Why Is Phoenix the Capital of Arizona?

(Last Updated On: December 6, 2019)
Why Is Phoenix the Capital of Arizona?

Arizona is considered one of the most scenic states in the US, full of iconic Southwestern vistas. One could only imagine what it was like in the pioneer days when the state was first getting settled. The Arizona Territory was a strategic setting for the growing United States, but one thing you may not realize is that the current capital of Arizona, Phoenix, wasn’t the capital of the territory. In fact, the title changed hands between a few cities before finally settling on Phoenix. Here’s the complete story.

The Capital of Arizona

Naturally, the area that would eventually become Phoenix was originally occupied by Native Americans, in particular, the Hohokam people. Their presence can still be felt today, particularly in terms of the 135 miles of irrigation canals they created in order to make the arid region suitable for farming. In fact, these old canal paths would be used as starting points for several canals still in use today. 

Spanish exploration and natural issues would result in the bulk of the native groups leaving the area, and in 1539, Spain claimed rule over the Phoenix area. They held onto it all the way up until 1821, when it became the property of Mexico. Mexico would end up ceding the Phoenix area, as well as much of what is now the US Southwest, at the conclusion of the Spanish-American War in 1848.

Phoenix would be founded as a city proper by Civil War veteran Jack Swilling. Looking at the abandoned river valley, he noted that there was potential for farming here due to terrain and climate, with water being the only missing element. He had the idea of trying to follow the old Native American system as a blueprint, and the same year, a small community formed around 4 miles east of present-day Phoenix. There were a few names in the running for the city, including the less-impressive Pumpkinville. Lord Darrell Duppa ended up suggesting the Phoenix name, as the city was born from the ruins of a past civilization. On May 4th, 1868 Phoenix was officially recognized as a town.

Why Is Phoenix the Capital of Arizona?

Note, Phoenix had not been labeled as the state capital yet. This was because, in those early days, there was a lot of contention over what city should be the capital of Arizona, and it ended up switching 4 times before settling on Phoenix. 

The first  of the four could technically be one of two cities, largely due to the Civil War. In 1862, the Confederacy proclaimed the Confederate Arizona Territory, and in response, the Union created a new border, closer to what we see today. For the Confederacy, Tucson was the first territory capital. For the Union, it was Fort Whipple (modern-day Prescott).

After the conclusion of the war, Tucson ended up as the capital again. The reasoning behind the decision was pretty practical. Tucson was more well-developed than other cities in the territory. The Arizona Territorial Legislature Assembly also felt this was a way to ensure Confederate sympathy didn’t develop in the southern parts of the state. However, in 1879, the capital would be relocated to Prescott once again.

Fast forward another 10 years, and the capital had essentially spent an equal amount of time in the northern and southern parts of Arizona. Finally, it was decided that the capital should be somewhere more central, and Phoenix ended up fitting the bill. In 1889, it was officially labeled the capital.

Phoenix Today

The Capital of Arizona

Fast forward to today, and Phoenix is the fifth-largest city in the US in terms of population, with roughly 1.6 million people. To give a little bit of perspective, that places it behind only New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Houston. The bulk of the state’s modern economy is based around real estate, insurance, retail, and plant manufacturing, moving on from the agricultural background on which it was established.

Being a central part of the state, Phoenix is a great starting point for those who want to explore Arizona in general, be it for historical reasons or outdoor excursions. The city proper also has plenty to offer, including museums on the history of the region and some excellent Southwestern food.

Be sure to read these articles for more insight into how other state capitals came to be.