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Charles D. Poston, “Father of Arizona”

Charles Debrille Poston (1825–1902) is considered the Father of Arizona due to his prominent role in procuring Arizona’s Territorial status. Poston was also one of the area’s first white explorers, arriving in 1853 on a mining exploration trip.

Exploration and Riches

The Gadsden Purchase added some of the country’s richest mineral districts to American soil.Gadsden Purchase Treaty as first negotiated, (in English and Spanish), December 30, 1853.

Tales of the California Gold Rush drew Charles Poston, a young lawyer in Kentucky, west to find his fortune. Far from being a solitary prospector who relied on luck, Poston, the son of a printer, learned the fundamentals of mining from an office in California. Poston “Knew every foot of the country; talked Spanish like a native; believed in the people; believed in the climate; had full faith in the silver; implicitly relied upon the gold; never doubted that Arizona was the grand diamond in the rough of all our Territories,” wrote friend J. Ross Browne.He arrived in San Francisco in the early 1850s and received funding from French bankers to explore the land that would become the Arizona Territory—before the Gadsden Purchase had officially made these areas part of America! After several false starts (including a shipwreck near the Mexican port of Guaymas and being detained by Mexican authorities) he located Spanish mine workings near Ajo and other mines in what is now the Santa Cruz Valley in Pima County. On the same trip, he met the commander of Fort Yuma, Samuel Heintzelman, and helped to found Colorado City, now Yuma. Using Heintzelman’s connections and making several trips back east, he was able to put together the Sonora Exploring and Mining Company. He set up headquarters in Tubac in 1854 with Heintzelman as company president. His was the first mining company to invest capital and develop mines in the area.

Early on, Poston distinguished himself as a shrewd dweller in a wild place. His mining camp in the Cerro Colorado Mountains near Tubac, called the Heintzelman Mine (renamed the Silver Queen Mine), quickly grew to 800. By 1858, the camp employed over 1,000 Mexican miners and excavated an estimated $3,000 worth of silver a day. Poston ruled his outpost, importing a printing press, printing his own money (the currency was called boletas), performing marriages and even baptisms. In his memoirs, Poston reports, “We had no law but love and no occupation but labor. No government, no taxes, no public debt, no politics.”

In one anecdote, Father Macheboeuf, a Catholic priest, arrived from Santa Fe and declared all of the marriages performed by Poston to be illegal. In response, Poston reportedly “donated” $700 to the priest, who re-performed the wedding ceremonies.

Creating the Arizona Territory

In 1861, rising tensions between miners and the Apache people forced abandonment of the settlement. Poston left after his brother was killed by Mexican outlaws. Poston went to Washington, D.C. where he became an aide for Heintzelman, now a General. Asked to help persuade President Lincoln to create the Arizona Territory, he threw himself into the task of convincing Washington of the worth and value of the area. In 1863, his efforts were successful, and President Lincoln signed the Arizona Territory into law.

Poston then returned to Arizona as the Territory’s first Superintendent of Indian Affairs, where he worked hard to resolve conflicts and improve relations between American Indians and the influx of Mexican and new American settlers. In July 1864, he was elected as Arizona’s first delegate to Congress (though he was defeated a few months later).

In 1868, Poston was invited to study agriculture and irrigation techniques in Asia as part of a special envoy. In India, he encountered Zoroastrianism, an ancient monotheistic faith founded in Persia, and became an ardent adherent to the religion. He stayed abroad until 1876, practicing law in England.

He returned to Arizona in 1877 to head the U.S. land office in Florence. From 1890 to 1895 he worked in Phoenix as agent of the Department of Agriculture. Poston helped establish the Society of Arizona Pioneers in 1886, which later became the Arizona Pioneer Historical Society and became part of the Arizona Historical Society.

Poston’s Butte

The dedication of the monument honoring Charles Poston, "Father of Arizona,” atop Poston’s Butte.

Poston’s behavior became increasingly eccentric. Suffering the loss of several family members, he sank deep into poverty after leaving the Department of Agriculture. Noting his valuable service to the Territory, the Arizona Legislature voted to pay him a pension in 1899. Upon his death in 1902 he was buried in a pauper’s grave. In 1925 his remains were relocated to a pyramid-shaped monument near Florence, where he had planned to establish a Zoroastrian Temple of the Sun. The location, once known as Primrose Hill, is now named Poston’s Butte. Going north on State Route 79, a historical marker just north of the Gila River gives information about the pyramid on the top of Poston’s Butte and the man interred beneath it.

Arizona’s Mining History

Coronado Sets Out to the North, by Frederic Remington.

Over three hundred years before Poston’s exploratory journey, Francisco Vasquez de Coronado led an expedition out of Mexico in 1540, seeking the Seven Cities of Cibola. And thousands of years before that, native tribes were collecting cinnabar, hematite, and turquoise to make jewelry.   

Charles Poston was far from the first person to explore Arizona looking for riches, but he was first in a long line of dusty prospectors and canny businessmen who helped settle the Arizona we know today. Explore all these ventures with the mineral history timeline.