The Meaning of Arizona

The area that is now southern Arizona and northern Mexico was known by the Spanish as the Pimería Alta, or Upper Pima Country, named 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.

Scholars disagree, however, about the meaning and derivation of the name “Arizona.” Dean Saxton notes in Dictionary: Tohono O'odham/Pima to English, English to Tohono O'odham/Pima, that the name Arizona comes from “Al Shon,” translated as “Place of Little Spring.” Historian James H. McClintock complements this interpretation in Arizona, Prehistoric, Aboriginal, Pioneer, Modern: The Nation’s Youngest Commonwealth within a Land of Ancient Culture. McClintock concluded that the name 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.”  

State Historian Marshall Trimble agrees with Donald T. Garate’s different interpretation. Based on studying historical documents, Garate found evidence suggesting that the name Arizona is a Basque word meaning “The Good Oak Tree.” In Juan Bautista de Anza: Basque Explorer in the New World, 1693-1740, Garate argues that early missionaries to the area did not note Arizona as a native settlement. Bernardo de Urrea, a native Mexican of Basque heritage, established the ranchería (village) of Arizona between 1734 and 1736, south of the international border in Sonora, México about forty miles southwest of Tumacácori.

The ranchería of Arizona quickly became noteworthy after the discovery of silver in the mid-eighteenth century. In Arizona (Never Arizonac), Garate cites a 1737 report by Captain Juan Bautista de Anza that a slab of silver weighing more than 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 and 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.