Excerpt from Arizona Adventure by Marshall Trimble, the state’s official historian.
The name Arizona comes from the Papago “ali-shonak” meaning “small spring.” The name became popular following the discovery of rich lodes of silver “so pure you could cut it with a knife,” some 25 miles southwest of present-day Nogales in 1736.
The word was ultimately corrupted into “Arizona.” The silver didn’t last long, but the world now knew of the fabulous planchas de plata (sheets of silver) and Arizona. Still, the area was known officially as New Mexico or yet “Terra Incognita” during the years of Spanish and later Mexican control. New Mexico became a part of the United States following the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848 and Arizona remained a part of New Mexico.
The compromise of 1850 brought New Mexico into the union as a territory. Shortly after the citizens in the western part of New Mexico began clamoring for separate status. Several names were suggested including “Arizona” and “Gadsonia,” the latter to honor James Gadsden, the man who had negotiated the purchase of land south of the Gila River in 1853. The name “Arizona” won out and in 1863 there was, at last, a real Arizona.