The (Eventually) Complete History of Tucson and Southern Arizona

Being one of the oldest inhabited areas in North America, the history of Tucson and Southern Arizona is a long, complicated story to say the least. We are learning more and more every day about the ancient cultures who lived in the area, but most of the “big” events happened after the arrival of the Spaniards in the late 17th century. Much of it, also, is not American history. This region was part of Gadsden Purchase – the last territorial acquisition in the contiguous United States, and this wasn’t until 1854! As you read through this timeline please keep in mind that it is a living document – I am always adding to it, making changes/corrections and generally trying to make it more useful and interesting. Also, I am no historian and mistakes will be made. If you find one just send me a note about it (robert@betucsonan.com).


A Hohokam village is established near the present-day Agua Caliente Park. This area is now referred to as the “Whiptail Site.”


The Mission San Cosme Del Tucson as photographed in 1881
The Mission San Cosme Del Tucson as photographed in 1881 (from Library of Congress archives).

Jesuit missionary Eusebio Francisco Kino first visits the Santa Cruz River valley and the Mission San Xavier Del Bac is founded. Kino would also establish a visita further north, near the village of Chuck Son which would be named the Mission San Cosme y Damián de Tucsón.


Construction of the church at Mission San Xavier Del Bac is started. It is located in the center of a Tohono O’odham community along the banks of the Santa Cruz river (which, at the time, contained water).


The original mission church for San Xavier is completed.


The Pima Revolt, an uprising of Pima Indians against Spanish colonial forces.


Mission San Xavier comes under the jurisdiction of Spanish Franciscans as King Charles III of Spain bans all Jesuits from the Americas.


The Mission San Xavier church is destroyed by Apaches.


Presidio San Augustin del Tucson is founded by the Spanish army and is included in the  the Spanish territory of Alte California including much of the rest of what is now Arizona.


The Chapel of the Royal Presidio of San Agustin is founded in Tucson – this would become the Cathedral of Saint Augustine.


On December 6th, 350 Apache warriors attacked Presidio San Agustin Del Tucson and were held off by the Spanish Captain Pedro Allande y Saabedra and a force of 15 men. It would be remembered as the “First Battle of Tucson.”


On May 1st, some 600 Apache warriors descended on the Presidio San Agustin Del Tucson in the Second Battle of Tucson.

The Third Battle of Tucson commences on December 25th, with 200 Apache warriors attacking the presidio. Six of them were killed, decapitated and their heads mounted on the presidio walls.


Construction of the Presidio San Agustin Del Tucson is complete.

Construction of the new mission church at San Xavier begins, this time by Franciscan ministers, relying on the Presidio San Augustin Del Tucson soldiers for protection against continued Apache raids.


The Fourth Battle of Tucson.


The new mission church at San Xavier is completed.


Mexico gains independence from Spain, and Tucson (then Tucsón) becomes a part of Mexico (in the state of Occidente).

Mission San Xavier Del Bac falls under the jurisdiction of the Catholic Diocese of Sonora.


The church at San Xavier is vacated as all Spanish-born priests are banned by the Mexican government.


The Mexican state of Occidente, including Tucsón becomes the state of Sonora.


A Mexican land grant is approved for La Aribac ranch. This would be become the modern, unincorporated town of Arivaca.


The United States’ Annexation of Texas increasing tensions between the US and Mexico, which would eventually lead to the Mexican-American war.


The Mexican-American War begins. The Mormon Battalion captures Tucson from Mexico on December 16, 1846 and occupies it briefly.


Tucson Population: 760

The Mexican-American War ends with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.

This is the earliest date that La Casa Cordova’s initial structure may have been built. La Casa Cordova, located at 175 N Meyer Avenue, is the oldest home still standing in Tucson and the records of it’s origins are unclear but it is widely claimed that the original two-room structure was built in 1848 – it was not officially registered and noted on any map, however, until 1862.


Bound for California, but waylaid by tuberculosis, early city civic leader Samuel C Hughes arrives in Tucson for the first time.


Gadsden Purchase (Vente De La Mesilla in Mexico). The last territorial acquisition in the contiguous United States, it includes the lands south of the Gila River and west of the Rio Grande.


The San Antonio-San Diego Mail Line (or Jackass Line) becomes the first stagecoach and mail line reaching California from the Eastern United States. This included many Tucson area stops such as: San Simon, Apache Springs, Dos Cabezas Springs, Dragoon, Benson, Cienega Creek, Mission San Xavier, Tucson, and Picacho Peak.


