President Lincoln finally declared Arizona a separate territory from New Mexico on Feb. 24, 1863. Other names, including "Gadsonia," "Pimeria," "Montezuma," "Arizuma" and "Arizonia" had been considered for the territory.
However, when President Lincoln signed the final bill, it read, "Arizona." The importance of declaring it a territory of the United States was known shortly afterward, when the Walker party found gold in the Bradshaw Mountains, contributing greatly to the Union effort for the Civil War. The question that remained was whether or not our state was a Piman Indian word as put forth by many writers.
A Western historian, Hubert Howe Bancroft, wrote in 1889 ("History of Arizona and New Mexico") that Arizona was a Pima-Papago (now Tohono O'odham) word. A number of place name books and travel guides stated that the name was Spanish for "arida zona" (arid zone) for the climate. This did not appear to be a convenient solution since the correct Spanish word would have to be "zonarida."
Years later, on Feb. 14, 1912, President Taft declared Arizona a state. The historians, guide books and common usage still proclaimed the Indian translation. In 1979, William Douglas, director of Basque (northern Spain) Studies at the University of Nevada, published an article that questioned these earlier explanations. He wrote that for "ali shonak" (presented in Part I) to become "Arizona," the "1" has to become "r", "sh" to be "z" and the "k" had to be dropped. If it were a Piman Indian word, then the Spaniards would have called it "Alizona." Dr. Douglas decided that it must be a Basque word.
Donald T. Garate, a Basque native in Arizona and former Superintendent of Arizona's Tumacacori National Monument, had spent more than 10 years researching archives in Spain and the Americas in order to write a book in 2005, "Juan Bautista de Anza: Basque Explorer in the New World, 1693-1740," and has concluded that Arizona is "artiz" (oak tree) and "ona" (good or valuable). The Basque translation is then the "good oak tree."
Garate was familiar with the words since there are many oak trees in the Pyranees Mountains of the Basque country. The Basque settlers in New Spain were aware of all the oak trees in their new surroundings of Sonora and southern Arizona. Garate also notes that the place name "Arizona" can be found in Central and South America where the Spanish, including the Basque, settled and where Tohono O'odham/Pima names are unlikely to be found.
Today, the same place described in the 1736 documents by Juan Bautista de Anza I, a Basque explorer, near Planchas de Plata Canyon, was and is known today as Arizona. It is located just southeast of Nogales. A 2009 Google map of Sonora shows "Arizona," the location of Rancho Arizona of 1736.
Many Basque settlers, such as the great de Anzas (father and son), had settled in the Sonora region. Their presence is more proof to Garate that the name originated from the Basque language.
But, what happened to the "c" in the original "Arizonac"? Garate explained that it would make it plural: "the good oak trees," so it was dropped.
Richard Sims, former director of Sharlot Hall Museum, visited the Sonora "Arizonac" region in 2003. He wrote that the place name Arizona was first known by the locals when mentioned in Juan de Anza's report of the 1736 silver strike. The Arizona rancheria was owned by Bernardo de Urrea and was the locale of the famous silver deposits. Sims also quoted Don Garate's writing that no Pima Indians had lived in that area. Sims pointed out that the Arizona name is found in Argentina and Brazil where a large percentage of population in those regions was settled by the Basque people.
The bottom line to all this narrative is that "Arizona" appears to translate as "the good oak tree." A trek in the woods around Prescott right now reveals an unbelievable bed of fallen oak leaves, reminding us as we walk how our state got its name.
John S. Huff is a volunteer at Sharlot Hall Museum.
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