The Story of George Wiley P. Hunt: Arizona’s First Governor

Excerpt from In Old Arizona by Marshall Trimble, the state’s official historian.

George Wiley Paul Hunt was never quite sure why he came to Arizona. It might have been the aura of romance and excitement of the name and it might have been because a boyhood friend who joined the Army had been sent to the Arizona frontier and returned home with tales of adventure.

Hunt’s Early Days

Hunt was born in 1859 into an affluent Missouri family. His grandfather founded the town of Huntsville, Missouri, and George could trace his ancestry back to some of the finest Virginia-North Carolina stock.

The Civil War brought disaster to the family as the Hunt Plantation was laid to waste in the guerilla war that spread across Missouri during those turbulent years. Following the war, the Hunts recovered somewhat but the financial panic of 1873 left the family in ruin.

Instead of the usual amenities that might have befallen young George in better times, he grew up impoverished. At 18, the lure of gold brought him West to the mining camps of Colorado where he quickly found employment washing dishes and waiting tables in a restaurant. Later he prospected for gold and silver around Leadville, but had no luck seeking the illusive madre de oro. In 1879, he and three companions went overland into New Mexico, hoping to find work with the Santa Fe Railroad, which was building a line down the Rio Grande Valley. The young men decided to travel down the Rio Grande by boat, so they constructed a crude raft and set sail. Three days later, the boat capsized, dampening the sailors’ enthusiasm for navigation. By this time, Hunt had also lost his enthusiasm for working on the railroad. He and another companion went on to El Paso, then I Kicked I heir burros and turned west again, ending up near the Arizona-New Mexico border (near Lordsburg) where they found work as miners.

In July, 1881, rumors of a lost Apache gold mine in Arizona’s White Mountains gave Hunt and another companion a case of gold fever. They outfitted and packed their burros once more and headed west, prospecting in view of the rugged mountains of eastern Arizona. An outbreak of hostile Apaches in that area delayed the hapless argonauts’ itinerary for a spell around Safford. After a few days, an Army escort took them on to Globe.

An Unplanned Political Life

The self-made man, who would be elected Governor of Arizona seven times, took a job mucking in the Old Dominion Mines at Globe, then resumed his former occupation of waiting tables in a Chinese restaurant and even tried being a cowboy before taking a job as delivery boy at the Old Dominion Mercantile Store. By 1900, he would be president of the store and the Old Dominion Bank. He was elected first mayor of Globe in 1904, no small achievement for a penniless young adventurer. He would go on to be one of the architects of the Arizona Consti­tution, then skillfully guide the young state through its forma­tive years, through the labor crisis of World War I, the Roaring Twenties and two years into the Great Depression. Hunt’s tenure as Governor ran so long that the inimitable Will Rogers once referred to him as Arizona’s “Hereditary” Governor.

It was poetic coincidence that the man destined to be the nominal head of the Democratic Party in Arizona for the first thirty years of the 20th century would ride into Arizona sitting on the hurricane deck of a donkey.

He has been called “an original character in American public life.” His large bald head, drooping mustache, stout body and mannerisms lent to caricature by political allies and enemies alike—and he had plenty of each. George W. P. Hunt was a walking contradiction—a political visionary, yet stubborn and lied to the past—a businessman who championed labor and the common man—a humanitarian who hated war but for a handicap might have sought a career in the military—a generous, vivid personality, yet a man with an ego so large that he believed that as long as he lived the governor’s chair was his private domain. Politically, Hunt was a Populist/Progressive who championed numerous social reforms throughout his long political career. Never has one man so dominated the state government and never has a man in Arizona politics operated a political machine as skillfully as Hunt. A hard man to ignore, and controversial! People either liked Hunt or hated him.

George W.P. Hunt
George W. P. Hunt, Arizona’s first governor. 1916. Courtesy of the United States Library of Congress.

Hunt was a man of the common people, generous, a big-hearted humanitarian, devoted to the welfare of the downtrodden and outcast. His sense of humor was odd and sometimes clumsy, but always effective. His manner was, at times, brusque and blunt. He had political reticence down to an art. He could say nothing in paragraphs if he chose. He detested snobbery and pretension as much as he defied large monied interests. During his long, illustrious political career, no major scandal marred his reputation. In spite of his poor usage of the English language, a reflection of his limited education, Hunt never had a problem being understood by the common man, and he drew his political strength and confidence from the common people of Arizona.

Hunt’s Visionary Footprint

He maintained an “anti-business” image throughout his long political life, boasting he “wore no copper collar,” referring to the powerful mining interests that dominated the political scene during those years. He said his front door was always open to the working man, but the controversial governor’s political enemies countered: his back door was always open to big monied interests. In reality, Hunt was a shrewd, masterful politician who realized the necessity of compromise in the diversities of political issues and therein was likely the key to his success. He could be tough and stubborn when the situation called for it, and still, he always maintained a sensitivity for the unfortunate.

