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  • Organizing the first county government

    The Way We Were logo
    By Tom Prezelski

    In 1854, after contentious debate, Congress approved the Gadsden Purchase Treaty, which transferred some 29,670 square miles, including what is now Pima County, from Mexico to the United States. What was previously a remote and neglected frontier outpost of one nation was now a remote and neglected frontier outpost of another. It would remain so for years, prompting a handful of new settlers from the Eastern States to demand a level of law and order closer to what they were used to back home. This led to the organization of the first county government in what is now Southern Arizona, though the results were less than satisfactory.

    The Gadsden Purchase lands were made part of the established Territory of New Mexico. The bulk of the Territory’s population lived along the Rio Grande, so, for convenience, most of its counties were drawn as stripes which ran from Texas to California. As a practical matter, the influence of these county governments extended little beyond the Rio Grande Valley. The hinterlands were regarded as unsettled, ungoverned and ungovernable.

    The new land was included in New Mexico’s Doña Ana County, with its seat at Las Cruces, over 270 miles from Tucson across a country of deserts, mountains, bandits and hostile Apaches. This distance made criminal trials impractical, as defendants and witnesses would often fail to report to court. Additionally, Tucson, Tubac, and nearby communities like Arivaca, had a total population of less than a thousand people, a number dwarfed by Las Cruces and neighboring Mesilla, with more than three times as many. Isolated and out-voted, residents of the Gadsden Purchase understandably felt unrepresented and neglected.
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    Whether or not authorities in the distant capital at Santa Fe heard these grievances, they shared concerns about how to govern the area. On January 28, 1860, the New Mexico Territorial Legislature passed a bill creating “Arizona County” out of the portion of Doña Ana west of a line running through Apache Pass. Though the intent was clear, the language was not, and it was occasionally interpreted to make the new county include all of New Mexico west of the line, a vast area which would have included most of what is now Arizona and part of what is now Nevada. Of course, most of this area was not even surveyed, much less settled, and the people who lived there were largely unaware of the change.

    The new law provided for the election of a Sheriff and Probate Judge, but did not specify a date for the balloting. The new county would share legislative representation with Doña Ana, so cranky citizens would likely still find themselves outvoted in Territorial matters. Though Tucson was twice as large, the county seat was at Tubac, the headquarters of the Arizona and Sonora Mining Company and a center of political and economic activity in the region.

    The move was met with indifference among the people of the new county, who focused their attention elsewhere. English-speaking residents held public meetings to organize a “provisional government” for a new Territory of Arizona consisting more or less of the southern third of New Mexico. They divided the territory into four counties, elected a delegate to Congress and maintained courts. This rump government had many prominent local detractors, however, including Spanish-speaking residents in Tucson who organized an opposition slate. Supporters expressed doubts about whether or not these Mexican-American citizens were eligible to vote, which seems ironic since the whole enterprise was illegal.

    Perhaps because of this inaction, the New Mexico Legislature revisited the issue in January 1861 by passing two bills. The first moved the county seat to Tucson, and the second empowered the Territorial Governor to appoint a Sheriff and Probate Judge until an election could be held. Little further action was taken in Santa Fe, however, save for the naming of a few notaries public. Events far away would soon make all this irrelevant.

    As the Southern States seceded in the run up to the Civil War, the proponents of the Provisional Territory threw in with the Confederacy in March 1861 while New Mexico as a whole remained loyal to the Union. After federal forces abandoned the area to fight in the east, a Rebel force from Texas took possession of “Arizona.” With any semblance of civil government gone, and the area occupied by an enemy force, the new county seemed moot, and the law creating it was repealed in January 1862. The area was again part of Doña Ana County, though under the circumstances, this mattered very little.

    In January 1863, with the territory occupied by federal forces from California and New Mexico and securely in Union hands, the legislature reinstated the county. Again, no real action was taken to organize a government there, this time because Congress passed a law creating the Territory of Arizona a month later. In November 1864, the newly elected Arizona Legislature organized the new territory into four counties, including Pima with its county seat in Tucson. With this, residents of Southern Arizona would finally see their first lasting and sustainable civilian government since the United States took over the region.

    Pima County FYI is featuring a monthly column on some of the history behind the people and places of Pima County, written by Tom Prezelski. Prezelski is a Tucson native and former member of the Arizona House of Representatives. His first book, Californio Lancers: The 1st Battalion of Native Cavalry in the Far West was a finalist for the 2016 Latino Book Awards.
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