Arizona Place Names

From Bloody Basin to Klondyke to Gripe, Arizona has some weird place names. We have their convoluted explanations.

Place Names
  • Baby Mummy Cave

    Known to many students as “The Dean,” the late University of Arizona professor Byron Cummings played an integral role in unearthing the convoluted cultural past of the American Southwest. His specialties were archaeology and anthropology, so, naturally, he took part in many excavations during the early part of the 20th century. During one particular dig in Cottonwood Wash, he discovered the mummified corpses of two infants. Choosing to keep the name accurate and descriptive, as scientists often do, he named the cave for its tiny residents.

  • Bagdad

    When John Lawler bought the mining claim here in 1883, he decided to name it after the setting of one of his favorite books. In the book The Thousand and One Nights, Baghdad was the majestic, magical capital of the Abbasid Empire in the Middle East. No one knows if Lawler intended to misspell the name to Westernize it or if it was a simple mistake, but it has remained — sans h — for more than 125 years.

  • Barbershop Canyon

    Sheep and humans have little in common, except when traveling through this section of the Mogollon Rim. Both shepherds and their flocks stopped there for haircuts while trekking across the state. Dick Hart, who owned the land, had a crew that included shearers for the sheep and a barber for the men.

  • Bisbee

    Initially staked out for a mining claim, all activity in Bisbee was centered on the prolific Copper Queen Mine. It was meant to rival the Silver King Mine east of Phoenix, and it did; 8 billion pounds of copper ore left the Copper Queen in its nearly 100-year existence. When Phelps Dodge & Co. sent Dr. James Douglas to buy up copper prospects in 1880, he purchased land next to the mine. The two ventures merged, resulting in the Copper Queen Consolidated Mining Co. A couple of brothers who served as promoters for the company decided to name the town after shareholder Judge DeWitt Bisbee, the father-in-law of one of the men.

  • Bloody Basin

    It’s one of the most unusually named exits along Interstate 17 between Flagstaff and Phoenix. Adding to the area’s eeriness is the lack of an official explanation for its out-of-the-ordinary name. At least two gory theories exist, but no one knows for certain. Some people believe the name originates from a violent clash (or clashes) between settlers and Indians; others attribute it to a bridge collapse that killed an entire flock of sheep passing through the Verde Valley.

  • Bumble Bee

    Most people know that where there are beehives, there is honey. And an abundance of stingers. The prospectors who came upon this area, however, either didn’t know or didn’t care. Accounts say that they found a hive full of honey near a creek and disturbed the bumblebees inside. Many were stung badly, and, in recognition of their experience, the prospectors named it Bumble Bee Creek. When a post office was established there about a decade later, the small town officially adopted the name.

  • Cornville

    This small unincorporated town near Sedona is not known for its corn. In fact, the only place you’re likely to find any would be at the local grocery store. Originally, the town was supposed to be called Cohnville, after a family named Cohn. The Cohns applied to have a post office at their store, but when the paperwork came back from Washington, D.C., it read “Cornville.” Some locals have disputed the family’s name, with variations of Cone and Coane also noted, but despite all the disagreements, no one has ever bothered to change the name.

  • Flagstaff

    No one is sure who was responsible for stripping the stately ponderosa pine tree near Old Town Spring in 1876. What most historians can agree on is that the bare tree was used as a flagpole, and that it stood, flagless, for passersby on their way to nearby Antelope Spring. The flagstaff stood for more than 10 years before being cut down and used as firewood at a local saloon. Shortly thereafter, the town was named in honor of the once-prominent landmark.

  • Fool Hollow Lake

    Poor Thomas Adair’s neighbors weren’t the friendliest folks in town. The property he bought was apparently unsuitable for farming, and the local residents called it Fools Hollow because nothing would grow there. One story says that after a dam was placed where Show Low Creek and Fool Hollow Wash converge, the town was covered by the 150-acre lake that bears the same name today.