Perhaps remembering his own limited education, as Gover­nor he pushed through legislation to provide free textbooks for the state’s school children. He was a strong advocate for prison reform. The inmates at the state prison at Florence found in the portly Governor a confidant. Many were serving under assumed names and had no way of contacting friends or relatives. Hunt stopped off at the prison regularly, visiting the prisoners, taking their letters and quietly forwarding them. To improve self-respect and restore dignity, Hunt insisted that grey uniforms be issued to replace the traditional black and white stripes.

Another of Hunt’s pet projects was to build new highways in the state. He combined the two, putting prisoners to work on road building projects and allowing them to shorten their terms in lieu of wages, thus saving the state money on both ends. This, of course, caused a furor among labor unions, but Hunt was undaunted. Today’s highway between Tombstone and Bisbee, the bridge across the Gila at Florence, the Queen Creek Highway between Superior and Miami, and the Tempe Bridge across the Salt River were all built with prison labor. The sturdy Tempe crossing is perhaps best remembered today as the indomitable bridge that withstood the ravaging floods of recent years, while modern-day structures were swept away like the brush and earthen dams of an earlier era when the Salt went on a rampage.

An incident during another road-building project between Roosevelt Dam and Globe illustrates a sensitive, human side of Governor Hunt and his dealings with people on an individual basis. A prisoner working on the road wrote his mother, who did not know he was serving time, saying he was working on a highway construction crew near Globe, Arizona. Much to his dismay, his elated mother wrote back saying she was coming by train to visit. Governor Hunt learned of the young man’s dilemma by long distance telephone from the officer-in-charge of the prison work gang. The Governor immediately arranged for a car to pick up the lady at the train station then drive her back to the camp where a tent was erected for her and her son. Every man in camp was aware of what was going on and carried the ruse off in grand style. Two days later, the young man drove his mother back to Globe, put her on the train and the lady returned home unaware that her son had gone wrong and was paying his debt to society.

It was these kinds of humanitarian gestures that endeared Hunt to his constituents and formulated a vast network of political supporters that Republicans referred to with disdain as the “Hunt Machine.”

Another of Hunt’s adroit political tactics that endeared him to people throughout the state was his seemingly uncanny ability to remember people’s names. In reality, the Governor kept careful notes on people, facts and other pertinent data. After campaign­ing in one community, he would get in the back seat of his touring car and write down everything he could remember about the visit. Then, weeks, even months later, when he was making a return visit, he would take out his notes and review them. By the time he reached town, the Governor was able to greet locals like old friends and the citizenry loved the personal attention given by such a grand public figure.

George W. P. Hunt might never have gone into politics had it not been for the pressures put upon him by his friends around Globe. He was a reluctant candidate for the House of Represen­tatives in 1891 and was easily elected. After that, he was elected to the Council (Senate). By 1901, he had served four consecutive terms in the Territorial Assembly (Legislature). He was elected to the Council again in 1905, and remained in that body until the last session in 1910. He served as President of the Council during the years 1905-06, 1909-10. By statehood, Hunt was the best-known politician in Arizona.

Arizona’s long struggle for statehood was coming to an end in 1910 and Congress authorized the Arizonans to hold a Constitu­tional Convention. Once again Hunt was loathe to run, but succumbed to pressure from his loyal constituents in Gila County. Then his name was placed in nomination as President of the Convention to run against his friend Mulford Winsor of Yuma County and again the reluctant candidate was elected.

The architects of Arizona’s Constitution were generally con­sidered radical for the times, installing such controversial issues as the initiative, referendum and recall of judges. The latter struck a sour note with President William Howard Taft, a former judge, and he threatened to veto the measure unless it was dropped from the Constitution. The Arizonans reluctantly backed down and Arizona was admitted on February 14, 1912, as the 48th state and last of the continental territories to gain admittance (after state­hood the Arizonans put the recall of judges back into the Constitution). George W. P. Hunt was elected the first governor.

The new Arizona Constitution seriously weakened the governor’s powers by limiting the number of appointments he could make. This was a reaction to Territorial days when gover­nors were appointed by the Administration in Washington and had strong, broad executive powers. Most of these governors had been Republicans and now the Democratic majority, in a short­sighted scheme, decided to get even. One of the enigmas of Hunt is that he, as president of the Convention, allowed the position to become a virtual figurehead, when he most certainly had his eyes on the governor’s chair after statehood was achieved.

Over the next 30 years, Hunt was elected to office seven times. He served from 1913-1919, 1923-1929 and 1931-1933. The controversial governor was not always the people’s unanimous choice, even though Arizona was a staunch Democratic-voting state during his era.

