Phoenix’s history is fascinating.


There are five million souls there. Summer temperatures regularly hit 115. They climb higher too. Of course virtually no one would live there without air conditioning. But why did people live there before air conditioning? What brought people there? What enabled it to grow? And what is its future?

Phoenix, in some ways, is the most American of cities. It’s Manifest Destiny to the extreme. It’s one of the most artificial cities on earth. And its so perfectly named for reasons that are just neat. Its foundations were laid long before Europeans first saw saguaros.

And I have to tell its history my way.


Now, let’s go to 1867.

Inspiration has possessed our red and long-haired protagonist from South Carolina named Jack Swilling. He would cause a Phoenix to rise.

Now, America’s Civil War had ended two years before in 1865. The North had crushed the South. The District of Columbia would hold the highest sway over the future development of the American landmass from the Atlantic to the Pacific – and Phoenix perfectly illustrates this dynamic.

The awesome power of the Federal Army mustered against the Confederacy was now free for other endeavors. Slowly but surely, the US Army is redeploying soldiers for a new war to conquer the West. Many dirt-poor Southerners, looking for some income which their devastated lands could not provide, join the new cause.

Though before the Civil War the line of white settlement had been pushing ever westward across plains and deserts, after the first shots, virtually all soldiers deployed on the western frontier headed eastward to fight each other in blue or grey uniforms. Western forts were abandoned. Tribes like the Comanche, Sioux, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Apache, Navajo and others took advantage of the blue coats’ absence and fought to reclaim lost territory. And reclaim they did. And shed much blood they did.

Manifest Destiny cost money. Here are forts across Arizona and New Mexico from 1819 to 1895. A large portion were for Apache operations. (2)

But such century-long bloodshed was about to end. The post-Civil War redeployment of the Federal Army would advance more men and firepower than any western tribe had ever seen before. Gatlin guns, repeating rifles, shelled cannons and other innovations in killing were to pave the way for a Manifest Destiny. A dream was to be rekindled. From sea to shining sea, and all the empty spaces in between, the stars and stripes were to fly boldly. Roads, railroads, telegraphs, farms, orchards, banks, insurance companies, mines and countless other commercial operations settlers would bring with them on the heels of the soldiers to fill those empty spaces.

And Arizona Territory had many empty spaces back in 1867. As one soldier described Fort Grant, re-established in 1865 at the base of the Pinelo Mountains southeast of Phoenix, “It was… recognized from the tide waters of the Hudson to those of the Columbia as the most thoroughly God-forsaken post of all those supposed to be included in the annual Congressional appropriations.” (3) This term “God-forsaken”, however, was used many times, by many white men, across centuries, to describe the landscape broiling under hot blue skies. Why the hell would any white man want to live here? The land would always be desolate!

So thought most white men whose ancestors hailed from lush lands on both sides of the Atlantic. Obviously, this was to change. And this is so, to no small degree, because others had been living in what became Arizona for thousands of years beforehand. A cavalcade of cultures had come and gone across the land for centuries. They all left their marks. And they all played a part.

And if I may, dear reader, it is important to take a couple paragraphs to talk about the men and women who walked across this desert land a long time ago.


First, there were the first ones. They left only arrowheads from 3,000-plus years ago. We know little about them. There were those who most likely descended from the first ones, and about these Basketmakers we know more. They left behind, of course, baskets, and also water pots, weapons, clothing, jewelry, rock art and other tantalizing tidbits of their evolution into civilization. As centuries passed the Basketmakers would learn to build structures of mud, stone and wood. By the year 1000 AD they had built towns and arguably even cities, across the Southwest.

Yes, cities.

Enter a people called the Hohokam. You’ve probably never heard of them. I didn’t until spending time in Phoenix.

The Hohokam called themselves something different. No one knows what. The word “Hohokam” comes from the Pima Indian language. It means “all used up” or “exhausted”. Why call them this?

The remnants of Hohokam civilization are used up, or exhausted. What are those remnants? Canals. Over 700 miles of canals.

Life abounded in the Southern Arizona deserts long before Spaniards first arrived here in 1540. The exact population numbers are unknown. However, the sophisticated nextwork of canals evince a large population capable of performing the task of digging 700+ miles of canals.

In Southern Arizona it was discovered that, once upon a time, a massive canal network distributed water from the Salt and Gila rivers of Southern Arizona – flowing out of Arizona and New Mexico mountains where snow used to fall abundantly – to irrigate hundreds of thousands of acres which provided a massive supply of food for a civilization that some estimate may have 400,000 people.

Think about that: 400,000 in the Southern Arizona deserts in ancient times. That’s a lot. Phoenix didn’t reach 400,000 until 1960, and that was only with the help of modern technology. (5)

Even if the number was less, you have to consider the amount of labor and man-hours necessary to move all that dirt that became the canal network was large. The population one thousand years ago where Phoenix now is was greater than London, Rome, Paris and many other cities of Europe. That is remarkable.

But then poof. Gone. It is estimated the Great Hohokam Civilization collapsed by 1300 AD. No one really knows why – though there are many speculations.

Granted, there were remnants of the Hohokam people living in Southern Arizona when the first Europeans – the Spanish – arrived in the 1530’s. The Pima likely were. But the sophistication of their culture evinced nothing like what you expect from a people who built one of the most extensive canal networks on the planet. There is still much mystery here.

And we won’t figure it out here. The greater point of the existence of that ancient canal network has been made. It is crucial to understand why a Phoenix would rise where it did.


(1) Featured photo taken from: HohokamCanalart.jpg (1363×1021) (

(2) Photo of map taken from The Historical Atlas of the American West by Warren A. Beck and Ynez D. Haase. Chapter 37: U.S. Military Forts, 1819 – 1895. Copyright 1989. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University.

(3) On the Trail with Crook by John Borg. Page 4. Copyright 2014. Skyhorse Publishing.

(4) Photo of map taken from Ancient Peoples of the American Southwest, second edition, by Stephen Plog. Page 75. Copyright 2008. Thames and Hudson Ltd, London.

(5) Cadillac Desert by Marc Reisner. Page 255. Copyright 1993. Penguin Books.