The Meaning of Arizona

Historians disagree about the meaning and derivation of the place name Arizona. What is now southern Arizona and northern México was known by the Spanish as the Pimería Alta, or Upper Pima Country after the natives of the area whom the Spanish called Pima. Within this area was a place that the Spanish called Arisona, Arissona or Arizona.

Historian James H. McClintock in Arizona, Prehistoric, Aboriginal, Pioneer, Modern: The Nation’s Youngest Commonwealth within a Land of Ancient Culture (Chicago: The S. J. Clarke Publishing Co., 1916) and in other works noted that the name was probably derived from a native place name that sounded like Aleh-zon or Ali-Shonak which meant small spring or place of the small spring. The Dictionary: Tohono O'odham/Pima to English, English to Tohono O'odham/Pima indicates that Al Shon, translated as Place of Little Spring, is the place name Arizona.

However, the current State Historian, Marshall Trimble, agrees with Donald T. Garate, Chief of Interpretation/Historian at Tumacácori National Historical Park, who studied the early documents referencing the place name Arizona while researching Juan Bautista de Anza: Basque Explorer in the New World, 1693-1740 (Reno: University of Nevada Press, 2003) that Arizona is a Basque word meaning The Good Oak Tree.

Garate argues that early missionaries to the area did not note Arizona as a native settlement. The ranchería Arizona was established between 1734 and 1736 by Bernardo de Urrea, of Basque heritage born in Mexico. It is south of the international border in Sonora, México about forty miles southwest of Tumacácori. The ranchería Arizona quickly became a place of note when silver (Planchas de Plata) was discovered nearby. In "Arizona (Never Arizonac)," Garate records a 1737 report by Captain Juan Bautista de Anza (father of the Anza trail explorer), that a slab of silver weighing more that 2,500 pounds had been discovered "between the Guevavi Mission and the ranchería called Arizona (entre la Miss.n de Guebabi, y la ranchería del Arissona)." Garate also notes that the place name Arizona can be found in Central and South America where the Spanish, including the Basque, settled and where Tohono O'odham/Pima names are unlikely to be found.


  • Barnes, Will C. Arizona Place Names. Tucson, Ariz.: The University of Arizona Press, 1988, pp. 26-27.
  • Dean, Saxton, et al. Dictionary: Tohono O'odham/Pima to English, English to Tohono O'odham/Pima. Tucson, Ariz.: The University of Arizona Press, 1983, p. 138.
  • Garate, Donald T. "Arizona (Never Arizonac)."
  • Granger, Byrd Howell. Arizona’s Names: X Marks the Place. Tucson, Ariz.: Falconer Pub. Co., 1983, pp. 30-31.
  • Thompson, Clay. "A Sorry State of Affairs When Views Change." The Aizona Republic, February 25, 2007, p. B10.