A Brief History of Mesa, Arizona
The history of Mesa dates back two thousand years to the Hohokam Indians.
he Hohokam, whose name means the Departed Ones, built the original canal
system that spread over 125 miles and is still used today. Why did the Hohokam
leave? Several reasons have been advanced:
- Hostile Indians drove them away.
- The water table became too high without pumps, so the salts and minerals
were not able to leach through the soil, preventing the crops from growing.
- There was an extensive drought. Without dams, the water could not be stored.
The land became overpopulated and could not sustain the number of people who moved here.
Explorers and Apaches
Next came the missionaries and explorers, including Coronado, Father Kino, and Marcos de
Niza, came to Arizona (though not present day Mesa) during the 1500"s and
1600"s. A less known explorer was Esteban (also called Estevan or Estevanico),
a Black slave, who searched for the city of gold. Apache Indians, east of our
area, drove the Spanish away in the 1700"s. U.S. Army troops fought the Apaches
in the late 1800"s, opening the way for white settlement. Kit Carson and other
explorers came through the Salt River Valley during the early part of the
Soldiers from Fort McDowell used a ferry to cross the Salt River when they
needed to travel to the south. Maryville was settled in 1865 at the site of
this ferry, west of what is presently Val Vista Road. Maryville had a post
office, blacksmith shop, general store, hotel and an amateur drama troupe.
The town was abandoned, however, before the Lehi settlers came.
Meanwhile, Mormons were settling Utah in order to escape persecution in the
Midwest. The migration was partially subsidized by men who joined the U.S.
Army during the Mexican War (1846-47) to donate their pay to the church.
Because all except the officers were Latter Day Saints, the unit was called
the Mormon Battalion. The soldiers created a wagon trail through Southern
Arizona during their journey to San Diego. Their experience in Arizona made
it possible for them to inform the church leaders that the Indians were
friendly and that the land was very suitable for agriculture. The completion
of the transcontinental railroad in 1869 in Utah increased pressure for
expansion beyond Utah, as easier transportation augmented Utah"s population
and reduced the amount of available arable land. Consequently, Mormon Church
officials asked Daniel Webster Jones to lead a group to settle in Arizona.
Jones had already been on a mission to the Indians in the Valley; in 1875-76
he and others also had explored parts of Arizona and Mexico. Jones agreed to
lead the colony, but requested families that had many children and were poor,
so they would not be able to resettle elsewhere easily. The Jones, Turley,
Rogers, Steele, Biggs, McRae, Williams, and Merrill families gathered at St.
George, Utah, traveled in wagons for three months, and arrived in Lehi
(just north of Mesa) in March of 1877. The route they took forced them to
leave heavy equipment, such as stoves, sewing machines and plows, along
the way. The Lehi residents lived the United Order: that is, they shared
the supplies and food raised. Their first building was a brush shed used
as a school, church, and meeting place. In July 1877, they built Fort Utah
with adobe bricks. A replica of this structure is in front of the Mesa
Historical Museum, nearby its original location at Lehi and Horne Roads.
When Jones invited Tohono O"odham (Pima Indians) to live with them, it
became a contributing factor that caused half of the colony to leave.
Those who left had brought more of the livestock, which they took with
them to St. David, near Mexico. The Lehi group that was left was
especially small and poor; it had a difficult time surviving.
First Mesa Company
The First Mesa Company, comprised of 85 members, left Utah and Idaho in
September 1877. The company leaders, some of whom were polygamous, were
Crismon, Pomeroy, Sirrine, and Robson. They took a different route from
Jones, crossing the Colorado River at Lee"s Ferry, where there is a steep
cliff across the river. The leaders of the Mesa Company reached Utahville,
as Lehi or Jonesville was then called, in January of 1878; the rest of the
company came in February. Daniel Webster Jones invited the group to stay,
but they decided to move up to the mesa. They marked off land and immediately
began work clearing the original Hohokam canals; water entered the canals in
April. On July 17 1878, Theodore Sirrine went to Florence to register Section
22, now called the Town Center: the square mile from Mesa Drive to Country
Club and University to Broadway. There is some confusion about early names
for Mesa because the Post Office used different ones, however, the town
itself was always called Mesa City. Postal authorities considered the name
Mesa unacceptable at first, as it was thought it would be confused with
Mesaville on the San Pedro River. The first Post Office name was Hayden"s
Ferry (not to be confused with Tempe), operated by Fannie Macdonald in 1881.
In 1886, the Post Office name was changed to Zenos. In 1889, the Post Office
Department finally allowed the name Mesa City.
A flood in Lehi in 1891 destroyed Fort Utah and carried away acres of
valuable farmland in low-lying areas. Because Lehi was prone to flooding,
had a more limited land area and fewer irrigation ditches, Mesa outgrew Lehi.
When the railroad was placed in Mesa about 1895, the growth pattern
accelerated. Lehi became part of Mesa in 1970, but it has maintained its
independent, more rural character.
Other Early Mormon Pioneers
The Second Mesa Company, which came from Idaho in 1879, included the
Phelps, Hibbert, Dana, and LeSueur (pronounced Le Sweer) families. In 1880
the Rogers, Standage, and Pew families came. Because the best land had been
taken, the 1880 pioneers established Stringtown, along what is now Alma School
Road. The Standage Farm became the University of Arizona experimental farm on
Main Street between Alma School and Dobson. The property stood undeveloped
until the late 1990"s when a Wal-Mart Shopping Center and the East Valley
Institute of Technology were built on the site.
After shelters were built and crops prepared, the Mesa settlers built a
school. Zulu Pomeroy taught the first classes there in 1879. Five years after the
founding, in 1883, the 300 residents incorporated Mesa City and chose Alexander F.