  • Globe

    Like the history behind several towns, this town’s name is a mixture of legend and fact. Some say the most likely story is that early visitors to the area stumbled upon a silver mine they described as being as round and large as a globe. Local lore attributes the name to a large ball of pure silver shaped exactly like a perfect sphere. While the latter version might not be the origin of the name, the silver ball did in fact exist — but probably not until well after the town was established.

  • Goodyear

    Cotton farming and tires don’t go hand-in-hand, but in the late 1900s, Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. purchased a large plot of land along what is now Interstate 10, west of Phoenix, with the intent of growing the white fluff. By 1944, however, Egyptian cotton was no longer a priority for the tire manufacturer, so the land was sold. Today, Goodyear is notable for many things — including a wooden cutout of a giant baby with dolls that’s visible from the freeway.

  • Gripe

    According to Merriam-Webster, the definition of “gripe” is to complain with grumbling. The definition according to the men who were stationed at the Arizona state agricultural inspection point in the area: What they did a lot of while they were there. Eventually, folks willingly settled nearby and enjoyed it enough to stay — without any objections.

  • Eulalia Bourne

    If you think teachers have it tough today — and they do — imagine life in the 1930s at a remote school near  the foot of the Baboquivari Mountains.

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  • Hermit’s Rest

    Imagining the Grand Canyon as a desolate respite for those seeking solitude is difficult today, considering its 5 million annual visitors. But that’s just what attracted a French Canadian miner and reclusive prospector. He kept holdings at the Canyon during the late 1880s, although he never made a living off the mines. Even so, the solitary prospector, Louis Boucher, remained in the area for more than 20 years and contributed to the development of the Canyon. The man known as “the Hermit of the Grand Canyon” built several trails — Boucher, Dripping Springs and Hermit — and his tourist business earned him a reputation as a gracious host. Several Grand Canyon features bear his nickname today, including Hermit’s Rest, Hermit Rapids and Hermit Basin.

  • Jacob Lake

    Many early settlers in Arizona were Mormons in search of religious freedom or looking for potential converts in the sparsely populated Wild West. Jacob Hamblin was no exception. After marrying his first two wives in Utah, he developed a close relationship with local Indians. However, with the passing of antipolygamy laws and a warrant for his arrest, Hamblin was forced to move his family to Northern Arizona, New Mexico and even Mexico. By the time he died in 1886, he had taken four wives, fathered 24 children and left his name on a handful of locations throughout the Territory, including this shallow body of water.

  • Jumpoff Canyon

    Wagons and cliffs don’t mix well, so early pioneers had to get creative while passing through this canyon on the Mogollon Rim. Instead of finding another way, many chose to brave the drop-off. To get to the valley below, travelers would unload their wagons and tie them to a tree. Hand-over-hand, the wagons were lowered to the bottom. Luckily, the route was a military road between two forts, so strong men were likely abundant.

  • Klondyke

    In Alaska, the frigid Yukon was the source of a great gold rush in the late 1890s. About a decade later, a couple of Yukon prospectors made their way into the area near Aravaipa Canyon and decided to stay. They chose to commemorate their time in Klondike, Alaska, by naming their new homestead after the place. There was just one problem — they couldn’t spell very well. No one held it against them, though. The town once boasted nearly 500 residents.

  • Mogollon Rim

    Before Arizona was part of the United States, the land was overseen by the royal crown of Spain. The king appointed governors to certain areas in the New World, and Don Juan Ignacio Flores Mogollon, the governor of New Mexico, was in charge of this area during the early part of the 18th century. By the time the land was acquired by the United States, the name “Mogollon” had appeared on maps for 100 years and, so, the decision was made to keep it. Several decades later, the Board on Geographic Names had a difficult time distinguishing between several geographic features in the area carrying the name “Mogollon,” so it combined them under the more general term Mogollon Rim.

