A Walk Through El Presidio Park
The following is a sample of our Self Guided Downtown Tucson History Tour. It is Stop 7. We start with a Trivia question after each stop. Something for your trip to the next stop.
Trivia Question & Answer
What do the 5 “C’s” that promoted Arizona in the 20th century stand for? Cotton, Copper, Climate, Cattle & Citrus.
El Presidio Park
At this point, you should be in the shadow of the old Pima County Courthouse with its recently renovated tile dome and a new exterior coat of paint. At the west end of the Park is Tucson City Hall. This is the third courthouse on this site.
If it’s cold, find a seat in the sunshine. If it’s hot, find a seat in the shade. You are now inside the original Presidio walls that enclosed about 11 acres … roughly 11 football fields.
The above illustration shows important structures within the walls of the Presidio during both the Spanish and the Pioneer eras, as well as today. It is perhaps the most useful tool in orienting us to Tucson’s remarkable past.
The last of the old wall was destroyed in 1918 with the exception of one tiny section behind glass in what was the Assessor’s Office on the ground floor of this 3rd courthouse.
The Only Walled City In America
Few people know that in the 19th century, Tucson was the only walled city in America. Why would the good citizens of Tucson need to hide behind an enclosed wall 3-feet thick and 10 to 12-feet tall?
First, the Penal or Western Apaches raided here until 1871 when General George Crook broke their resistance and forced them into concentration camps called “Indian Reservations”.
And then there were the Chiricahua Apaches, who were far more difficult to defeat. Think Cochise and Geronimo. Actually, think Cochise, Geronimo, Mangas Coloradas, Victorio, Nana, Juh, Lozen, and so many other brave Chiricahuas who decimated Anglo and Mexican ranchos and villages, and hardly anyone knows today. Tucsonans feared them. With fear came hatred.
- Arizona Citizen Newspaper April 15, 1876: “… the kind of war we need for the Chiricahua Apaches is steady unrelenting, hopeless, and undiscriminating war, slaying men, women, and children … until every valley and crest and crag and fastness shall send to high heaven the grateful incense of festering and rotting Chiricahuas.”
Tucson Streets Named For Apache Victims
Between 1861 and 1886, only Tucson citizens with a death wish ventured far beyond these walls without a military escort. As few people as there are who know this was a walled city, far fewer know that 5 of the first streets in the City of Tucson were named for pioneers killed by Apaches: Simpson, Cushing, Jackson, Stone, Pennington, & Kennedy. Should you be so inclined, I offer this related story. It is not for the faint-hearted.
A Fate Worse Than Death: How Pennington Street Got Its Name.
CLICK HERE if you would like to meet some of the most prominent Apache leaders, such as Cochise, Victorio, Old Nana, Juh, and Geronimo.
George Hand and the Second Pima County Courthouse
Between the three successive Pima County Courthouses that were on this site, a great deal of history took place. The first courthouse was a small flat-roof adobe structure. I will have a story to tell about that one when you get to Mr. Hughes’ home.
The second courthouse on this site was where our friend, George Hand, spent his last years. In 1881, George gave up saloon keeping and became a county employee; the courthouse janitor.
And, because he was literate, George often wrote letters for the mostly illiterate population and made a few extra dollars in his old age.
From the cupola of the 2nd courthouse, you could look southeast across the city and see the open field that had been Camp Lowell. You can also see that the soldiers only had to walk a few blocks to the “Downtown” saloons and visit the ladies of Maiden Lane.
In 1873, the civic leadership of Tucson politely asked the military to relocate away from the city for “sanitary” reasons.
They chose a site 7 miles northeast of “Downtown” Tucson at the confluence of the Tanque Verde and Pantano Creeks and named it Fort Lowell.
Centuries earlier, the Hohokam had a village there, presumably for the same reason … plentiful fresh water for drinking and crops.
Today, the former site of Camp Lowell is Armory Park and the fairly new Tucson Electric Power building on Broadway. Today, you can also visit the site of Fort Lowell on Craycroft. Here are two museums in the former officer quarters, one dedicated to the U.S. Army that was stationed here and the other dedicated to the hostile Apaches the Army tried to subdue.
CLICK HERE to view our original video about Fort Lowell.
Monday, January 31, 1887. Very dull day. The Salvation Army are in town, they propose to convert all and every one of the lost sheep [to] the fold of Christ. I attended their meeting this evening. Joe Flannery was with me. The performance was good as far as it went. Several of our young men became enthralled and joined the Army. Not being in the mood I deferred joining at the present time.
Third Pima County Courthouse
The third Pima County Courthouse that you see here with the tiled dome was opened in 1929, the year of the Stock Market Crash and beginning of the Great Depression.
It was abandoned in 2016 in favor of the newest version at Toole and Stone Avenue. More about that newest courthouse later. Hint: that’s where the bodies were buried.
As of 2017, this 3rd courthouse was being renovated to become … well, as of May 2017 we don’t actually know. TBD
Please refer to the map and index at the top of this page to discover where early structures were within this plaza now called El Presidio Park.
Read More About Key Events That Occurred In This Historically Important Plaza
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Let’s venture back through a couple of layers of history. In the Spanish and Mexican era, 1775 to 1848, this was Plaza de las Armas. The Spanish, and later Mexican soldiers at the Presidio, used this spacious area for military drills and related activities.
When the Anglo-Americans got here, they used the plaza mostly for important civic buildings, such as City Hall and the first Presbyterian Church. Now it serves as a place for large gatherings, such as Tucson’s many festivals.
