Maricopa County is one of the largest counties in the United States and the most populous in Arizona with a population of more than 3.8 million. Learn more about the history of Maricopa County and what it’s best known for today.
Maricopa County Overview & History
Maricopa County today has a population of 3.8 million. If the county were a state, it would be the 27th most populous state in the U.S. Its county seat is Phoenix, which is also the state capital and largest city in Arizona. It also forms the basis for the Phoenix-Mesa-Glendale, Arizona Metropolitan Statistical Area. Maricopa County is located in south-central Arizona. By area, Maricopa County is the 15th largest county in the U.S. after several counties mostly in Nevada and elsewhere in Arizona with a total area of more than 9,220 square miles.
Early History of the Salt River Valley
The area around Phoenix and Maricopa have been occupied for thousands of years beginning with paleo-Indians who lived in the Salt River Valley from 9,000 years ago until 6,000 BC. At the time, the nomadic tribes hunted mammoths migrating through the area. Many nomadic tribes moved through the region, many of them from what are today California and Mexico.
For thousands of years, the Southwest region of the United States was home to numerous bands of nomadic hunters and gatherers although this changed about 3,000 years ago when the culture became agricultural, especially with the introduction of maize. As farming became established, groups developed separate cultures that were broken into nomads, villagers, and farmers. It is from the farming culture that the Hohokam people rose.
Around 1,000 BC, maize was introduced into the culture of the archaic Indians and the Hohokam civilization rose. The Hohokam came from Mexico and brought an agrarian society that was very different from the hunter-gatherer cultures common in the area. The Hohokam settled around the Tuscon area and thrived.
The Hohokam settled the area of Maricopa County around 1 AD and, after 500 years, had established canal systems for thriving agriculture. More than 135 miles of agricultural canals have been discovered and their paths were later used for the Central Arizona Project Canal, the Arizona Canal, and the Hayden-Rhodes Aqueduct. The Hohokam occupied the area around Phoenix and Tuscon for over 2,000 years. At their height, the Hohokam were the largest group of people in the prehistoric Southwest and the largest native population north of Mexico City. The Hohokam people vanished for unknown reasons by 1450 although it’s believed that severe floods and drought played a role.
When European settlers arrived in Maricopa County in the 16th century, there were two primary groups of Indians inhabiting the land: the Sobaipuri and O’odham tribes. Other American Indian tribes who inhabited the area included the Maricopa, Gila River, and Apache tribes.
The Sobaipuri were an Uto-Aztecan tribe who were allied with the Tohono O’odham or Papago tribe. The Sobaipuri today are no longer a distinct tribe and their language was never recorded well but appears to have been closely related to O’odham. It’s believed the Sobaipuri were a subgroup of the O’odham or Pima people. While the Sobaipuri no longer exist as a separate tribe, there are still many O’odham peoples living in southern and central Arizona today.
There is still much debate as to whether the O’odham or Sobaipuri were actually related to the prehistoric Hohokam people who disappeared prior to the 15th century.
Arrival of Europeans
Spanish explorers began to travel through Maricopa County in the 1500s, leaving European diseases like smallpox, influenza, and measles that ravaged Indian communities.
The Sobaipuri played a crucial role in European contact and later colonization of Arizona. The group was probably met by Marcos de Niza in 1539 along the San Pedro River. In 1691, Father Eusebio Kino arrived to the region and was greeted by leaders of the Sobaipuri. When Kino traveled along the river, he found three structures made by the Indians constructed specifically for him with a kitchen, a house, and a room for mass. This was the first Jesuit mission in Arizona. On his trip, Kino established a church with a native settlement that became the head mission in the region. The Spanish did make this mission near Tucson but they never made settlements near Phoenix.
The Sobaipuri were known to be friendly with neighbors such as the Apache and frequently traded, raided, and married together. Because the Sobaipuri eventually sided with the Europeans and even battled against other tribes, their relationship with unconverted tribes suffered.
The first European explorers in Maricopa County were Spanish. At first, settlement attempts were isolated to Tuscon and the southern parts of the region prior to 1800. It wasn’t until the early 19th century that Central Arizona was settled. The city of Phoenix got its start when these settlements begin to expand and a military outpost was established east of modern-day Phoenix.
The end of the Mexican-American War in 1848 passed much of Mexico’s northern territory to the United States. A portion of it became the New Mexico Territory that included most of modern-day Maricopa County. Until 1863, most of Maricopa County was part of the New Mexico Territory. This changed with the establishment of the Arizona Territory. In 1853, the Gadsden Purchase included a promise from the United States to honor all regional land rights, including those of the O’odham who received full constitutional rights.
During the Civil War, the Gila River Valley and Salt River Valley regions in Maricopa County were claimed by both sides. Confederate Arizona was claimed by the South and was created by a proclamation by Jefferson Davis in 1862. The North claimed the Salt River Valley as part of the Arizona Territory.
In 1863, a mining community called Wickenburg was established in the northwest corner of modern-day Phoenix while Maricopa County was still unincorporated. By 1865, as the Civil War was ending, settlers begin to move into the Valley of the Sun and the Army built Fort McDowell to address uprisings from Native American tribes. The fort also established a camp on the Salt River in 1866 to supply hay, creating the first non-native settlement in the area. This and other settlements eventually merged to create Tempe, which was incorporated after Phoenix.
History of Mesa
Mesa is the second-largest city in Maricopa County and the third-largest in Arizona. Little is known about the Mesa area after the disappearance of the Hohokam people in the 15th century and before the arrival of the first European settlers as explorers did not go through the area.
