Exploring the Rich History of Mesa: A Journey Through Time

15 December 2023

Mesa, Arizona, might be known today as a sprawling suburban city, but its roots run deep, steeped in a rich heritage that spans over centuries. From indigenous roots to pioneering settlers, to its transformation into a modern metropolis, the city’s past is a tapestry of captivating stories. Let’s embark on a journey that takes us through the annals of Mesa’s history and explore how the city has evolved over time, delving into the “history of Mesa.”

Key Takeaways

  • Mesa’s history dates back to the Hohokam and Apache Indians, who left an impressive legacy of irrigation systems and a nomadic lifestyle.
  • The city has experienced remarkable growth since its founding, with population increases every decade and contributions from high-tech industries, Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport, Mesa Arts Center & Park Facilities.
  • The preservation of Mesa’s past is maintained through historical buildings like the oldest standing school building as well as museums such as the Mesa Historical Museum & Society.

Early Beginnings: Mesa’s Indigenous Roots

Prehistoric Hohokam canals in the Salt River Valley

Long before the city of Mesa took shape, the region was home to the Hohokam, the initial prehistoric inhabitants who left an indelible mark on the area’s history and development. They are renowned for their remarkable achievement in constructing an extensive network of irrigation canals, including the world’s largest prehistoric irrigation system that irrigated 110,000 acres.

This system played a significant role in transforming the soils of the Salt River Valley, enabling the cultivation of abundant crops for both local use and trade.

Hohokam Canals

The Hohokam canals were meticulously constructed through manual excavation, extending across vast distances to provide water for their crops in the dry desert landscape. Their impressive engineering achievement allowed for the evolution of a vibrant agricultural community that survived for many centuries and established the groundwork for the Mesa we know today.

Presently, the remains of these canals are visible at Mesa Grande Cultural Park, an important historical site that functions as a communal hub for Mesa and the surrounding towns.

Apache Indians

Following the decline of the Hohokam civilization, the Apache Indians played a significant role in shaping the region’s history. They were known for their nomadic lifestyle, residing in wickiups – small dwellings made from brush, and their hunter-gatherer way of life. Their resistance against the Spanish incursions in the 1700s and their participation in the Apache Wars are notable events in Mesa’s history.

Salt River Valley

The Salt River Valley, with its reliable water resources, played a pivotal role in supporting the development of settlements and the creation of a comprehensive irrigation system. Its historical significance extends to:

  • The development of the Hohokam’s initial sewer system
  • Disputes among Native American tribes
  • A substantial flood in February 1891, which resulted in considerable destruction in the region.

The Birth of Mesa City: Pioneers and Canal Builders

Daniel Webster Jones and the founding of Mesa City

In the late 19th century, the dawn of a new era was ushered in with the arrival of pioneers in Mesa. The leader of the first group of settlers was Daniel Webster Jones, who played a significant role in the establishment of the city. The pioneers marked off land and commenced clearing the original Hohokam canals, thus laying the foundation for the nascent city.

Fort Utah and Daniel Webster Jones

Daniel Webster Jones, a Mormon pioneer, guided 15 wagons to what is now Mesa, and his leadership was instrumental in the city’s formation. His journey was fraught with challenges, including threats of violence and robbery by the Ute nation, and the formidable task of building a community in a desolate landscape.

Around this time, Fort Utah also played a significant role, offering shelter and security to the Mormon Lehi Pioneers in their encounters with hostile Apache Indians.

First Mesa Company

The First Mesa Company, led by Crismon, Pomeroy, Sirrine, and Robson, arrived in Mesa in January of 1878. They immediately set to work, marking off land and clearing the original Hohokam canals.

Their journey included crossing the Colorado River at Lee’s Ferry, known for its steep cliff across the river, and the San Pedro River.

Original Canal System

Upon their arrival in 1878, the Mormon pioneers found the original canal system built by the ancient Hohokam people and made them ready for use.

The original mesa canal system was instrumental in Mesa’s development by supplying a reliable water source for agriculture, fostering crop cultivation and the growth of farming communities.

From Small Settlement to Booming Metropolis: Mesa’s Expansion Over Time

Over the years, the Arizona Mesa, called Mesa City, has grown manifold. Once a small settlement, it has now emerged as the third-largest city in Arizona and the 46th largest city in the United States, underscoring its substantial growth over time, especially in the downtown Mesa area of Mesa Arizona. This growth can be seen through various mesa dates, marking significant milestones in the city’s development, such as when mesa settlers purchased land for expansion. The present day Mesa is a testament to this incredible transformation.

The population of the city experienced a minimum 79% increase during each ten-year census period until 1990, reflecting its rapid growth.

Population Growth and Census Bureau Data

As per Census Bureau data, the population growth trend in Mesa has decelerated to 0.35% between 2019 and 2020, marking the slowest growth rate in recent years. Despite the slowed growth, Mesa has still witnessed significant expansion, emerging as the third-largest city in Arizona with a 13.4% surge, indicating a potential surpassing of Tucson in population in the near future.

