Celebrating Our Centennial: How Arizona Got Its Name

Several weeks ago, we received an interesting e-mail from our our friends at Tumácacori National Historical Park. In it, they talked about the meaning of the name Arizona……. According to the e-mail, Don Garate, former Chief of Interpretation at Tumacácori, as well as “the world’s authority on Juan Bautista de Anza and phenomenal historian,” wrote several articles detailing the origin of the name Arizona. Garate was of Basque descent and spoke the language…. Unfortunately he passed away in 2010, leaving Tumacacori to share the story.

We’ve decided to share the story below…. It’s an interesting slice of Arizona history and if you want to  learn more, be sure to visit Tumácacori National Historical Park’s website. You can also e-mail questions to the Acting Chief of Interpretation at Anita_Badertscher@nps.gov.

**Editor’s note: This story was submitted to Arizona Highways by Tumacácori National Historical Park. Arizona Highways did not edit this content for factual accuracy.

Basque is a unique language, unlike any other known to linguists. The word “Arizona” breaks down into components that require four words in English:

Ariz: oak tree
on: good
a: the

To make it plural, you would add a “c,” making it “Arizonac.”

In October 1736, Yaqui Indian prospector Antonio Siraumea stumbled upon large pieces of silver in the hills forty miles southwest of the Tumacácori Mission. News of the discovery spread quickly. Prospectors rushed to the canyon from all over Sonora to dig for the “balls and plates” of almost pure silver. One prospector, José Fermín de Almazán, found a single slab that weighed over one hundred arrobas, roughly 1 ¼ tons.

By mid-November, Juan Bautista de Anza (senior), Captain of the Fronteras Presidio and Chief Justice of Sonora, learned of the discovery. He travelled to the site to halt the illegal, unregistered collecting, and to determine whether the find was a buried treasure, a clandestine smelting operation, or a natural vein. If the silver was a natural deposit, the prospectors would owe Spain’s King Philip one-fifth of their find. If it was a treasure, ALL of the silver would belong to the King.

By the time Anza arrived, there were 400 people digging for the precious metal. Anza stationed soldiers on-site to prevent further mining. He set up his headquarters twelve miles away, at the home of Deputy Justice Bernardo de Urrea. Urrea’s ranch was called “Arizona,” meaning “the good oak tree” in Basque, his native language.

From Arizona, Captain Anza impounded silver, recorded statements, and conducted the investigation. Discussion then moved to Mexico City. Finally, in August, Anza and five of Sonora’s leading miners returned to examine the canyon. The “experts” unanimously agreed that the silver was from natural veins. The silver — minus the King’s fifth — was returned to the miners.

Controversy over the decision raged for more than a decade. The name “Arizona,” the site from which so many documents had been issued, became synonymous with the amazing silver discovery.

A Rich Territory

One hundred twenty years later, the story of the “silver of Arizona” was well known to promoters of a new U.S. Territory proposed to be split off from the New Mexico Territory. The promoters needed a name that embodied the idea of great mineral wealth. It was the memory of “the silver of Arizona” that led them to choose a Basque name meaning “the good oak tree.”

Congress established the Arizona Territory in December 1858. On February 14, 1912, Arizona became the 48th state in the United States of America.

Some background on “Arizona” as a Basque word:

• Juan Bautista de Anza (senior), of the famous planchas de plata, was first generation Basque, having come over from the “old world” to New Spain at age 19. Bernardo de Urrea, owner of the Arizona ranch, along with a majority of the first explorers, settlers and miners in the area of Sonora known at that time as Arizona, was Basque.

• Oak trees grow everywhere at the ranch and throughout the entire area between present-day Nogales, Arizona and Saric, Sonora.

• “The good oak tree” is spelled “aritzona” in modern Basque. As with English, spelling has become standardized since the 1700s. At the time, Arizona might also have been spelled arisona or arissona, as Anza was also spelled Ansa and Anssa by various members of the family. No one gave spelling tests in the 1700s!

• The meaning of Arizona taught in our fourth grade classes is based on a series of fallacies. Because Basque was not a written language at the time, and the Basque country was part of Spain, the importance of the Basque presence in New Spain is not commonly understood. Because few people speak the language, over time the original meaning was lost.

In modern times, people struggled to figure out what the “original” name might have been. Clearly, it is not Spanish — while it is tempting to turn it into “arid zone,” of course it would then be “zona arida,” not “arida zona!” So, they thought, it must have been an Indian name, an O’odham word.

Based on old maps that label the area of Urrea’s Arizona ranch incorrectly as “Arizonac,” modern people — thinking that this must have been the original form of the name — worked backward to guess what the Pima (the Spanish name for the O’odham) name might originally have been. However, while arizonac is a perfectly good word in Basque — it is the plural of arizona, the good oaks — it was never actually the name by which the site was known. All efforts to translate “arizonac” as the place name originate from a notation written in the margin of a single, much copied, map, probably dating to the 1730s, when the plural form of arizona was well known. Although the site is correctly labeled on the map itself, subsequent copies often took their spelling from the margin notation. Based on this incorrect name, modern people sought an O’odham meaning for Arizonac, settling on “ali shonak, place of little springs.”

•Don Garate, the historian who brought the true story to light, grew up speaking Basque with his grandmother and has many cousins still in the “old country.” He was also fluent in Spanish, and conducted his research from the original, handwritten Spanish documents.


