Let’s start with a river – The Santa Cruz River. We have to start there, because that’s where human settlement in this area started.
This is a desert. No water, no people. And up to little more than a hundred years ago, the Santa Cruz was not the deep, dry ditch we see today (except when it has rained in the Santa Ritas, but that’s another story). It was a shallow, intermittent stream partly underground and partly on the surface.
It was along the surface-flowing parts that people started living and growing crops a long time ago. How long? Recent archaeological studies suggest that people were planting corn along our stretch of the Santa Cruz as early as 4100 years ago (that’s 2100 BC). They were irrigating their crops by means of a complex system of canals by 1500 BC. This is the earliest canal irrigation so far found in North America.
From then on, the Santa Cruz was, for thousands of years, a vital source of water for agriculture.
At some time in the fairly recent past, a people who called themselves O’odham or “The People,” settled in a village at the foot of the hill we call “'A' Mountain” and they called “Black Mountain.” The village was called Chuk Shon, which tells us that it was at the foot Black Mountain.
Then in 1775, a Spanish cavalry outpost was founded across the Santa Cruz River from Chuk Shon. It was called Tucson (pronounced Tooksón) which was as close as the Spaniards could conveniently get to Chuk Shon. And here we are, all of us.
The river continued being an important water resource. O’odham, Spaniards, and, later, Mexicans all built ditches and irrigated their crops. In the late 19th Century there were even Chinese truck gardens along the river banks just north of "A" Mountain (or Sentinal Peak, as it was called then). But not for long.
Over-grazing, a lowered water table, and drought cycles led to severe down-cutting, and reduced the Santa Cruz to the deep, dry (but not always!) arroyo that we see today.
Next: Dry river stories