Arizona, the Grand Canyon state, was originally part of Spanish and Mexican territories. The land was ceded to the United States in 1848 and became a separate territory in 1863. Arizona officially earned its statehood in 1912.
Arizona is the sixth largest state in the country in terms of area. Most of its population lives in urban areas, especially since the mid-20th century, when urban and suburban areas began rapidly growing at the expense of the countryside.
Some scholars believe the state’s name comes from a Basque phrase meaning “the good oak tree,” while others attribute it to a Tohono O’odham (Papago) Indian phrase meaning “place of the young little spring.”
Arizona’s Native American History
Indigenous hunter-gatherers arrived in the area now known as Arizona more than 12,000 years ago. Today, the state has 22 federally-recognized Native American tribes, including the Navajo Nation, Hopi Tribe, Tohono O’odham Nation, Tonto Apache Tribe, and Pueblo of Zuni, among others.
The Hopi people are one of the oldest living cultures, migrating to the area known as Arizona in the 12th century from Mexico and South and Central America. Oraibi, a Hopi Indian village dating back to at least 1150 AD, is believed to be the oldest continuously inhabited settlement in the United States.
The Hopi settled on three hard-to-attack mesas, or flat-topped natural elevations, in northern Arizona. Although this dry land seemed inhospitable for farming, the Hopi developed an ingenious agricultural practice known as dry farming that sustained crops using tillage methods that retained water. A religious people, the Hopi believe that humans should live peacefully and in harmony with nature. The tribe is known for its artisanry, especially pottery, paintings, weaving, and carvings.
The Navajo arrived in the southwestern United States 800 to 1000 years ago after crossing the Bering Strait and traveling south. Known as the Diné (meaning “the People”), they were hunter-gatherers until they learned agriculture from the Pueblo people. They became livestock farmers after the Spanish arrived in the mid-16th century. Around the same time, they also began silversmithing and are today known for their silver and turquoise jewelry.
As European settlers arrived in the area now known as Arizona, they came into conflict with the Navajo and other Indigenous peoples, who engaged in raids for food, livestock, and captives.
To address these conflicts, Colonel Kit Carson planned a scorched-earth campaign in 1863 to force the Navajo’s surrender. In January 1864, the U.S. Army attempted to remove all Navajo from their homeland. Known as the “Long Walk,” more than 8,500 Diné people were forced to leave their homes in northeastern Arizona and northwestern New Mexico and walk 300 miles over two months to Bosque Redondo Reservation in eastern New Mexico, near Fort Sumner. About 200 died due to starvation and exposure. Those who arrived lived in internment camp-like conditions.
Four years later, the Navajo signed the U.S.-Navajo Treaty of 1868, which allowed them to return to their homelands and established a reservation. The reservation encroached on Hopi lands, however, setting the tribes up for years of conflict.
The Navajo Nation alone contains more than 27,000 square miles throughout Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah. The largest tribe in the U.S., the Navajo Nation had nearly 400,000 members as of 2020.
Spanish Explorers and Missionaries in Arizona
Spanish priest Fray Marcos de Niza’s 1539 expedition, which sought the Seven Golden Cities of Cibola, brought the first European explorers to the area now known as Arizona. Francisco Vázquez de Coronado’s 1540 expedition, also seeking the golden cities, was the next to pass through Arizona and the first to see the Grand Canyon.
The Spanish only began exploring and settling in Arizona in the 17th century, however, lured by the discovery of silver in the area. Most of these colonists eventually left, save for a few farmers, although Spanish missionaries continued to arrive. Between 1687 and 1692, the Jesuits—notably Father Eusebio Francisco Kino—created the Pimería Missions across the Arizona desert to convert the Indigenous peoples of the Pimería Alta region (which includes southern Arizona and northern Mexico) to Christianity. When the Jesuits were expelled from Spanish territory in 1767, the missions were occupied by the Franciscans.
Arizona Becomes a U.S. State
When Mexico gained independence from Spain in 1821, its territory included the area now called Arizona. In 1844, President James Polk promoted the principle of Manifest Destiny—the idea that the United States was destined to occupy all of North America—leading to the Mexican-American War in 1846. In 1848, the war ended when Mexico signed the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, handing over parts of Arizona, along with land in New Mexico and several other states, to the U.S.
