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How Flagstaff, Arizona got its name

San Francisco Peaks, c. 1998 by Steve Yoder, Executive Director of The Arboretum at Flagstaff

San Francisco Peaks, c. 1998 by Steve Yoder,
Executive Director of The Arboretum at Flagstaff

The story of how Flagstaff, Arizona got its name depends on where you look and how far back you start. I do not know what the indigenous Native Americans called this area, but who named it Flagstaff has always been the question.

In 1857, President James Buchanan appointed (former Navy Lt.) E.F. Beale to survey a wagon road from Fort Defiance, New Mexico Territory (now in Arizona) to to Fort Tejon on Colorado River, on the border between Arizona and California. The road surveying team camped on the spot at the extreme eastern side of where the city of Flagstaff now lies, south of the San Francisco Peaks. The story is that Beale had some of his men cut the limbs from a tall lone pine, in order to fly the United States flag. I like this version, and any one coming along behind them would have immediately recognized how the tree had been prepared for use as a flagstaff.

The first known settler was Edward Whipple, who operated a saloon near Flagstaff Spring in 1871. I don’t know who Mr. Whipple was serving in his saloon, but one story says that lumberjacks celebrating the 4th of July, 1876, nailed a U.S. flag to the top of a tall Ponderosa Pine, thus giving the settlement its name — Flagstaff. I like this story, too—that the lumberjacks named the location Flagstaff. One can easily imagine a conversation: “Let’s get a whiskey tonight in that saloon at the flagstaff.”

To be sure, there must have been a big party on the Fourth of July, 1876, and if there wasn’t a flag flying on the pole at that time, the folks obviously decided to put one up.

In early 1876 Thomas F. McMillan arrived, and he is credited for being the town’s first permanent settler, although the area he claimed for himself was more north of the famed flagstaff. A variation to the Centennial story is that a few months after McMillen arrived, an advance party of land scouts camped near the “flagstaff” spring.

These scouts worked for a group of prospective settlers who planned on coming West. The scouting group found an open valley where there stood a lone pine. The tree was too great a temptation to be passed by, so the youths lopped off its branches, paced a leather hoop at the top and ran an American flag up the pole.

A clipping (no date or name of paper given) in the Arizona State Library files said in a story written by Al Doyle of Flagstaff, that the flag was raised late in May 1876. Others claim it was raised to celebrate the centenary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. In any event, the subsequent emigrants did not remain in the area, but continued to travel westward.

Earl O. Slipher of Flagstaff had an old photograph showing a topped tree with a plank nailed to it and signs of having had a flag attached to the tree. This is authenticated by Lee Newman, a pioneer, who told of such a tree west and north of “Old Town Spring” near the point of present Mars Hill. Newman had been acquainted with all the original settlers in the area. But by 1892 the makeshift pole was gone.

A further account, written five years after Flagstaff was established, states that the flagstaff was still one mile east of town and that it had been “erected” by Lt. E.F. Beale’s men in 1859—different from the original date. Five years later (1892) the pole was gone.

Because Beale’s survey party was an official, government funded mission, I can’t help thinking any mention of the pine tree flagstaff must be mentioned in the original survey notes. This cannot be mere clever thinking on my part; surely this has occurred to others. But I worked for many years as a cartographic drafter and I handled many original survey notebooks, maps, deeds, etc.

Official government survey notebooks, like ship logs, amount to sacred American documents. If Beale ordered a tree stripped so the survey party could fly a flag, then I bet it is mentioned in the notes. Being that the “flagstaff” was such a singular landmark, I would not be surprised if he noted the latitude and longitude too. It would be a tedious job, but if those survey documents still exist, then a careful examination might reveal the answer.

The names of the spring at the old location underwent several name changes, starting with Antelope, then Flagstaff, and then–with the creation of the new town and railroad–becoming Old Town Spring. In 1882, there were ten buildings at Old Town, but in 1883 business moved to the new railroad depot and by 1884 Old Town was almost deserted.

When the post office was established at the new location, February 21, 1881, the name Flagstaff was the natural choice. In 1891 Flagstaff became the seat of the newly created Coconino County.” Flagstaff was incorporated as a town June 4, 1894, as a city in 1928.

From Arizona Place Names University of Arizona Press. 1960.
p. 70. Barnes, Will C.; Granger, Byrd (ed.)

The Arboretum at Flagstaff
The Arboretum at Flagstaff
4001 S Woody Mountain Rd.
Flagstaff AZ 86001-8775
(928) 774-1442
(FAX) 774-1441
http://www.thearb.org/

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