Mission San Xavier Del Bac comes under the jurisdiction of the Santa Fe Diocese and is re-opened.


The American Civil War. A combination of Texas cavalry and Arizona militia men led by Lt. Colonel John Baylor took control of Tucson as part of the Southern New Mexico Territory, and claimed it as the Confederate Arizona Territory, with Tucson as it’s capital, on August 1, 1861.


The Confederate Arizona Territory is made official by the Confederate Congress and President Jefferson Davis. 120 Confederate cavalrymen are stationed at Tucson beginning February 28, 1862.

The Battle of Picacho Peak (April 15, 1862) in which a Union patrol is defeated by Confederate Soldiers is the Westernmost battle to occur in the Civil War.

Tucson is recaptured shortly thereafter by the California Column, a Union force led by Colonel James Henry Carleton and organized to force the Confederate troops out of the New Mexico territories. They attacked Picacho Peak from Casa Blanca (now on the Gila Indian Reservation just south of Phoenix), eventually rode into Tucson unopposed and succeeded in driving the Confederate soldiers all the way back to Texas.

In the Confederacy, Tucson was the capital of the Confederate Arizona Territory, but in the Union Tucson was a part of the New Mexico Territory.


On February 24, 1863, the Arizona Organic Act is passed by the Senate and the Arizona Territory is formed, with it’s capital located in Prescott.


The Sam Hughes House at 221 N. Main is completed.


Hiram Stevens purchases the land to build his home just South of the Duffield House. The two homes would later be joined together by Stevens and come to be known as the Duffield-Stevens House at 151 N Main.


Tucson becomes the capital of the Arizona Territory.


The Cathedral of Saint Augustine is completed under the direction of Father Jean B. Salpointe.

The Fish House, at 119 N Main is completed.


The Arizona Citizen newspaper begins publication.


The Public Schools department is organized.

Tucson Population: 3500


Fort Lowell, a US Army post is built at the point where the Tanque Verde and Pantano creeks form the Rillito River. The included Military Reservation included 80 square miles and stretched East to the Rincon Mountains.


George Hand opens his saloon at the corner of Meyer and Mesilla. His “saloon diary” recounting the years 1875-1878 is considered a vital piece of Tucson history.

The San Xavier Indian Reservation is formally established by President Ulysses S. Grant. All non-native residents are forced to leave.


Agua Caliente Rancho is purchased by James P Fuller, from Hermosillo, Mexico, for the price of $300. Portions of the ranch would later become the present day Agua Caliente Park on Tucson’s far Northeast side.


Tucson is incorporated as a town.

Phoenix is named the capital of Arizona.


El Fronterizo newspaper begins operation.


The Arizona Daily Star begins operation.

Pedro Aguirre establishes the Arivaca schoolhouse, now the oldest standing schoolhouse in Arizona.


The Southern Pacific Railroad begins operation.

The Tucson Library Association is organized.

St. Mary’s hospital opens.

Tucson Population: 7007


The Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe railroads begin operation.

James P Fuller opens “Fuller’s Hot Springs Resort” at the hot springs near present-day Agua Caliente Park, helping to establish Tucson’s early reputation as a healthy destination.


On March 19, Morgan Earp is killed in Tombstone, Arizona.

On March 21, Frank Stillwell is killed by Wyatt Earp in Tucson, at the Tucson Depot which is located at 400 N Toole Avenue.


The city is chartered.


The University of Arizona is founded (the location of which was then considered to be outside of Tucson proper).


Geronimo (from the Library of Congress archives).

On September 4, Apache Chief Geronimo surrenders to the United States near Fort Bowie, Arizona, effectively signalling the end of major Apache conflict in the Southwest.

Julius Goldbaum opens “Jule’s Club,” a smoking club, at 182 E Congress Street.


Fort Lowell is decommissioned as a US Army Post.

Construction of Old Main is completed and the University of Arizona is opened.


Erastus Bingham Jr first settles in an area on present-day Tucson’s northside which would become the community of Binghamton in 1916.


Fuller’s Hot Spring Resort, at the site of present-day Agua Caliente Park closes in conjunction with the property’s purchase by Philip H Chambers. The property would be utilized as a cattle ranch from that point until the mid-1950’s.


Tucson Population: 7531


Construction of the Santa Rita Hotel begins at the corner of Broadway and South Scott Avenue. The hotel would cost $75,000 and take two years to construct.


