How Yuma, Arizona, Got Its Name

This tale was posted on the groaners listserv. I am not totally convinced of its historical authenticity, but it’ll do.

In 1912, Arizona was about to be admitted to the Union and to officially become a state. A small community in the Arizona Territory decided that their town needed a name. None of the townspeople had really thought about it, but as the population slowly grew, the naming of the town became the number one priority.

Many people made suggestions. The mayor, a man named Jones, thought that Jonesville would be a good name. This did not go over too well. Arguments ensued as to what to call this growing community, but there wasn’t a single name that everyone agreed to. An elderly resident, wise to solving unsolvable problems, came up with a suggestion. He said that in order to stop the bickering about naming their town after one of the residents, the name should be selected randomly.

Several people thought that this meant everyone put a name in a hat and then draw one out and that would be the town’s name. The wise man said that it wouldn’t solve anything, as whatever name was drawn would cause a conflict, especially if a name like “Jonesville” or “Smithtown” were chosen.

This was his suggestion: “Since we can’t decide amongst ourselves, let’s let a stranger decide for us. I propose that the first word of the next stranger to come into town will be our name. In that way, it will be neutral and also absolutely random.”

The townspeople held several meeting about this suggestion and eventually agreed that this would be the only fair way to name the town. So, each day several people would gather on the road that led to town and look off into the distance waiting for a stranger to ride in. Several months passed without a visitor, and people were getting impatient. Then, one day off in the far distance was a dust cloud signaling a rider heading their way. The news spread through the town like wildfire and people rushed to the edge of town to await the person who would name their town.

In that cloud of dust was a cowboy. Not an ordinary cowboy, but a black man who had fought in the Civil War. He had enough of the discrimination in the South and decided to head west to make a new life. As he approached closer to the town, he saw a crowd of people. The closer he came, the more agitated the people became as they jumped up and down in anticipation. Finally, they would have a name for their town.

As the black cowboy got nearer and nearer, he suddenly had some trepidation. He had seen unruly and wild crowds like this in the South. He had seen lynching and didn’t want to become a statistic. So, fearful of his life, he wheeled his horse around and headed away.

The people at the edge of town couldn’t believe what was happening. The opportunity to have a name was slipping away. They couldn’t let this happen, so a couple of men mounted their horses to confront this man, catch up wit him and have him speak a single word. As they galloped toward the frightened black cowboy, it was evident he was getting away. In a fit of desperation, one of the men took his rifle from the saddle holder and fired after the fleeing man. A bullet found its mark and the black man fell to the ground.

The two men rushed to the dying cowboy and shouted, “Stranger, say something, anything! We need you to talk! Just one word!””

Through hostile, dying eyes, the cowboy looked at the men and said, “You mo….”

Howell Gwin added the following historical tale.

Two old prospectors and the grandson of one were in the desert of old New Mexico. They finally struck it rich, but one suffered a stroke and was dying. He begged his partner to name the place after him. “Sure, Al” said his partner.

The dying man turned to the grandson and said, “Will you make sure he does it?”

The kid answered, “Sure will, Mr. Buquerque.”

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1 Comment

  1. Brian P. Combs

     /  March 24, 2010

    This story reminds me of the time another black cowboy was riding into town, and was given a laurel and hearty welcome by the white townfolk.

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