  • Monkey Springs

    One of Tom Hughes’ men wasn’t exactly the sharpest tool in the shed. In fact, his lack of intelligence was widely known to nearby cowboys who took pleasure in taunting him. They started a rumor that Hughes had trained a monkey to serve as a farmhand, and though the ranch was named “Pennsylvania,” after Hughes’ home state, its name was changed to Monkey Springs by the next owners. A newer theory suggests that the title was bestowed by American settlers who mispronounced the name of Captain Manje — a Spanish explorer who traveled through the region with Father Kino in 1694.

  • Nothing

    Two buildings, four people, one gas station/rock shop. That’s what Nothing had when it was something. In recent years, Nothing was abandoned, then revived by owners who sporadically make wood-fired pizzas in a trailer-mounted oven. The former residents put up a sign informing drivers on U.S. Route 93: “Through the years, these dedicated people had faith in Nothing, hoped for Nothing, worked at Nothing, all for Nothing.” Time will tell if that’s what they’ll get in the end.

  • Phoenix

    Before agreeing to name the future Arizona capital after the mythological bird, the founders tossed around several alternative ideas back in the late 1860s. Jack Swilling, a Southern man, suggested “Stonewall” after the Confederate general. Another man thought “Salina” would be appropriate, since they intended to use water from the Salt River in irrigation canals. But Darrell Duppa had other ideas, basing his name on the evidence of past civilizations in the area. Phoenix, he said, would rise from the ashes of the old city. And indeed it has.

  • Prescott

    Historians rarely get recognition for their hard work, but the men who settled near Fort Whipple offered acknowledgment when they named Prescott. William Hickling Prescott was widely known for his book, History of the Conquest of Mexico, and other works. The residents honored the historian at a public meeting on May 30, 1864, naming the town for him. Unfortunately, he never knew; he died in 1859, five years before being honored by the town.

  • Sedona

    Long names used to frustrate the U.S. Postal Service, so it rejected many applications for post offices, citing name length as the reason. After “Oak Creek Canyon Camp” fell into this category, the Schnebly brothers went back to the drawing board. Ellsworth, in a gracious move, suggested they name the settlement after his sister-in-law Sedona. In 1902, The request was approved by the Postal Service.

  • Show Low

    This town wasn’t big enough for both of its founders — Corydon E. Cooley and Marion Clark — so they decided to gamble for control with a game of poker. Winner got to stay; loser had to leave. It was nearly dawn before the last hand was dealt, and Cooley needed only one more point. “Show low and you win,” Clark said to him. Cooley’s next card was the deuce of clubs, and Clark left town almost immediately for the area near Pinetop.

  • Skull Valley

    Bones greeted travelers along the path through this valley following a massacre in the 1800s. The abundance of skulls was described by some as the result of a battle between Indian tribes, while another story attributed the skulls to white men who were murdered by hostile Indians. Another skirmish between explorers and natives in the 1860s led to the deaths of dozens of Indians, who were left where they fell without being buried. 

  • Snowflake

    Erastus Snow plus William Jordan Flake equals Snowflake. Or Snow Flake, as it was originally spelled. The two men met after Snow and several other families ended up on Flake’s land following a migration from their failed camp in Taylor. Both men were Mormon settlers, so, naturally, Flake let them stay and the two groups became happy neighbors. About 100 of the original buildings from the turn of the 19th century have been restored and some are part of the Snowflake Historic Homes Walking Tour.

  • Strawberry

    Some settlers got creative with the names they gave their new towns. And some did not. Take, for example, this town on the Mogollon Rim. The weather is perfect for growing ... you guessed it, strawberries. When the first residents came across a nearby creek, they found an abundance of the tasty red fruit growing along the banks. So, they decided to keep it simple and named the town without much more thought.

  • Tortilla Flat

    Unfortunately for Mexican-food lovers, this isn’t where you can find the delicious staple. What you will find is an abundance of rocks — really flat, circular rocks. Some accounts attribute this town’s name to the oddly shaped rocks, but Connie Phelps recalls a different story. Phelps, a co-owner of the town in the late 1940s, said that John Cline, a cowboy, told her about being stranded there during a cattle drive. Having just purchased some land, Cline and his cowboy pals celebrated as cowboys often did, but they drank too much and forgot to stop for supplies before continuing on to Phoenix. A flash flood made the trails impassable, and the men ran out of food while waiting for the water to recede. They did, however, have some flour, which they used to make tortillas while they camped on the rocks for several days.