The Southern Pacific railroad station is built.

The J. Knox Corbett House is built at 179 N Main Avenue.


Tucson Population: 13,913


Arizona becomes the 48th state, and the last of the contiguous states to join the Union.


The community of Binghamton is established near present-day North Alvernon Way and Dodge Boulevard (now the site of Brandi Fenton Memorial Park).


Sam Hughes, largely credited with the establishment of public education in Tucson, the namesake of one of Tucson’s favorite neighborhoods and one of Tucson’s “founding fathers,” passes away on June 20.


The city airfield is established at the site of the current Tucson Rodeo Grounds. It would be the first municipally owned airfield in the country.

Hotel Congress begins operation. It was built in conjunction with the Rialto Theater (finished the following year), and both were designed by Los Angeles architect A.E. Curlett.


The Rialto Theater opens.

Tucson Population: 20,292


Epes Randolph – the namesake of the Randolph Golf Course, Randolph Way, and at one time Randolph park, passes away.


El Charro Cafe opens (now the oldest continually operating Mexican food restaurant in the country).

The Veterans Administration Hospital Number 51 opens.


Davis-Monthan Landing Field is established.

The city of Tucson purchases the parcel of land which would become Randolph Park (later renamed Reid Park).


The municipally owned airfield is moved to Davis-Monthan Landing Field and renamed Tucson Municipal Airport. Charles Lindbergh commemorated the event by flying his “Spirit of St. Louis” to te airfield (which was then the largest municipal airport in the United States).


Randolph Municipal Baseball Park opens in Randolph Park.


The Pima County Courthouse is constructed.

The Pioneer Hotel opens. 11 stories tall, it served elite clientele and featured the largest ballroom in the country.

The Minerva Cafe opens at 100 E Congress Street. The building would later house many downtown fixtures including the Stag Grill, Rallis Grill, Congress Grill and finally The Grill and The Red Room before burning down in 2013.


The Fox Theatre opens.

The Plaza Theatre opens.


Construction begins on Catalina Highway, spearheaded by Frank Harris Hitchcock. A prison camp was established at the foot of the Catalina mountains in order to provide labor (this would later become Catalina Federal Honor Camp, a Japanese internment camp during World War II).

President Herbert Hoover’s administration creates Saguaro National Monument on March 1st.

Saguaro National Park
Saguaro National Park (West)


The Dillinger Gang including John Dillinger is famously arrested at the Hotel Congress.


The Randolph Municipal Baseball Park in Randolph Park is replaced by Hi-Corbett Field.


Old Tucson Studios is built by Columbia Pictures in order to serve as a replica of 1860’s-era Tucson for the film Arizona.


Catalina Federal Honor Camp is established to provide labor for the construction of Catalina Highway.


Tucson Municipal Airport becomes Tucson Army Airfield.

South Tucson incorporates.

Tucson Population: 36,818


Tucson Army Airfield is renamed Davis-Monthan Field.


Davis-Monthan Field is renamed Davis-Monthan Air Force Base.


Catalina Highway construction is completed.


The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is founded.


The first Lucky Wishbone location opens at 4872 S 6th Ave.


Fort Lowell serves as the setting for the syndicated television series “Boots and Saddles.”


Mission San Xavier Del Bac is declared a National Historic Landmark.

University of Arizona Poetry Center is founded.

Old Tucson Studios opens to the public as both a film studio and theme park. While it had been in use since it’s construction in 1938, it had fallen into disrepair and Robert Shelton took over the property in 1959.

El Con Mall opens.

The Reid Park Rose Test Garden is started with the planting of 232 rose beds in what was then Randolph Park.


Pinnacle Peak Steakhouse opens on Tanque Verde Road.


Tucson International Airport opens.


Tucson Botanical Gardens opens.

The bandshell and amphitheater are installed at Randolph Park.


It was donated peacocks which eventually led to the creation of the Reid Park Zoo
It was donated peacocks which eventually led to the creation of the Reid Park Zoo.

Randolph Park’s “unofficial” zoo begins with the donation of two peacocks.

DeGrazia Gallery opens.


The Coronado National Forest and Arizona Game and Fish Commission build the Parker Canyon Dam, creating the 162-acre Parker Canyon lake – a popular fishing destination for Southern Arizonans.


The Reid Park Zoo, already including a number of donated animals and a baby elephant, is officially sanctioned by the city.

On December 19, an Air Force F-4D Phantom aircraft crashed into a Food Giant store at the corner of 29th and Alvernon resulting in 15 deaths.


