Arizona Is a Basque Word
“Arizona” is an expression in the Basque language meaning “the good oak tree.” It is used to designate a place where good oak trees grow. Ethnic Basques, whose homeland is the region around the Pyrenees mountains between France and Spain, were among the Spanish settlers in the land of the upper Pimas, or Pimeria Alta in the 17th and 18th centuries. Pimeria Alta would centuries later be within the states of Sonora, Mexico and Arizona, USA.
The region called Arizona became widely known long before it became part of the USA because in 1736 hundreds of pounds of pure silver were discovered laying on top of the ground in the form of balls and flat sheets near “la rancheria del Arizona,” to quote contemporary documents. The Planchas de Plata discovery became a sensation known around the world, and it must have seemed fitting 120 or so years later to name the new US territory Arizona, considering it was still a place of gold and silver mines. But those miners who lobbied for the new territory believed the word to be from the Pima language and they thought the ranch actually established by a Spanish citizen of Basque heritage had been instead a Pima or Papago village, one of the Indian rancherias established by mission padres.
As a result, for the next hundred years, every history book said “Arizona” was likely derived from the name of an indigenous village “Aleh-zone” or “Arison” or “Arizonac,” meaning the place of the little or young spring. It was a believable explanation for Americans who didn’t have access to the original Spanish documents or the Basque language. Documents that never spelled the place “Arizonac,” but instead “Arisona,” or “Arissona,” or more commonly “Arizona.”
Then, more than 20 years ago, Dr. William A. Douglass, Director of the Basque Studies Program at the University of Nevada at Reno suggested that “Arizona” was likely a Basque word applied to a rancho in the oak covered hills of Sonora about 15 miles southwest of the silver discovery and 40 miles southwest of Tumacacori mission. After all, there are or have been other small communities named Arizona, in the US and Latin America as far away as Argentina, and named before there ever was an Arizona Territory. And most of these Arizonas have a Basque connection. And though the Basque term would now be spelled “haritzonak” according to recent orthography, 300 years ago “arizona” would have been the spelling. Donald T. Garate, historian at Tumacacori National Historic Park has researched and verified the theory of Basque origin and written two convincing papers crediting the obscure language used by some of Europe’s oldest inhabitants for the naming of Arizona.
Are all the history books of the past hundred years wrong? It sure seems so if you read the 18th Century Spanish documents quoted by Garate. State Historian Marshall Trimble has been convinced. Will the idea of a Basque origin of “Arizona” spread in today’s Information Age?
[see “Arizona. A land of good oak trees.”(27 pages, 2006), and “Arizona (Never Arizonac)” (33 pages, 2006) by Donald T. Garate; Arizona “The Good Oak Tree” (2 page pamplet, 2007) by A. Badertscher. All are available at the Tumacacori NHP website]
“Arizona. A land of good oak trees.”