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Tucson - History

Tucson History

Indian oral histories relate a mythical version of how humans first came to the region by hitching a ride with an accommodating constellation, but the oldest physical evidence of habitation in southwestern USA dates from 9000 BC; it's likely, though, that man lumbered into the area even earlier than this. Agriculture developed from 3000 BC after local hunter-gatherers made contact with farmers in what is now central Mexico and by 300 BC a number of semipermanent villages had begun to pop up. The chief cultures at this ancient time were the desert Hohokam, the Mogollon of the central mountains and valleys (including the area occupied by Tucson today) and the Ancestral Puebloan who preferred the northern plateaus, with various other smaller groups resulting from genetic blendings of the main ones. But within a millennium and a half, most had disappeared due to a combination of severe drought, overhunting, disease and the arrival of new groups.

Beginning in the 14th century, nomadic Indians from the Shoshonean and Athapaskan language groups made their way into the region from the north and it's from these that the majority of current tribes are descended - the Navajo and assorted Apache tribes of Arizona have Athapaskan lineage, for example. Bar the odd violent disagreement, the Indians coexisted fairly peaceably with the resident Pueblo peoples, the former trading their hunting knowledge for the latter's expertise in agriculture, weaving and pottery. But social upheaval was on the cards the moment that the Spanish began conducting incursions into the area from Mexico, the milestone event being the 1540 wealth-seeking expedition of Francisco Vásquez de Coronado, which lasted for two years but failed to find any sign of fantastic riches. Fifty years later, a group of hundreds of European settlers moseyed their way up the Rio Grande to begin populating an area they called New Mexico.

Present-day southern Arizona and its Indian inhabitants - the Tohono O'odham (called the Papago until 1986) and the Pima Indians - started receiving the European touch via the holier-than-thou hands of Jesuit priest Eusebio Francisco Kino, who began a two-decade-long missionary project in the Arizona-Sonora Desert in 1687, including the building of the Mission San Xavier del Bac in 1700. The 18th century saw a period of prolonged conflict between Indian tribes, broken only by battles between them and the Spanish. A dramatic increase in settler numbers culminated in the Pima rebellion of 1751, when the Indians killed or drove out many of the foreigners. In response, the Spaniards established a presidio that became the cornerstone for the city of Tucson, its name derived from an earlier Indian village on this site called Stujkshon (pronounced 'Took Son' by the Spanish).

In 1821 Mexico gained its independence from Spain and in 1853, five years after the Mexican-American war, the Gadsden Purchase saw 'ownership' of southern Arizona transferred to the USA - Arizona was officially declared a separate US territory in 1863, eventually followed by statehood in 1912. American domination was anathema to the Indian population, which was brutally evicted from its traditional lands despite intense resistance. The last tribe to be vanquished were the Geronimo-led Apaches, who surrendered in 1886. The Indians were eventually returned some of their land in the form of reservations - the largest such allotment in the US belongs to the Navajo tribe and is spread across parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, while southwest of Tucson in the Arizona-Sonora Desert is the sizeable Tohono O'odham reservation.

The establishment of coach services by the Butterfield Stage Company in the mid-19th century, plus the construction of Fort Lowell soon after to help subdue the Apaches, saw an influx of non-Hispanic whites into Tucson and a subsequent lack of law and order in a legendary period known as the Wild West, emblemised by the 1881 gunfight at the OK Corral in the nearby town of Tombstone. The so-called gunslinger days soon came to an end, however, with the 1891 closure of rowdy Fort Lowell coinciding with the opening of Tucson's first university. The city continued its process of gentrification right up to WWII, when the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base busily trained young new recruits, many of them returning to settle down after the war was over.

Today, Tucson can draw on a well-established Hispanic heritage, which is shared by around a fifth of the city's population, and an equally significant traditional Indian culture, not to mention modern industries that include the production of missile systems and the development of computer-ware by the locally based IBM Corporation. The University of Arizona is another economic drawcard, as is a tourism industry helped along by a high-quality local arts and crafts scene.

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