Smaller Neighboring Towns

The smaller neighboring towns of Mesa, including:

have played a significant role in Mesa’s growth. These towns have attracted new residents, expanded Mesa’s urban area, and influenced the development of industries, contributing to Mesa’s overall development.

East Valley Tribune

The East Valley Tribune, a regional publication, has provided coverage of several significant events crucial to Mesa’s expansion, including:

  • The cost escalations of the Signal Butte Water Treatment Plant project
  • The renovation of the Mesa temple with historical and educational enhancements.

Mesa’s Role in World War II and the Aerospace Industry

Williams Air Force Base during World War II

Mesa’s role in World War II, particularly in aviation and pilot training, was significant. Falcon Field was utilized as a training site for British RAF pilots, hosting thousands of cadets from 1941 to 1945.

Williams Air Force Base, established in December 1941, was initially named the Mesa Military Airport and served as a training facility for pilots during World War II.

Williams Air Force Base

Williams Air Force Base:

  • Initially set up in 1941
  • Renamed in January 1948
  • Earned a reputation as the leading pilot training facility in the United States
  • Played a crucial role during World War II
  • Ceased its operations in 1993

Even after its closure, the airport, situated on the former base, continues to have an annual economic impact of $1.3 billion and sustains more than 10,000 jobs.

Falcon Field Airport

Falcon Field Airport holds significant historical importance, as it opened in September 1941 primarily to train British Royal Air Force and U.S. Army Air Corps pilots during World War II.

Today, the airport manages a substantial amount of air traffic, handling an estimated 1.9 million passengers annually.

British Royal Air Force

From 1941 to 1945, the British Royal Air Force used Falcon Field Airport in Mesa as a training site for British RAF pilots. Their presence significantly contributed to Mesa’s emergence as an aerospace hub.

Mesa’s Modern Transformation: Economic Development and Cultural Institutions

Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport and high-tech industries

In the modern era, Mesa has seen significant transformation, including:

  • A blossoming of high-tech industries
  • The development of the Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport
  • The establishment of cultural institutions such as the Mesa Arts Center

High-Tech Industries and Employment Percentages

The city is home to high-tech industries, including renowned companies like:

These industries generate employment opportunities and contribute to economic expansion in the region.

Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport

Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport serves as a significant economic catalyst in the region, attracting development and serving as a communication hub for businesses and employers. The airport has an annual economic impact of $1.3 billion and sustains more than 10,000 jobs.

Mesa Arts Center and Park Facilities

The Mesa Arts Center, established in 2005, acts as town center and a prominent cultural hub in Mesa, offering:

  • Theaters
  • Art galleries
  • Studios
  • Classrooms
  • A sculpture garden

It aims to inspire individuals through a range of accessible and relevant arts experiences.

Preserving Mesa’s Past: Historical Buildings and Museums

Mesa Historical Museum preserving the city's past

While Mesa has seen remarkable growth and transformation, efforts have been made to preserve the city’s past. The Mesa Historical Museum, the oldest standing former elementary school building, and the Mesa Historical Society all play a part in keeping the city’s history alive.

Mesa Historical Museum and Former Lehi School

The Mesa Historical Museum, housed in a century-old school building, presents a glimpse into the early history of Mesa’s settlement. The museum features notable exhibits such as the recently digitized home movies from Buckhorn Bath’s founders, Ted and Alice Sliger, and the Mesa History room which features historic artifacts, images, and stories from early pioneers.

Oldest Standing School Building

Mesa High School, originally constructed in 1909, holds the distinction of being the oldest standing school building in the city. While it no longer serves educational purposes, it stands as a historic landmark, representing Mesa’s educational heritage.

Mesa Historical Society

The Mesa Historical Society undertakes an important role in preserving Mesa’s history by recording and sharing stories of its residents, from both past and present, through an array of innovative exhibitions and programs.

Membership to the society offers benefits like complimentary entry to the museum, reduced prices at the museum store, and access to archives and events.


From its indigenous roots to its modern transformation, Mesa, Arizona, is a city steeped in history. The city’s growth, driven by pioneers, industrious settlers, and high-tech industries, has shaped it into what it is today – a vibrant metropolis. Yet, amid all the growth and transformation, the city continues to honor its past, preserving its rich heritage for future generations.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the city of Mesa known for?

Mesa is known for having the largest community college in the US, a thriving cultural economy, and for being an educational hub with college facilities from across the nation.

Was Mesa founded by Mormons?

Mesa was founded by Mormons in 1878, as part of the second group of Mormon colonists to relocate to the Salt River Valley from Utah and Idaho.

What does Mesa mean in history?

Mesa is a Spanish word meaning ‘table’, used to describe the flat-topped hills and plateaus with steep sides found in the American southwest. The name comes from its resemblance to tables.

What is special about Mesa AZ?

Mesa, the third largest city in Arizona, is an ideal destination for adventure seekers and foodies alike. Boasting picturesque canyons and endless trails, it provides a great desert playground to explore.

Who were the first settlers of Mesa?

The first settlers of Mesa were the Hohokam, an ancient civilization known for their intricate irrigation systems.

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