President James Buchanan bought the rest of Arizona and New Mexico territory with the 1854 Gadsden Purchase. Originally part of the Territory of New Mexico, the Territory of Arizona was established in 1863. In the early 1900s, Arizona almost entered the United States as part of New Mexico, since Republicans thought it would help them maintain control of the Senate. The measure was rejected by voters. Arizona officially achieved statehood on February 14, 1912, the last of the 48 coterminous United States to be admitted to the union.
Immigration to Arizona
In 1849, Arizona’s population began to grow with the California Gold Rush, which attracted miners to the area. The population continued to increase after the U.S. passed the Desert Land Act of 1877, which aimed to increase settlements in the southwestern U.S. by promising 640 acres of land to married couples who promised to tend to the land. Immigrants also began arriving in the 1870s to mine copper and silver.
Throughout the early 1900s to the 1940s, many new residents came to Arizona to farm cotton. Arizona’s agricultural and mining dynamic began to change after World War II when the government set up military bases. The widespread availability of refrigeration and air conditioning helped the population boom in the second half of the 20th century.
Today, one in eight Arizona residents and one in six workers is a migrant, with heavy concentrations in agriculture and construction. More than half of Arizona's immigrants come from Mexico. Other common origin countries include Canada, India, the Philippines, and China.
The 5 Cs of Arizona
For decades, Arizona’s economy was said to revolve around 5 Cs:
- Copper attracted European settlers in the 18th and 19th centuries. One in four people living in the area in the mid-1800s mined for copper.
- Cattle have long been raised in Arizona. Nearly 2 million Arizona cows fed Americans in the early 1900s.
- Cotton, particularly “Pima cotton,” was once known as a “cash crop” for farmers at the turn of the 20th century.
- Citrus farming was made possible with irrigation. Crops include oranges, lemons, limes, and grapefruit.
- Climate is relatively unique to Arizona. About 300 days of the year are sunny; Arizona records just 8 inches of rain per year.
Times have changed the industries in Arizona. The 2017 Census of Agriculture found that only cattle, cotton, and citrus were economically significant to Arizona today.
The Grand Canyon State
Arizona is home to 22 national parks welcoming more than 7 million visitors every year. The Grand Canyon, considered one of the seven great natural wonders of the world, earned Arizona the nickname the “Grand Canyon State.” Located mainly in Arizona, Grand Canyon National Park became one of the first national parks established in the United States when it was christened by Teddy Roosevelt in 1908. Formed by the Colorado River 5 to 6 million years ago, the canyon is a staggering 277 miles long, 18 miles wide, and 1 mile deep—larger than the state of Rhode Island.
Arizona is also known for its stunning desert landscape. There are four deserts spread out across the state, each with unique animal and plant life. The Sonoran Desert is by far the largest desert in the state and the only place in the world where Saguaro cacti—the tall cacti with “arms”—grow. Other deserts include the Chihuahuan Desert, the Mojave Desert and the Great Basin Desert.
Date of Statehood: February 14, 1912
Population: 7,151,502 (2020)
Size: 113,990 square miles
Nickname(s): Grand Canyon State
Motto: Ditat Deus (“God enriches”)
Tree: Palo Verde
Flower: Saguaro Cactus Blossom
Bird: Cactus Wren
- Arizona’s official state flower is the Saguaro Cactus Blossom. The flower blooms in May and June in the middle of the night and closes the next day—surviving only 18 hours for pollination by nocturnal animals like bats and moths. The blossom grows on the Saguaro Cactus, which can reach more than 50 feet tall and live for over 200 years.
- Navajo people from Arizona were enlisted to transmit secret communications for the U.S. Marines after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941. Known as Navajo Code Talkers, these young men created an oral code the enemy was unable to decipher, fulfilling a crucial role during World War II and saving countless lives.
- Arizona is one of only two U.S. states that do not observe Daylight Saving Time. The one exception is the area occupied by the Navajo Nation in the northeast region of the state.
- Arizona’s diverse climate and geography can yield both the highest and lowest temperatures in the country within the same day.
- Arizona’s flag features a copper-colored star, acknowledging the state's role as the leading copper producer in the United States.