Have you ever thought to yourself, “How Did Flagstaff Get its Name“? As much as the origin is obvious (a flag staff duh!) the history of it goes a bit deeper. In this article we will discover the myths and perhaps the truth behind our northern Arizona town’s funny and unique name.
Let’s get started!
So, how do towns usually get their names? Oftentimes they are named after a person, like Louisville or Lafayette. Sometimes they are influenced by indigenous cultures or as an ode to a natural feature, like Chicago or Little Rock. Or sometimes, as it appears to be with the naming of Flagstaff, a man-made marker becomes a beacon of sorts passed along to travelers to indicate the source the present of a necessity. Such as the presence water, a safe place to camp, or simply a milestone along a path. To explore how a flag staff became a marker for a future town in the high elevations of Arizona we will need to go back about 160 years to the early 1850’s, and set a little bit of background.
Enter Antoine Leroux and the Beale Wagon Road
The story of pretty much everything Flagstaff including starts with a 19th century explorer by the name of Antoine Leroux. He was a multilingual, affluent son of a wealthy French merchant turned gifted free trapper and eventually highly sought-after guide in the New Mexico and Arizona Territories. Over the decades, Leroux explored many areas in the Southwest that humans, including the many indigenous tribes, had not regularly occupied for many centuries.
In 1851, Leroux was hired to guide the first Topographical Corps of Engineers expedition across northern Arizona to determine the feasibility of a shortened route to California from the east. At Leroux’s suggestion the expedition led by Captain Lorenzo Sitgreaves traveled along the 35th parallel and crossed the land just north of present day Flagstaff in the San Francisco Mountain Wilderness.
Along their route, Leroux discovered a small spring on the flank of the Peaks (which now bears his name), and as water has always been a precious commodity in the area he would use this landmark as a suggested route for many expeditions to come. In another article we will talk in depth about Leroux’s further contribution to the development of Flagstaff, but for now it is safe to say that it was Leroux’s initial foresight that set the course for the 35th parallel to be a main thoroughfare for travelers and eventually the railroad.
Beginning with the Sitgreaves Expedition the prospect of building a railroad through northern Arizona was always on the mind of officials, but it wouldn’t actually happen until the latter part of the 19th century. In the meantime, the route that was initially laid out by Leroux gradually became an official trail and eventually a road. In the summer of 1859, the Beale Wagon Road was formally completed and ran directly through present day Flagstaff. Throughout the 1860’s the Beale Wagon Road and future Flagstaff was fairly well traveled, but still no travelers decided to make their home in the area.
The Panic of 1873 and A New Life Beckons
The story continues with the Panic of 1873 and the unrest it caused in many folks across the country. A new life beckoned to many of the unsettled and more adventurous souls that would leave their hometowns in the east and midwest to seek a better life in the unspoiled and unknown southwest. Word of one such land of ample water, fertile farming land, and plenty of land for men to settle and start families began to spread in Boston, Massachusetts.
In late 1875 and into early 1876, the Arizona Colonization Company was formed in Boston and eager young men were offered one hundred and sixty acres of land and unlimited opportunity in the Little Colorado River Valley near Flagstaff. As we know today, these claims of an abundance of opportunity and land were only accurate in the sense of available, uninhabited land, and incredibly over exaggerated in regard to the ease in which this land could be conquered and used for the intended purposes. Nevertheless, the first Boston Party of fifty men embarked in February 1876 and headed for their new futures in northern Arizona with high hopes and stars in their eyes.
Unfortunately for the Bostonian’s, the leaders of the Mormon community in Utah had also set their sites on the Little Colorado River Valley and when they heard of the Colonization Company’s intention they decided to make their own move first. As the first Boston Party was forming, a Mormon settlement was started across the Little Colorado River Valley near present day Williams, and so when the Bostonian’s arrived at their destination they were dealt a double blow. Not only was the land they intended to settle already occupied, but the entire area was nothing like what they had imagined in their minds. Building a new life in northern Arizona was going to be much more demanding than they initially thought.
A New Plan and the First Flag Staff (possibly) …
In May 1876, the disgruntled and disappointed Boston Party continued past the Mormon settlement, set up camp a bit to the west, and sent a scouting party ahead to check out the land around the base of the San Francisco Peaks. This is where the first legend of the naming of Flagstaff occurs. One of the scouting party members said in an interview some sixty years later that as they were camping in the area of what is now known as Old Town Spring one of their members noticed a dead pine tree and decided to attach a flag to the apex of the stripped pole. Perhaps his motives were patriotic or perhaps he was attempting to tame in some small way this unfamiliar and seeming unfriendly territory, or perhaps this never happened.
