe is nowadays.