Macdonald as the first mayor. Early buildings included a pesthouse adobe structure
to control smallpox, a city hall, and saloons. The Mesa Free Press newspaper began
in 1892; it has run continuously since then under various names, currently The East
The Mesa Public Library has most of the local newspapers on microfilm from mid
1893, with the exception of the years 1901-1914, which were lost in a fire at
the newspaper office. (If anyone knows where these issues are, please ask them
to contact the Mesa Room at Mesa Public Library at 480-644-3730.) The library
paid for the indexing of all issues of the Tribune microfilm held by the
library covering the years 1893 to 1921.
Dr. A.J. Chandler, who later started the city bearing his name south of
Mesa, enlarged the Mesa Canal with heavy machinery in 1895. Dr. Chandler also
built the first office complex in Mesa, on the northwest corner of Main and
Macdonald, using the first evaporative air cooling system in Arizona. Moreover,
he started an electric power plant. The City of Mesa purchased the utility
company in 1917, becoming one of the few cities in Arizona to own utilities.
Utility earnings enabled Mesa to pay for capital expenditures without bonds
until the 1960s. It also provided the shared funds that allowed construction
and service projects to be implemented during the Works Progress
Administration during the Depression. Some of the improvements were paved
streets, sidewalks and curbs in the Town Center, the first hospital not
converted from a residence, a recreation department and park facilities,
and a modern city hall/library with expanded library hours.
Diversity in Mesa"s Early History
The Tohono O"odham (Pima) Indians, possible descendents of the Hohokam,
were in the Valley long before the Mormons arrived. Earlier mention was made
of their friendship with Daniel Webster Jones. Anna Moore Shaw has written A
Pima Past, which describes the culture and social life of the Tohono O"odham.
The first African–American family, the McPhersons, arrived in 1905. Dr. James
Livingston, a Black veterinarian came before 1910; other African-Americans who
arrived before 1920 were the Kemp, Moore, Hall, McKelvy and Ferguson families.
Chinese and Japanese immigrants were farmers and business owners in Mesa,
mostly arriving about 1910. Willie Wong, the mayor of Mesa from 1992–1996 and
the first Asian-American mayor of a major city, is the descendent of such a
family. The Lees, Yees and Homs were other Chinese families here near the
turn of the century. Early Japanese included the Ikeda, Ishikawa, and Okazaki,
Horiba, Sugino and Nishida families. Hispanics were in the area at least by
the early 1890"s; the Aros, Candelaria, Castro, Garcia, Rivera and Mendoza
(Police officers and Chief) families were residents.
World War II to Present
Falcon Field Airport and Williams Air Force Base were built in 1941 to
provide training for World War II pilots, Falcon Field for the British Royal
Air Force and Williams for U.S. pilots. After the war, many military families,
including that of John J Rhodes, later minority leader of the U.S. House of
Representatives, decided to settle in Mesa. Air conditioning came into more
common use and tourism also began as a major force in the late 1940"s. The
decade of the 1950"s brought more commerce and industry to Mesa, including
early aerospace companies. However, until 1960 more than 50 percent of the
residents earned their living directly or indirectly from farming, mainly
citrus and cotton. The 1960"s through 1990"s saw more high-technology
companies, now over 100 firms. Health facilities grew especially during the
1980"s and 1990"s to service the larger population. Mid 1990"s figures show
Mesa employment percentages as retail – 31.2%, office – 25.7%, public – 16.1%,
industrial – 14%, other – 11.6%, residential – 1.4%.
There are several important historical buildings in Mesa still in existence.
The Sirrine House, built in 1895, is an attractive brick structure at 160
North Center, restored by the Mesa Historical Society and the City of Mesa.
The former Lehi School, built in 1913, is the oldest standing school building
in Mesa today. Now the Mesa Historical Museum, the former elementary school
is located at Lehi and Horne. Some other historic buildings in Mesa"s Town
Center are the Ellis-Johnson home at 49 West First Street, the Alhambra Hotel
at 43 South Macdonald, and the Southside Hospital (now the Tri City Community
Center) at Hibbert and Main Streets. The Vance Auditorium, at 250 West Main
Street, was built in 1904. It was the largest auditorium in the Southwest,
praised as having the best dance floor in the region. Broadway productions
traveling from New York performed at the Vance Auditorium, drawing residents
of Phoenix, who came via train. Later the Mormon Church purchased the
auditorium. The name was changed to Mezona in 1926. Dances at the Mezona
were the main entertainment on Friday nights until 1972 when the building
was demolished and the Mezona Inn replaced it. A large grain elevator owned
by Frihoff and Nielson, still located at Macdonald and Broadway, serviced an
important crop in early Mesa. Citrus followed as a valuable commodity,
especially in northeast Mesa. There is still a citrus warehouse by the
railroad line on Broadway Road west of Country Club.
With the exception of the decade of the 1920"s, when the cotton prices
plummeted, Mesa increased by at least 79% every decennial census through 1990.
In 1990 the census showed Mesa to have the highest growth rate of any city
over 100,00 in the United States; the population grew 89% from 152,404 in 1980
to 288,091 in 1990. In 2000 Mesa"s population is approximately 404,000, over
100,000 people more than in 1990. The mild winter climate, beautiful
environment, and strong economic conditions attract more residents every year.
From humble beginnings, Mesa has developed into the third largest city in
Arizona and the 46th largest city in the United States. The Census Bureau now
designates the Valley as the Phoenix–Mesa Metropolitan Statistical Area.
Mesa"s pioneers might not recognize the present-day city, but surely would be
proud of what they began.