- Historic Sites
A city where the desert is everywhere, where sprawl into magnificent desolation is the main industry, whose oldest building is still its most beautiful, whose surrounding mountains are its soul: Lawrence W. Cheek explains why American Heritage’s Great American Place Award for the year 2000 goes to…
October 2000 | Volume 51, Issue 6
How, exactly, does one dispose of an owl in the living room—a live, wild great horned owl two feet long, armed with talons that look as if they could rip open an artery, staring defiantly from a perch on your ceiling fan? My friend Don, who had moved to Tucson from the gentler wilds of West Virginia, didn’t know, but he at least was smart enough not to try it himself.
The first animal-control officer to respond was baffled; he normally just handled rattlesnakes—and speak of the devil, he told Don, there’s one now, on your front steps. This called for a backup, and it took the two officers three hours to capture raptor and reptile. After all this they decided they probably should check Don’s house for any further guests, and in fact there was one. A tarantula was creeping through the open front door.
Welcome to Tucson.
No other city in North America has been blessed with such a dramatic, yet prickly natural environment. No other city braids itself into nature so intimately, albeit with a measure of friction. Certainly not rival Phoenix, a sprawling oasis obsessed with palm trees, golf, and power corridors of glass high-rises. Tucson is a city of the desert , italicized in cactus spines and borders of heroic mountains, economically poorer than Phoenix but proud of what it sees as its greater ecological integrity. There is a price, of course. One nearby canyon with a waterfall has claimed 31 lives since 1970, most of them in falls and flash floods. And each year the water table drops three to four feet, a silent reminder that building a city this size in the desert has been above all an unnatural act, a great upsurge of hubris, and that eventually owl, rattlesnake, and tarantula will reclaim their rightful land without opposition.
Real Tucsonans, we who know and cherish the place, feel little pain at the prospect.
To understand Tucson’s past, you could start with the nineteenth-century barrios of adobe row houses or back up another century to the manic baroque Spanish mission of San Xavier del Bac, completed at the end of the eighteenth century. But instead, you probably should drive west of town to what is now Saguaro National Park, climb a rocky mound called Signal Hill—watching for rattlers—and read the newspaper.
Which in this case is a clutter of petroglyphs pecked into the hilltop boulders by the Hohokam, who hunted, gathered, and farmed the Sonoran Desert from around B.C. 300 to 1450 A.D. These early Tucsonans were thoroughly at home in their natural world, as you can sense from the human and animal stick figures parading across the rocks. For more than a millennium, the Hohokam somehow scratched a living out of a skinflint desert that gave them maybe 12 inches of rain in a good year. Why their civilization evaporated is unknown. Theories include climate change, conflict, or—my favorite—eventually just having too many people for such a very fragile land to support.
The name Tucson first appeared on a map drawn in 1695 by the Jesuit missionary Eusebio Kino, locating a place that the native Pimans—who may have been remnants of the Hohokam culture—called chuk-son, “black spring.” In the 1770s it became a Spanish presidio, an adobe-walled fort intended for staging and supporting a Spanish foray into California. The Mexican flag replaced Spain’s through a revolution in 1821, and in 1854 southern Arizona passed into U.S. hands. Economically and culturally, however, Tucson remained a mostly Hispanic town until the Southern Pacific Railroad punched through in 1880.
Romantic images of territorial Tucson quickly get trampled under the historical record. A traveler arriving in Tucson, according to the writer J. Ross Browne, who passed through in 1864, “emerges to find himself on the verge of the most wonderful scatteration of human habitations his eye ever beheld—a city of mud-boxes, dingy and dilapidated, cracked and baked into a composite of dust and filth … barren of verdure, parched, naked, and grimly desolate in the glare of a southern sun.” Browne’s acid travelogue set the standard for a generation of gringo’s-eye views of Tucson. Part of it was that Anglo eyes just couldn’t accept adobe—sun-dried mud bricks—as the building blocks of civilization. But there is also no discounting the hardship, lawlessness, and savagery of the nineteenth-century desert frontier.
Until the 1870s, Tucson (along with most of Arizona) was locked in a guerrilla war with the Apaches that erupted like a sporadic pox in raids, ambushes, and atrocities. It all came to a head on a spring morning in 1871, when a vigilante regiment of Anglos, Mexicans, and Tohono O’odhams encircled an Apache camp on the Aravaipa Creek 50 miles northeast of Tucson. Intending to punish the Apaches for their raids, they turned the camp into a killing field, raping, shooting, clubbing, and hacking at least 125 Apaches to death, most of them women and children.