Originally Published: February 23, 2013 9:55 p.m.
Today is a major milestone in Arizona's history, although little fanfare has occurred.
President Abraham Lincoln created the Arizona Territory on Feb. 24, 1863, making today the sesquicentennial. Arizona was the last of the lower 48 to gain territorial status, just as it was the last of the lower 48 to gain statehood.
"I think it's really important, and a lot of people don't know a thing about it," said Nancy Burgess, a Prescott historian and author who recently retired from her job as the city's historic preservation specialist.
"It took a lot of settlement to convince people this was a civilized place," she said. "And it took the finding of gold to convince Congress and Abraham Lincoln this was worth having."
The lack of publicity about today's milestone might stem from the fact that last year was the state's centennial. As Arizona's State Historian Marshall Trimble puts it, people could be "centennialed out." He hasn't heard of any celebratory events taking place today.
The Sharlot Hall Museum in Prescott is opening the first phase of a new permanent exhibit today, but it's not particularly related to the sesquicentennial since it focuses on the state's prehistoric times.
The story of Arizona as a separate U.S. entity began in 1848, when the United States and Mexico signed the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that transferred more than 500,000 square miles of Mexico to the U.S. after the Mexican-American War.
The Territory of New Mexico was carved out in 1850 and consisted of most of present-day New Mexico and Arizona.
Then the 1853 Gadsden Purchase added nearly 30,000 square miles to the New Mexico Territory for a southern rail route south of mountainous regions. Early proposals included enough land to give present-day Arizona a southern port, but anti-slavery senators and many Mexicans were against it.
By 1860, 10 congressional bills to admit Arizona as a separate territory had failed, Trimble said.
Arizona finally succeeded in gaining separate territorial status on Feb. 24, 1863. The territory almost was split from east to west instead of north to south at the Four Corners, but the Union wanted lines different from what the Confederates had declared on Feb. 14, 1862 - coincidentally, exactly 50 years before Arizona became a state.
The 1863 discovery of gold by the Walker and Weaver parties in the Bradshaw Mountains was the impetus for bringing the territorial capital to this region instead of Tucson. The Union needed money to pay for the Civil War, and Union leaders weren't thrilled about Tucson being a hotbed of Confederate sympathizers.
Brigadier Gen. James Carleton sent Union troops to find a suitable location for a fort near the gold strike and they ended up choosing Del Rio Springs as it was flush with plenty of water, pasture and game.
This year also marks the sesquicentennial of the Dec. 23 founding of Fort Whipple at Del Rio Springs, which now are located in the Town of Chino Valley. The Amiel Whipple Expedition of 1853-54 first mapped Del Rio while surveying the 35th parallel for a possible railroad route.
"I'm excited about it," said Kay Lauster, president of the Chino Valley Historical Society. Her group hopes to establish a museum at Del Rio and celebrate its sesquicentennial this year.
The territorial governor's party arrived at Del Rio from Ohio on Jan. 22, 1864. Gov. John Goodwin didn't find out that he would be going to Del Rio instead of Tucson until he reached New Mexico, noted local historian Terry Munderloh in one of the Daily Courier's Days Past articles.
Territorial Secretary Richard McCormick quickly noted one thing that Del Rio lacked when he printed his first issue of the Arizona Miner newspaper, Munderloh related.
"The deficiency of this immediate locality is the lack of timber," McCormick wrote. "Fire wood is found on the hills three miles to the west, but logs for buildings have to be brought from Granite Creek, a distance of 20 miles."
Gov. Goodwin decided the capital needed to be closer to timber and the miners. The Arizona Miner of May 11, 1864 announced it to the public.
"The site is upon Granite Creek, 20 miles south of this place, and a mile north of Sheldon's Granite Ranch," McCormick wrote.
Some call Del Rio the first territorial capital. Others even claim it for Navajo Springs, where Gov. Goodwin's party first crossed into Arizona.
"It ain't so," said Trimble, who remembers seeing a sign proclaiming Navajo Springs as the first capital. "Prescott was first."
Del Rio was only a temporary headquarters of the governor's party while it sought a permanent one, agreed Mick Woodcock, chief curator at the Sharlot Hall Museum in Prescott.
There might be only one building remaining in this county that dates back to 1863. It's nicknamed Fort Misery, a log cabin that Sharlot Hall rescued from destruction in 1934 and moved next to the 1864 territorial governor's mansion in Prescott where she was creating her museum.
"The two oldest surviving log buildings in Arizona are on the museum grounds," Woodcock said.
Manuel Yrissari started building Fort Misery as his home and mercantile on Christmas 1863, Woodcock said. It stood at Goose Flat where the Mile High Middle School athletic field is now located. The school's website says Prescott's first school was built nearby in 1867 under the shade of a majestic cottonwood that has survived for three centuries now.
Joseph Reddeford Walker lived in a cabin just across Granite Creek, Woodcock said. He estimates that only a few dozen people lived at the Prescott site in 1863.
As one of the few buildings in Prescott, Fort Misery was also used as a church and courtroom. Within a few years John Howard moved it to South Montezuma and was using as his home and law office, Woodcock said. It got its Fort Misery nickname from local attorneys who ate there and apparently didn't like the grub, Woodcock said.
Prescott was officially given its name during a community meeting on May 30, 1864.
The museum is working on several ideas to celebrate Prescott's sesquicentennial next year, Woodcock said.