The name Prescott, Arizona did not exist when President Lincoln signed the bill that separated New Mexico from Arizona in 1863. But the President was no doubt familiar with the historian William Hickling Prescott, whose books on Mexico and Peru made him the contemporary authority on history. It’s no stretch to speculate that Lincoln borrowed Mr. Prescott’s name when he established a new territorial capital.
Lincoln also knew that any capital for the newly established Arizona Territory would need to be located far from the growing band of Confederate sympathizers who had established a presence in Tucson, in the southern part of the Territory. So the site northwest of Phoenix was chosen as the capital city for its distance from Tucson, not to mention its more temperate weather.
By fall 1864, construction was being completed on many buildings for Fort Whipple, and on the forthcoming Territorial Governor’s Mansion. In late May or early June 1864, Prescott became the formal name of the territorial capital.
When a visitor comes to explore Prescott, it’s not so much about exploring or connecting with the 1860s, though. The period between 1890 and 1920 was the most dynamic in Prescott’s history.
To appreciate those years, begin your exploration seven miles out of town at the Phippen Museum, where the art and heritage of the American west is cause for celebration. Another “must see” is the Sharlott Hall Museum, part of which is the original territorial Capitol building and the governor’s mansion.
Next stop is the Smoki Museum of Indian Arts & Culture, featuring the arts and cultural heritage of the Hopi, Navajo, Zuni, Tohono O’Odham and the Rio Grande Pueblos. While you’re out of the city, it’s the perfect time to savor the amazing landscape of the area. Lincoln never got to visit the territorial capital, but he would have been amazed by its beauty.
Once you reach Prescott, it’s time to turn back the clock and step into the city’s glory days, recalled in 809 buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Prescott is home to the historical area known as “Whiskey Row,” which until 1956 was also a notorious red-light district. In 1900, a great fire destroyed most of the buildings on Whiskey Row, and as legend has it, the patrons of the bars took their drinks across the street to the Courthouse Plaza to watch it burn. As the fire raged, a few of those gathered at the Courthouse managed to move the entire bar and back-bar of the Palace Hotel to the square where it remained until the hotel structure was rebuilt. Neighborly, that’s Prescott—although many have speculated that the bar held a number of bottles when it was moved.
Prescott is home to The Arizona Pioneers Home, a retirement home operated and funded by the State of Arizona for impoverished Arizona founders from Territorial days. Over the years, the Home has had many colorful residents, including one John Miller whose claim that he was Billy the Kid resulted in his exhumation from the Pioneer’s Home Cemetery in 2005 so DNA evidence could be studied. Another resident was “Big Nose Kate” Elder, the notorious girlfriend of the equally notorious Doc Holliday.
Prescott, or “Pres-kitt,” as the locals call it, is a fabulous day trip from the Phoenix area. So the next time you’re visiting or vacationing in Phoenix, hop in the car and bring your camera—and your imagination—for a step back in time.