Flickr pic by twm1340



Filed under Centennial, History

12 responses to “Celebrating Our Centennial: How Arizona Got Its Name

  1. chris

    facsinating story ,i am part spanish and basque a very unique people with unique traits like neg blood ,largest concentrate in the world, think differently, possibly from a different species ,not originates from rehsus monkey

  2. Pingback: The Centennial. - Page 2 - City-Data Forum

  3. Vincent Murray

    There are a number of inaccuracies in Garate’s research that undermine his argument.

    • Al Bates

      Like what?

      • Vincent Murray

        There’s the issue of adding a ‘c.’ Garate states in his research, “…no one ever put a “c” on the end of the word in any of the writings of the time.” However, take a look at the two “Sonoitas” in the vicinity of the border. One near Nogales was a racheria of the Sobapuri and became a visita of Guevavi and later Tubutama. The other is Sonoyta on the border opposite of Lukeville, Arizona. You pass through the latter on the way to Rocky Point. It was a Tohono O’odham racheria called Son Oidag, which was visited by Padre Kino and named Nuestra Senora de Loreto y San Marcelo de Sonoyta.
        Here’s where this get’s interesting. A mission was built there and the village renamed San Miguel de Sonoyta. Garate mentions this mission in his citation using San Miguel de Sonoita and San Miguel de Sonoitac. The reference he uses regarding this village are from Bernardo de Urrea in reference to the Pima Revolt of 1751. The first letter, dated Nov 30, 1751 uses Sonoita. The second dated Dec 7, uses Sonoitac. Urrea added a “c” and Garate proved it!! The village was also called San Miguel de Sonoitag, as Don so conveniently points out in his references.

        Garate also referenced Pinart’s Pima Vocabulary (circa mid 1800s) as a reference, but keep in mind that the dialects of the O’odham change just as American English does. So, Pinart gives the pronunciation of Buus ani: for the village of Busani. But just as Spanish documents refer to Son Oidag as Sonoyta, Sonoytac, Sonoytag, Sonoita, Sonoitac, Sonoitag, Xonoida, and Xonoidag, Busani is also spelled Busanic. So, if the O’odham didn’t add the “c” to Busanic, who did? Or maybe the Spanish removed it.

        While I don’t have a copy of Pinart to critique, I have reviewed enough period documents to know that place names become different things to different people, Think about San Tan Valley. It used be called Queen Creek. Avondale was called Cold Water. I could go on, but saying that the O’odham called Arizona (the ranch) Taaka, doesn’t mean they didn’t call it something else as well.

        Another kink in Garate’s argument is in the section where he finds places called “Arizona” in other Latin American countries, because that’s where the Basque and not the O’odham settled. While I don’t discount the evidence that Arizona the state gets its name from Arizona the ranch, I do take umbrage with the idea that because there are Arizonas in other parts of the New World, and no indication of Pima names, they were, like the ranch, named because of the prolific Basque populations in those areas.

        He has no conclusive proof behind this. In fact, it would make more sense if there were Arizonacs in these areas since it is, as he states, “a perfectly viable Baque word” for “the good oak trees” just as Arizona is for “the good oak tree.” But you only find Arizona in its singluar basque form. Why is that?

        I looked at historic maps and I could not find an Arizona contemporary to the ranch nor within a century of it. The Rio Arizona of Honduras was created by American fruit companies in the 1920s. The adjacent community of Arizona was created in the 1990s. The Arizona in Argentina dates to 1926.

        Lastly, while I’m not fluent in Basque, if I understand it correctly, there is not a word Arizona that means “good oak” but instead it is haritz ona which is literally oak good. Yet, some Basque translations require the adjective to before the noun and good oak is actually ona haritz. Good oaks would not be haritz onak but ona haritzak. Also, according to the Arizona Basque Club, Arizona actually means “Good Rock.”

        If Garate’s translation of Basque to English is flawed, then that further undermines his argument. Because these issues are not addressed in this essay, and because his own comments undermine his argument, I remain unconvinced that the origin is solely Basque and that Arizonac or something similar was NEVER used.

        It is quite possible that the original place name was O’odham and sounded close to Basque and was changed. It’s hard to say, but Garate was not diligent in proving his theory.

  4. Al Bates

    “Good Rock” Now that is interesting considering the silver find. Too bad Garate is not still around to debate with you.

  5. Al Bates

    Mr Murray: I am curious. Have you read both of the Garate articles in the Journal of Arizona History, Spring 1999 and Summer 2005?

    • Vincent Murray

      What’s also interesting is in all of the Arizonas that supposedly were created by Basque immigrants, we don’t find an Arizonac, which would be, according to Garate, “Good Oaks.” Is there only one good tree in all of these locations? I would have welcomed a debate with Don and was saddened by his passing.

  6. Vincent Murray

    While it’s been awhile, yes, I have read both of Garate’s articles as well as his other essays. Have you ever looked into the origin of Arizuma?

  7. Scott

    So, I’ve read where there was possibly Muslim influence going into the naming of Arizona and New Mexico. Is there any truth to this?


    Here is my reference to my question…

    • Vincent Murray

      Is this the quote you’re referring to: “At least two states owe their beginnings to this Muslim, Arizona and New Mexico.”?

  8. Gerardo Urrea

    All these information it´s super interesting thanks for posting and sharing.

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