When John N. Goodwin was appointed Governor of the Arizona Territory, following the untimely death of the first appointed governor, selecting a site for the capital became one of his primary concerns. Many factors weighed into the final decision.
In January 1864, Governor Goodwin arrived at Fort Whipple, north of present day Prescott. He announced the fort would be the temporary government headquarters. Throughout his journey to the territory, and during the subsequent tour of the vast wilderness, he considered three options for the capital: Tucson, La Paz, and what eventually became known as Prescott.
Tucson and La Paz were both rather large towns at the time. Some sources site La Paz at nearly 5,000 people, the largest town in the territory. However, the gold mine town of La Paz sat on the far western edge of the territory along the Colorado River, making it a poor choice simply based on location. Tucson provided a better alternative, located in the south central area of the territory. However, the population of Tucson was comprised mostly of southern sympathizers and Mexicans during the height of the Civil War. This made Tucson unattractive for a Union governor trying to encourage northern sympathizers to settle in the new territory.
Then, there was a little cluster of gold mine camps along the Hassayampa River—modern day Prescott. With a population of less than 100, the settlement did not become a town until after being selected as the capital. What made Prescott so attractive? It sat near the geographic center of the territory. It was situated next to Fort Whipple, where Union troops from the California Column were stationed. The climate was milder than both La Paz and Tucson. After touring the territory, Goodwin ultimately selected Prescott, spurring a flurry of growth for the newly born town.
However, the drama of the capital site was not finished. The first legislative session started in September 1864, where they voted on a proposal to move the capital from Prescott to Tucson. The measure was defeated by a very small margin. Eventually, the capital did move to Tucson in 1867, during Richard McCormick’s term as governor. Then, in 1877, the capital returned to Prescott for twelve years before moving to its final location in Phoenix in 1889.
- In 1868, La Paz vanished after the Colorado River shifted course. The town moved to present day Ehrenburg, which is why you will not find the town of La Paz on modern maps.
- Though Jack Swilling “discovered” the area that would become Phoenix in 1857, no significant population resided in the area during the initial discussions regarding the capital location. It wasn’t until the 1870’s that Phoenix started to grow.
- The Confederate States also tried to claim the Arizona Territory during the Civil War, setting the capital in Tucson.