The Plaza Theatre is demolished, with the owners having been forced out as part of the City of Tucson’s “Urban Renewal” program.

Pima Community College is established.


A fire at the Pioneer Hotel building kills 29 people and remains the deadliest fire in Arizona history. The ensuing arson case exemplified racial tensions in Tucson at the time as Louis C. Taylor, a young black man was convicted of the crime. New evidence suggests that it may not have been arson at all and the Arizona Justice Project pushed for a new trial in 2013 though it did not happen. Taylor was released in 2013 after pleading no contest and being given credit for time served.


The Tucson Convention Center opens.

The Food Conspiracy Coop opens.

The Tucson Opera Company is established.

Trail Dust Town (including Pinnacle Peak Steakhouse) burns down. The Tucson Citizen newspaper would refer to the site as one of Tucson’s “few contemporary landmarks.” The owners immediately announced plans to rebuild.


The film “Ulzana’s Raid” is filmed near Nogales, however it is made to appear as though it is set at Fort Lowell and a replica of the Fort was built to suit that purpose.

The Loft Cinema opens on Speedway Boulevard.

In December a portion of the original Santa Rita Hotel was demolished.


Antigone Books opens on 4th Avenue.


The Fox Theatre closes.


The Center for Creative Photography opens.


Pima Air & Space Museum opens.


Randolph Park is renamed Reid Park in honor of Gene C Reid, the longtime and somewhat infamous director of Tucson’s city parks department.


The Pamplona Crucifix, a 6 century old crucifix from Spain is installed at the Cathedral of Saint Augustine. The 17-foot tall crucifix weighs one ton and sits behind the altar of the Cathedral.


The Tucson Mall opens

Casas Adobes Foothills Mall opens.


The Rialto Theater (then a spanish-language movie house called El Cine) was condemned after a boiler explosion.
Pima County purchases the land for Agua Caliente Park on Tucson’s far Northeast side. The purchase was assisted in large part by a donation from Tucson businessman Roy P Drachman.


Reeds and palm trees surround a pond at Agua Caliente Park
Reeds and palm trees surround a pond at Agua Caliente Park

Agua Caliente Park is opened on January 19th.


The bandshell and amphitheater at Reid Park is given the name DeMeester Outdoor Performance Center after Georges DeMeester, the founder and longtime leader of the Tucson Pops Orchestra.


California vs. Cabazon case in the U.S. Supreme Court enables Indian casino gaming.

Construction of Biosphere 2 begins in Oracle, AZ.


The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA) is passed.


The construction of Biosphere 2 is completed and the first “mission” begins on September 26.  


Daniel Contreras, of El Güero Canelo, opens his first hot dog stand in Tucson.

The major motion picture Tombstone, filmed throughout Southern Arizona including Old Tucson Studios, is released.


On October 14th, the US Congress grants Saguaro National Monument status as a National Park, changing it’s name to Saguaro National Park.


The Rialto Theater reopens.

On April 25 a large portion of Old Tucson Studios was destroyed in a fire. The fire is widely considered to have been arson, and while a suspect was identified he was never convicted.


The Tucson Museum of Contemporary Art opens.


Local musician Rainer Ptacek succumbs to cancer and passes away at the age of 46.


The Gordon Hirabayashi Recreation Area is founded at the site of Catalina Honor Camp, a Japanese internment camp during World War II.


Arizona passes Prop 202 ensuring the future of Indian Gaming and setting up revenue sharing payments to the state.


The Hotel Congress is added to the National Historic Register.

The Binghampton Rural Historic Landscape, at Brandi Fenton Memorial Park, is placed on the US National Register of Historic Places.


The La Encantada Shopping Center opens in the Catalina Foothills neighborhood.


The Fox Theatre reopens.

Jewish History Museum opens.

Southern Arizona Transportation Museum opens.


Tucson Population: 535,000

In 2006 the Tucson Population of Pima County reached 1 million for the first time.


Agua Caliente Ranch Historic Landscape is placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The remaining elements of the original Santa Rita Hotel are demolished.


Tucson Population: 520,116


US Representative Gabrielle Gifford and 18 others are shot in Tucson.


The Arivaca Schoolhouse is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.


On January 1st, 100 East Congress Street burns down. It’s most recent tenant, The Grill and it’s adjoining bar, the Red Room, had been closed since 2011.


Tucson is named a “World City of Gastronomy” by UNESCO.