  • Tombstone

    “You’ll only find your tombstone,” said Ed Schieffelin’s companions. They warned him of the hostile Apaches he was sure to encounter while exploring the San Pedro Valley. Alone, Schieffelin set out in search of mining prospects among the Indians in late 1877. Instead of finding his tombstone, he discovered an area rich in silver that yielded millions of dollars’ worth of ore in just six years.

  • Tuba City

    Mormon explorer and missionary Jacob Hamblin had a hard time pronouncing Hopi Chief Tivi’s (or Tuvi’s) name. In the mid-1800s, Hamblin and his cohorts came upon the tribe and developed a friendly relationship. They called the chief “Tuba,” and named the place for him when Mormon settlers established a post office there in 1884. Less than 20 years later, they were forced to leave after the government purchased their holdings for Indian use.

  • Tucson

    Papago Indians (Tohono O’odham), not college students, used to inhabit the area near the Sentinel Mountains in Southern Arizona. They called the mountains schookson, which means “at the base of the black hill” — for obvious reason. When Spanish missionaries arrived in the area during the late 17th century, they clashed with Indians while trying to convert them. By the time the Civil War occurred, the area had been incorporated as the Arizona Territory. From 1867 until 1877, Tucson was the state capital.

  • Valentine

    This place near Truxton Canyon has nothing to do with Cupid. Most people there had probably never even heard of St. Valentine. That’s because the land, initially designated for an Indian school, was set aside on 660 acres by the Colorado River Agency in May 1900. Because the school was on agency land, the Indian agent also became the postmaster. When the school was closed less than a decade later, the post office and the township were renamed to honor Robert G. Valentine, then-Commissioner of Indian Affairs.

  • Why

    Both stories about how this town got its name sound reasonable, although one might be more interesting than the other. According to the Arizona Office of Tourism, it comes from a practical source — the Y-shaped junction of nearby state routes 85 and 86. The other story, courtesy of original settler Peggy Kater, is that the name was inspired by a common question people asked while passing through: “Why are you living way out here?”

  • Arizona

    Is the word Arizona still a mystery? Not according to Donald Garate, chief interpreter at Tumacácori National Historic Park, who wrote two Journal of Arizona History articles about the name after exhaustive archival research. 

    Garate says the word first appeared in a May 8, 1736, letter referring to a lush valley 18 miles southwest of Nogales, Mexico. Five varieties of oak thrive there, so the popular conjecture of “Arid Zone” does not fit this climate. Additionally, nouns and adjectives are reversed in Spanish, so the name would be Zona Arida.

    Ali Shonac — a Tohono O’odham phrase scholars propose as an origin for Arizona, based on its sound — appeared on Father Kino’s detailed 1690s maps. But by 1735, dozens of Basque herders lived in the area, including Bernardo de Urrea, owner of a ranch named Arizona. In Basque, aritz means oak and ona means good; combined they become Arizona, “place of the good oak trees.”

    The name became legendary in October 1736, when a Yaqui Indian named Antonio Siraumea stumbled on a one-ton chunk of almost pure silver in the mountains, 12 miles from Urrea’s ranch. Hundreds of prospectors rushed to mine the rich bolas y planchas de plata (balls and plates of silver).

    In order to decide whether the silver was ancient treasure, an illegal smelter or a natural deposit, Manuel Sosa, Juan Bautista de Anza’s scribe, took depositions and mailed dispatches to Mexico City from the ranch, making Arizona world famous for its connection to the discovery.

    After Garate wrote his article Who Named ArizonaThe Basque Connection, he found a dozen places named Arizona in Central and South America. There were no Pima or Tohono O’odham Indians in other countries, but there were Basques there. So, is Arizona a Basque word meaning “place of the good oak trees?” Probably. At least that’s what Garate believes. — Jim Turner