As recently as 1868, the place in the northeastern Sonoran Desert that became the site of Phoenix — the nation’s fifth-largest city with more than 1.5 million people, and a rest and recuperation stop on our eastbound bicycle journey across the United States — was a tiny farming settlement irrigated by canals drawing water from the Salt River.
And the handful of inhabitants still hadn’t settled on a name for their community.
Some called it Pumpkinsville, because pumpkins grew in the soil watered by the Swilling Irrigating and Canal Co. The company was established by Jack Swilling, a Confederate veteran of the Civil War who prospected for gold in Gila City before drifting down to the Salt River Valley. Swilling saw the ruins of Pueblo Grande, built by the Hohokam people who mysteriously vanished around 1450 A.D., and the remnants of about 135 miles of canals used by the Hohokam to water the valley. He figured that a new community could flourish in the valley if only it had some water.
In 1868, as a result of Swilling’s labors, crops began to grow. Some called the settlement Swilling’s Mill, some Mill City. Swilling himself wanted to name the place Stonewall, after Confederate general Stonewall Jackson.
But the matter was settled by an eccentric wanderer from England, who came into this world in France, where his parents were living, as Bryan Philip Darrel Duppa of Hollingbourne House, County Kent.
After schooling in France and Spain and excursions to South America and New Zealand, “Lord” Duppa turned up in 1862 in Prescott, where he was said to have come to investigate mining shares owned by an uncle. Later, he was one of the first settlers to claim land at what is now 116 W. Sherman St. in Phoenix.
But the “new settlement needed a name if for no other reason than to tell shippers where to send supplies,” says Lawrence Clark Powell in Arizona: A History, written to celebrate America’s bicentennial as one of a series to include all 50 states.
“The eruditon of ‘Lord’ Duppa settled the argument,” Powell wrote. A bunch of the early settlers were “gathered convivially … at the Pueblo Grande — the Indian ruin restored in our time by Dwight B. Heard as a museum-monument along the Grand Canal of East Washington Street — when the perennial question was asked. Where are we?
“Whereupon Duppa clambered to the top of the ruined wall and, raising his cultured voice, proclaimed to somewhat short of a multitude, ‘As the mythical phoenix rose reborn from its ashes, so shall a great civilization rise here on the ashes of a past civilization. I name thee Phoenix!'”
The board of supervisors in Yavapai County, which at the time encompassed Phoenix, officially recognized the new town on May 4, 1868, and formed an election precinct.