In the pioneer era, many of the most successful businessmen and civic leaders were German Jews, such as Louis Zeckendorf, Philip Drachman; Albert Steinfeld; and Charles Meyer.
Charles (Charley) Meyer established a drug store here in the late 1850’s. His knowledge of pharmaceuticals came from his service in the U.S. Army when he was in charge of the commissary department of the Hospital Corps.
In 1864, Mr. Meyer was elected Justice of the Peace. While he had extensive knowledge related to preparing drugs for medical use, he had zero training in the law. Yet, Judge Meyer did have a keen sense of fairness and the good judgment to ferret out the facts of a case. Only in the more complex cases would he consult with a real lawyer.
As we learned back at the Sosa-Carrillo-Fremont House, the streets of Tucson were disgustingly filthy. In 1869, Judge Meyer started a chain gang system of punishment. Convicts could choose between cleaning the streets or some harsher penalty. Within a few weeks this small, mostly Mexican hamlet had the cleanest streets of any frontier town.
As noted, Judge Meyer had a keen sense of fairness. Once he was traveling down Congress Street in his horse-drawn carriage and was stopped by an officer of the law. The deputy advised the good judge that he was exceeding the speed limit … then set at 7 MPH.
The very next day, when he arrived at court, Judge Meyer publicly and harshly admonished himself in his thick German accent. He then fined himself $25, a substantial sum in those days.
The Whipping Post
In the 1860’s and ’70’s, the overriding condition of Tucson was lawlessness, typically the result of young men overdosing on testosterone and alcohol. Law abiding men rarely left home unarmed.
Judge Meyer developed a scheme to rid the town of troublemakers. In the old City Hall, the jail was in the basement. Just outside was a whipping post. Of course, murder and horse-thieving were hanging offenses. However, for serious but lesser crimes, the judge could order a convict whipped.
For example, he might order 20 lashes. An officer of the law would tie the convict to the whipping post and render 10 lashes. (That had to smart.) He would then untie the man and let him go, with instructions to return tomorrow for the remainder of his punishment.
(I’ll let that one sink in for a moment.)
There are many stories related to the second Pima County Courthouse and harsh justice in the Old Pueblo. Here are two of George Hand’s diary entries.
September 9, 1875. There was a report that 2 horses were stolen from near Camp Lowell. James Lee, John Wood, Adam Linn, Juan Elias and R.N. Leatherwood mounted and armed, started out to find the thief. They found him and brought back the horses. They hung the man on a mesquite tree.
April 10, 1876. News this morning is bad. Report says that Nick Rogers and another are killed by Indians (Apaches). Late in the afternoon reports came in stating that others had been killed. A meeting was called at the courthouse to resolve what to do. Nothing was done, as usual.
Lynchings In The Courthouse Plaza
As I have written, our pioneer Tucsonans not only had to deal with problems we never consider, they also thought differently than do we. Case in point …
In 1873, there were 4 lynchings here. A young couple, Vicente Hernandez and his wife, were brutally murdered. Their faces had been bashed in and their throats slit. They had been friends of Mr. William Zeckendorf, a prominent Tucson merchant, civic leader, and younger brother of Louis Zeckendorf.
Mr. Zeckendorf had either given or sold merchandise at wholesale to the Hernandez couple so they could start a general merchandise store and pawn shop in what is now called Barrio Viejo, the Old Neighborhood, at 451 S. Convent Avenue.
Mr. Zeckendorf quickly organized a “citizens safety committee” and the outlaws, 3 Mexicans, were captured. At the time of their capture, they had with them some of the stolen items that Mr. Zeckendorf identified as goods he had given or sold to the Hernandez couple. Also, one of the Mexicans had a lot blood on his shoes. Thus, there was no doubt about their guilt.
The three were forced to view the ghastly bodies of their victims. This caused one to claimed that he only stood watch as his partners went inside the couple’s store to rob them.
A gallows was hastily erected. An audience of over 2,000 people gathered in this plaza.
At this time, an Anglo American named Willis was in jail awaiting trial for horse stealing, a capital crime. Members of the Safety Committee dragged him out to the plaza to meet the same fate as the Mexicans.
A former U.S. Marshal, Milton Duffield, took issue with the pending execution. At the time he was somewhat intoxicated, and protested loudly,
“You can hang a Mexican, and you can hang a Jew, and you can hang a Nigger, but you can’t hang an American citizen.”
Duffield was quickly overpowered by the crowd and whisked to the Courthouse where he was tied up and guarded while the proceedings continued.
Our valiant saloon keeper, George Hand wrote about this incident in his diary.
August 3, 1873. “Vicente Hernandez and his wife were killed by three Mexicans in their own house. They were beaten and their heads mashed in.”
The next day, George added, “… the three Mexicans and Willis were taken from the jail by force and hanged on the plaza. They hung from 10:30 a.m. till 3 p.m.
There are so many interesting stories relating to the Pima County Courthouse, both the 2nd courthouse that George Hand lived in toward the end of his life; and this 3rd courthouse you see here. Here are links to one story from each era.
Second Pima County Courthouse: The Death of Dr. Handy.
Third Pima County Courthouse: The Capture and Arraignment of the Dillinger Gang – January 1934.
Tucson Trivia Question
- “Dendrochronology” is what kind of science made famous at the U of A in Tucson?
Directions To Stop 8: The Statue Honoring The Mormon Battalion
In the center of this plaza, there is a very large sculpture depicting the Mormon Battalion’s entry into the little Mexican village of Tucson. You can’t miss it.