In 1877, a Mormon pioneer named Daniel Webster Jones led an expedition to the area to found a settlement. He left St. George, Utah in 1877 and arrived at an area within present-day Mesa. He founded a settlement that was first called Jonestown and Fort Utah, which later became Lehi in 1883.
Another group called the First Mesa Company also arrived in the area from Idaho and Utah. They did not accept an invitation to join the Lehi settlement and instead moved to the mesa that became the city’s namesake. The group dug irrigation canals and had water flowing by 1878. In 1879, the Second Mesa Company arrived and settled to the west of the earlier group and named their new settlement Stringtown in 1880.
Mesa City became a registered townsite in 1878 and it was incorporated in 1883 with a population of 300. By the 1940s, the population began to explode as air conditioning became available.
History of Chandler
Chandler is the third-largest city in Maricopa County and one of the largest suburbs of the Phoenix Metropolitan Statistical Area with a population of more than 250,000 today. Chandler’s history began with Dr. Alexander Chandler, the first veterinary surgeon in the state who lived on a ranch near Mesa and studied irrigation engineering in 1891. He acquired more than 18,000 acres of land and drew up plans for a new townsite on what was the Chandler Ranch. The Chandler High School and townsite office were both opened in 1912. A year later, a town center was formed with the state’s first golf resort.
Chandler’s economy survived the Great Depression although it was severely affected by a cotton crash shortly afterward. The population began growing slightly after the Williams Air Force Base opened in 1941 but it still had a small population of just 3,800 by 1950. It began its rapid growth around the late 1980s and became one of the fastest-growing municipalities in the United States.
Since 2003, Chandler’s economy has grown with several retail developments along the South Arizona Avenue Corridor. There are three shopping malls in the area including the massive Chandler Fashion Center.
Changes in the 20th Century
While Maricopa County’s economy revolved around cattle, citrus, cotton, and copper in its early history, a number of military air bases, training centers, and tech companies begin to move into the area in the mid-20th century. This led to a massive technology and population boom. Phoenix became a popular winter destination for tourists and provided government and retail services for the rest of Central Arizona. Many tuberculosis patients also moved to the region as resting in a warm, dry climate was recommended by physicians of the time.
The region shifted into a distribution center during World War II with the mass production of military supplies. During this era, Maricopa County was home to three Air Force fields and two large training camps, one in Scottsdale and one in Glendale.
By 1940, Phoenix had 65,000 residents and it was the 6th largest city in the United States. Just a decade later, the population had boomed to 105,000 within the city and surrounding communities. Today, it has more than 1.5 million residents with millions more in the Greater Phoenix metro area.
Indian Reservations in Maricopa County
Maricopa County is named for the Maricopa Indians and the county today is home to several Indian Reservations.
The Gila River Indian Community is located south of Chandler and Phoenix within the Phoenix Metro Area in Maricopa and Pinal counties. The reservation was established in 1859 and formally recognized by Congress in 1939. The Gila River Indian Community is the largest in the county with a population of more than 11,200.
The Gila River Indian Community is home to members of the Pee-Posh or Maricopa tribe and the Akimel O’odham or Pima tribes. It includes seven districts along the Gila River. The largest communities are Blackwater, Sacaton, Santan, and Komatke.
The Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community is located east of Scottsdale and also borders Tempe, Mesa, and Fountain Hills. This community was founded in 1879 by executive order of President Rutherford Hayes. The Salt River Pima-Maricopa community is comprised of two tribes: the Pima or Akimel O’odham and the Maricopa or Piipaash.
The Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community has an area of 53,000 miles with a population of more than 6,200. The community has owned and operated two casinos for decades under the Casino Arizona brand. They also own some office space and The Scottsdale Pavilions, a large outdoor shopping center. The community also opened the first Major League Baseball spring training center on Indian land in 2011 which is the spring training home for the Colorado Rockies and the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Maricopa County is also home to the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation, founded in 1903 with a population of 970, and the Tohono O’odham Nation, founded in 1916 with a population of 10,000.
The Tohono O’odham Nation governs four areas of land, including the San Lucy district, the San Xavier Indian Reservation, and the Tohonto O’odham Indian Reservation.
Outdoor Recreation in Maricopa County
Maricopa County is known for its outdoor recreation in the form of lakes with fishing, hiking, and more. The following are some of the best examples of outdoor opportunities in the county.
• Maricopa Trail. The Maricopa County Regional Trail System has a total of 1,521 miles of trails. The Maricopa Trail itself is 315 miles long. The trail is designed for runners, walkers, equestrians, and cyclists.
• Golf. The Maricopa County Regional Park system has three golf courses: Paradise Valley Golf Course, Adobe Dam Regional Park, and Tres Rios Golf Course at Estrella Mountain Park.
• Geocaching. This activity involves finding hidden caches by inputting coordinates into a GPS system.
• Nature centers. Maricopa County has four nature centers: White Tank Mountain Regional Park, Ursery Mountain Regional Park, Estrella Mountain Regional Park, and Cave Creek Regional Park with features such as amphitheatres, patios, and trails.
• Campsites. Maricopa County has campsites at nearly every park.
• Boating. The Lake Pleasant Regional Park has two boat launch ramps.
• Fishing. Lake Pleasant Regional Park is home to 12 types of fish including tilapia, bass, crappie, bluegill, sunfish, and catfish. The park also hosts fishing tournaments every year.
• Scuba diving. Lake Pleasant Regional Park has a reputation as one of the best places to scuba dive in the western part of the country.
• Wet ‘n’ Wild Phoenix waterpark. The water park offers rides and fun events like Dive-In Movie nights.