In 1917, Hunt appeared to have been defeated by Republi­can Tom Campbell of Yavapai County by 30 votes. Hunt con­tested the election and on January 1, 1917, both men were sworn in as Governor in their own separate ceremonies. Hunt refused to vacate the governor’s office, so Campbell set up an office in the kitchen of his home. The state treasurer and state auditor, both Democrats, refused to honor checks signed by the Republican Campbell. Matters took on a comic opera atmo­sphere when the legislature met and both men decided to address the group as Governor. Several months later, Superior Court Judge R.C. Stanford ruled that examinations of the ballots revealed that Campbell had defeated Hunt by 30 to 50 votes and the five month legal battle was thought to be ended. However, on December 22nd, the State Supreme Court reversed the decision and declared Hunt the winner by a scant 43 votes and ordered the State to pay him a salary for the whole year. Campbell received no pay for his efforts but was later elected to the office, serving from 1919 to 1923.

Hunt was also a strong advocate for women’s suffrage. He once asked rhetorically “Why is taxation without representation tyranny for men and justice for women.” Through his efforts, legislation was passed giving women the vote in 1913, several years before the 19th Amendment. Hunt was also responsible for legislation that outlawed gambling in 1907 and another that prohibited women from “loitering” in saloons.

Hunt was a visionary who saw a time when man would make the dry deserts of southern Arizona habitable through great storage dams and irrigation. He lived long enough to see Maricopa County become the seventh richest agricultural county in the United States.

Hunt left Arizona politics for a time in 1920 when President Wilson appointed him Minister to Siam. “Old Roman” as he was known because of his affinity for Roman classics (in admiration by his friends and in derision by his opponents) kept his political machine well-oiled during his absence by writing letters by the thousands to his constituents. On his return in 1921, the King of Siam sent along a large number of date trees. Hunt had them planted on the road between Tempe and Mesa. They can still be seen today along Apache Boulevard.

Hunt considered his greatest political battle to be that of defending Arizona’s rightful share of Colorado River water. He fought long and hard to preserve and protect the state’s future prosperity and resisted any long-term irrevocable commitment before the problem was studied fully. In 1923, when the Arizona legislature was considering the Santa Fe Compact, a plan for apportioning waters to states in the Colorado River watershed after the completion of Boulder Dam, he urged legislators to put the welfare of Arizona above partisan politics.”… it is bigger than any man or the ambitions of any man; it is a question of what is the best thing to do for Arizona and the states of the Colorado River Basin, for America …”

Hunt saw the encroachment of federal power over the states early on and was one of the few who resisted prior to the New Deal. In 1923 he said, “a great deal is said in regard to public ownership, without defining what is meant by it. If the public ownership means the building of dams… by the United States Government, I am not for it. I am, first of all, a believer in states’ rights … If by public ownership, is meant the development and sale of power by the State of Arizona on the Colorado River, I am in favor of that proposition.”

Arizona was still embroiled in the Colorado River contro­versy when Hunt was elected Governor for the seventh and final time in 1930. He was to later say “the Colorado River battles with California, I have been in many political battles, but this one has been, and still is, the greatest.” By this time, the old warrior was in failing health, and the nation was in the throes of the Great Depression. The want and suffering distressed Hunt in his final years. Unhappily Hunt could not retire from office gracefully. He threw his hat in the ring for another term in 1932 and again in 1934. In spite of failing health, the old campaigner put up a spirited fight. However, he lost both primary races to his Democratic opponent and bitter political enemy, Tempe physician Dr. Ben Moeur.

Hunt wrote in his last will and testament: “It is my wish and desire to be burried (sic) on some butte or mountain overlooking the Salt River Valley. The people of the State have been good to me, and in my last sleep I want to be burried (sic) so that I may in spirit overlook this splendid valley that in the years to come will be the Mecca of those who love beautiful things in a State where the people rule.”

George W. P. Hunt died on Christmas Eve 1934. Earlier he selected his final resting place to be Papago Park. The mausoleum and monument in the shape of an ancient pyramid sits conspicu­ously among the brawny red granite buttes, guarded by a few stately saguaros.

Excerpt from In Old Arizona by Marshall Trimble, the state’s official historian.


  1. joe robb says

    g.w.p. hunt distant relative, we r from same pioneer stock hunts from yadkin river valley n. carolina, sad to see that AZ has fallen on hard times when it comes to politics. all we read about is the cahoots going on with the gov and her advisors with the private prison systems. we read about pay offs, conflicts of interest and the people involved with the scandal not worried about the consequences of their actions because they have the gov in the corp back pocket. and what about her decision to not have cbs not run her campaign adds. we understand corruption in goverment we have Mr. Snotty Scotty for gov here in Fl. inside insurance scandal for his advisors and him. hopefully he will not be reelected. lets get rid of major corruption in our governments. we both have republicans for governors and major corruption. is this a pattern?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *