by Drew Desmond, Secretary, Prescott Western Heritage Foundation
Prescott was named after author William Hickling Prescott, who was already deceased at the time and had never set foot in the West. Prescott wrote “History of the Conquest Mexico” where he incorrectly theorized that the Indian ruins in the Southwestern U.S. were built by the well-civilized Aztecs who were eventually destroyed by the “savage” Apaches.
Popular in its day, this theory helped heighten fear and harden hearts among Anglos against Native Americans.
It was unusual for towns to bear the names of people who were not involved with their founding, yet the startup community around Fort Whipple officially named itself Prescott in May 1864.
Other names were considered, including Goodwin City, Granite, Fleuryville, Gimletville, and Audubon. A last contender also harkened to Prescott’s book: Aztlan. Although this last option was rejected by the town founders, it was later adopted by Arizona’s first Masonic Lodge.
Indeed, town founders were so enamored with Prescott’s book, they not only named the town for its author, but they named several streets after the main characters in his book. Montezuma, Cortez, Alarcon, Marina, and Coronado (now Pleasant) are all examples. Marina was the only original street named after a woman. She was Cortez’s mistress.
Three of Prescott’s original streets were named for Arizona’s first territorial governors: Gurley, Goodwin and McCormick, who served in that order. Unfortunately, Gurley never made it to Prescott either. He died “before he even loaded his wagon for the trip.” Goodwin served from 1863 until 1866 when Robert McCormick, of New Jersey, took over.
Military men were also honored with street names. Willis Street was named after Major Edward B. Willis, who established the Whipple post in December 1863 at Del Rio Springs. Speaking of Whipple, that street (and the Army post itself,) was named for Brig. Gen. A.W. Whipple, who was in charge of Arizona’s boundary survey in 1850. The original Whipple Street was actually today’s Mt. Vernon because it led to the post. Carleton Street was named for James H. Carleton of the 1st California Calvary. He arrived in Yuma in January 1863 and defeated the only Confederate expedition into the Arizona territory.
Other streets were named for early explorers. These include: Walker, Aubrey, Leroux, Sheldon and Lount. Granite Street was undoubtedly named for the adjacent creek.
According to the book “Oral History of the Yavapai,” by Mike Harrison, et al., the Yavapai people originally named Prescott “Wahagsigiita.” However, no English translation for it was offered in the book. Another native people called the area “In-dil-chin-ar,” which means “pine woods.”
SOURCES: “Prescott Yesteryears” by Melissa Ruffner; “Prescott Streets” Vertical File; Sharlot Hall Museum Archives