After a few days the scouting party returned to the group and said they had found a possible location for a settlement. The thirty or so remaining Bostonian’s moved onward with new hope. The first valley did not work out, but they did wind up settling in a large flat area that is possibly now known as Fort Valley. For the next month or so the small group took the initial steps necessary to start a town. They divvied up lots of land, starting building cabins, elected city officials, drafted a constitution, and even gave the village a name. They called the village Agassiz after a naturalist that had come through the area on an earlier expedition. In fact, at the time the San Francisco Peaks were widely known as Mount Agassiz. Of course, now we only call one of the peaks in the range Agassiz.
The budding village of Agassiz only lasted a few weeks before they abandoned the site and headed for Prescott where the party split. A handful would stay in Arizona, and some would even later become residents of Flagstaff after it became a town.
A Second Boston Party and A Celebration
About the time the first Boston Party was abandoning the village, a second Boston Party also passed the Mormon settlement in the Little Colorado River Valley and moved onto the Flagstaff area. However, with news of the first Boston Party’s failure and knowledge of the true nature of the land they had no intention of settling in the area but were instead heading towards Prescott. However, the group did decide to set up camp for a time on a ranch located near current day Flagstaff High School. The ranch had been settled just recently by a man named Thomas McMillan who is considered by most to be the first official Anglo settler in Flagstaff.
The second Boston Party camped on the McMillan Ranch for a couple weeks, and during this hiatus it is reported that they celebrated Independence Day on July 4th, 1876 by felling an old, dead pine, stripping it of its branches, and raising it again with Old Glory on top. The story goes, that after this date the old pine flag staff would be the marker by which future travelers would know the location of a source of water, a proper area for camping along the Beale Road, and conveniently would also present an easy name for the location that McMillan and the other sheepherders began to occupy.
It is good to keep in mind at this point, that Flag Staff was not the only candidate or name used as a reference to this area at the time. Many travelers referred to another spring in the area as Antelope Spring and the surrounding land as Antelope Valley, and these are just two of the various names used in the late 19th century.
Other Myths and Making it Official
In addition to the two Flag Staff myths that we just discovered, there are also two other legendary locations where pine stripped flag staffs were said to have been raised. The first is also associated with the first Boston Party and was discovered at the abandoned village of Agassiz, and the second was supposedly located at the junction of today’s Switzer Canyon Road and Route 66. However, the 1876 Independence Day myth seems to be the mostly widely accepted and the most probable source. Perhaps it doesn’t matter which staff was the first, and perhaps there were indeed multiple flags over the years that contributed the name being used continually, but as we know it isn’t enough for a name to be unofficially used by early settlers and passerby. Eventually the name needs to be adopted in some official capacity.
The first official record (that also seems to back up the McMillan Ranch site myth) is from just two years after the second Boston Party. In 1878, a surveyor named John L. Harris created the first official map of the area and the word Flagstaff is used on the map to label a building and a field on the McMillan Ranch property. His field notes also back up the maps by providing Flagstaff twice in reference to this same building and the farmed land on the ranch.
The next official use of the name that historians know of was during the creation of additional voting precincts for the 1880 election. At this time Flagstaff consisted of only a small settlement with a number of sheep ranchers and a budding tent camp along the planned railroad route. However, the population was significant enough to to be counted as their own voting precinct within Yavapai County. The official precinct designation documentation called the area Flag Staff as two words and on November 2nd, 1880 a grand sum of 11 ballots were cast in the small precinct.
To solidify this ongoing process, the town of Flagstaff was officially established and named in 1881 by a group of influential settlers. They needed an official name to establish a postal services in their growing settlement. Ten years later, in 1891, the formation of Coconino County was approved and Flagstaff voted in as the county seat, and the final step in the process came after World War I. The population had finally increased to the point to allow the incorporation of the City of Flagstaff in 1926.
A Historical Stroll and Book Suggestions
So that’s the story! For those interested in stepping back in time and walking in the footsteps of those responsible for the naming of Flagstaff, we highly recommend visiting the monument near the Rio de Flag drainage that is now dammed to create the Francis Short Pond also known as the duck pond. A flag staff monument has been erected and provides some interesting information and pictures. You may also want to take a stroll along the Urban Trail system around the pond, and perhaps you can imagine what the forests, valleys, and canyons that surround the monument looked like in the days not too long ago when they were undeveloped and wild.
Here are a couple links to some great books for further information about the history of Flagstaff:
They Came to The Mountain: The Story of Flagstaff Beginnings by Platt Cline
Flagstaff Past & Present by Richard Mangum
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Until next time, keep exploring!