By Mick Woodcock

What is now the state of Arizona was once a part of Mexico and the central mountain region was basically unexplored, except by a few fur-trapping parties.  It was the home of the Yavapai who lived in small bands due to the scarcity of water.  They would move from camp to camp during the year in order not to exhaust their resources.

By language, they are related to the Hualapai, Havasupai, Mohave, Quechan (Yuma), Maricopa and Paipai.  Their traditional enemies were the O’Odham peoples living along and south of the Gila River.  Their encounters with Anglo trappers were few and they treated them as invaders.  Contact with the pale skins would change their lifestyle in less than a generation.

In 1846, war erupted between the United States and Mexico.  Soon the Army of the West, commanded by Brigadier General Stephen Watts Kearny, marched out of Fort Leavenworth, Kansas with orders to occupy California.  Eventually Kearny and one hundred soldiers, guided by Kit Carson, followed the Gila River across today’s Arizona on a trail used by earlier trappers.

The force faced several almost impassable canyons, yet forged ahead.  Because of the route’s tortuous terrain Kearny placed his supply wagons under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Philip St. George Cooke and his “Mormon Battalion,” some 500 foot soldiers recruited from the Church of Latter Day Saints at Council Bluff, Iowa.

The Mormon Battalion and Kearny’s contingent had the distinction of being the largest groups to cross Arizona to that time.  The trails they blazed would be followed by thousands of others, but for some years the land traversed was seen as an obstacle to reaching the Pacific.  The rugged route taken by Cooke and his Mormon Battalion evolved into the first practical wagon trail through the southern Arizona deserts.  Over the following decades this road carried hundreds of emigrant groups to the “Promised Land” on the Pacific Coast.

In 1848, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo brought an end to the war with Mexico.  This document and the subsequent 1854 Gadsden Purchase prompted the United States government to launch a series of expeditions led by army officers to explore, map, and record information about the geography, geology, and natural history of the newly acquired Southwest.

These forays included efforts to define a railroad route that would help link the nation’s southern lands from coast to coast.  So it was that for much of the period following the treaty with Mexico most of the army’s presence was transitory.  That situation was about to change.

When the war ended with Mexico, the boundary between that nation and the United States remained unmapped.   By mutual agreement the two countries agreed to a survey that would define their mutual border, including lands in today’s southern Arizona.  John Bartlett headed the American arm of this joint effort that began in 1851.  The project took two years to complete.

The boundary established by Bartlett’s controversial survey proved short-lived.  By 1854 a new border came into existence between the United States and Mexico.  The Gadsden Purchase added some 30,000 square miles to today’s southern Arizona in exchange for $10,000,000 spent by the Americans on an area considered as an important acquisition for a future railroad route to California.

Transcontinental railroad routes linking the United States from coast to coast triggered several expeditions to the West.  In 1854 and again in 1855 Lieutenant John Parke of the U.S. Army topographical engineers led one of these forays from El Paso, Texas, through southern Arizona.  Based on his second survey, Parke concluded a railroad could be built successfully in the region.

During 1857, the U.S. Congress appropriated funds to build a wagon road from El Paso to Fort Yuma.  The route was based in part on John Parke’s survey.  When complete the road allowed emigrants, stage lines, and military units to operate, thereby strengthening Arizona’s ties to the rest of the nation as well as stimulating settlement.

On September 16, 1858, John Butterfield launched the first successful transcontinental stage line that in part ran from Fort Yuma, California to Stein’s Peak, New Mexico.  This route that came to bear Butterfield’s name carried passengers and mail, thereby connecting a remote region to the rest of the nation and helping to shape Arizona’s future as a separate territory.

 “Days Past” is a collaborative project of the Sharlot Hall Museum and the Prescott Corral of Westerners International ( This and other Days Past articles are also available at The public is encouraged to submit proposed articles to contact SHM Library & Archives reference desk at 928-445-3122 Ext. 14, or via email at for information.