By Elisabeth Ruffner 

Among the myriad counties created in the United States over the earliest years of this democratic republic, Yavapai County in the Arizona Territory was the largest ever devised.  Of the original 65,000 square miles designated when Arizona Territory was organized, other entirely new counties were later carved out.

Arizona Territory’s first legislature convened in Prescott on September 26, 1864, and one of their actions was to define four original counties, which they named: Yavapai, Pima, Yuma and Mojave.  The first meeting of an appointed Yavapai County Commission was held on January 17, 1865, and two years later an elected Board of Supervisors was installed in its place.

In 1871, the donation of land from Yavapai to a series of new Arizona counties began.  First came formation of Maricopa County in recognition of the rapid population growth in the Salt River Valley north of the Gila River.  Apache County was created in 1879, and Coconino County was formed in 1891.  Parts of Gila County, were carved out in 1881.  Pinal County was organized in 1875 from parts of Yavapai, Maricopa and Pima Counties.  Navajo County was created to the east of Apache County in 1895.


The first Yavapai County Courthouse and Jail, a wood frame structure, was built on North Cortez Street in the present day location of the Masonic Temple building (Photo Courtesy Sharlot Hall Museum Call Number: BU-H-7026p).

These new counties were not the first subdivisions created by the legislature, as in 1865 the county of Pah-Ute, west of the Colorado River, was separated from Mohave County, taking the northwest portion of that first of four counties.  This area later became a part of Nevada in 1866 when Congress ceded that portion of Arizona Territory to Nevada.

Included in the territorial legislative acts in 1866 was the authorization of each board of supervisors to levy a special road tax for county highways, and to levy a tax of 50 cents for each hundred dollars of assessed property value to build a jail and other needed public buildings in Prescott.  Also Congress was memorialized to establish mail routes.  Congress also gave some consideration to the need for transportation for agricultural and mining enterprises being developed in 1866, when the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad was incorporated, and every other section of land was granted as an aid in the construction of a transcontinental railroad to cross the region along the 35th parallel wagon route, already surveyed.

One of the most important of political influences on the importance of Yavapai County to the Arizona Territory was the removal of the Territorial government  to Tucson in 1867,  to return to Prescott 1877, and finally to locate permanently in Phoenix in 1889.  Also the fact that this region never developed as a major mining or agricultural center, and was by-passed by a federal highway 33 miles to the east in more recent times, has resulted in the comparative geographic isolation of the Central Arizona Highlands, developing as an education and medical industries center, these influences marking the characteristics of a region ripe for development in the telecommuting era as a base for younger families in an internationally growing electronic enterprise economy.  With tourism as the major source of income for all of Northern Arizona since the advent of the railroad, the automobile and the development of the national forest and national park systems, Yavapai County is in a fortunate position at the beginning of the new millennium for optimum protection of prehistoric and historic assets and promotion of natural and economic opportunities for managed growth.


The second courthouse and jail built on The Courthouse Plaza in 1878, survived the cataclysmic fire of 1900 but was later demolished to make way for the current locally-quarried granite structure which was dedicated in 1916 (Photo Courtesy Sharlot Hall Museum Call Number: BU-G-515p).

Although state law does not delegate water management, the determinant of the future of the American West, to the counties, “Yavapai, The Mother of Counties” is ideally situated to serve as the focus and catalyst to attract the ideal population of younger families and new enterprises as the economic base, with ground water under state control and the City of Prescott the legal manager in this area of Yavapai County.

Past assemblies and legislatures have marked the county in a variety ways with a national reputation of the best and the worst of human endeavors being evidenced here, but with the celebration of the Sesquicentennial in 2014, of the founding of Yavapai, Mother of Counties, the largest political subdivision geographically ever created in the United States, unlimited opportunities, as in the beginning, are available here.

Elisabeth Ruffner, longtime Prescottonian and Ruffner pioneer family historian, will be giving a presentation titled, Yavapai:  Mother of Counties, Cradle of Statehood on Saturday, November 8, 2014 at 11:00am in the Sharlot Hall Theater located inside the Lawler Exhibit Center.

(“Days Past” is a collaborative project of the Sharlot Hall Museum and the Prescott Corral of Westerners International ( The public is encouraged to submit ideas for articles