Kraig Nelson

Scholar Frederick Jackson Turner, Ph.D., in an 1893 essay, said the frontier (lower 48) ended in 1890. His perhaps premature conclusion was based on data from an 1890 U.S. census. 

Other historians, including Arizona state historian Marshall Trimble, feel the frontier ended March 13, 1895, when Phoenix was connected to what was called the Santa Fe Railroad (Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe) from the north. Phoenix had been connected with the Southern Pacific Railroad, from the south, since July 4, 1887. 

The Santa Fe and the Southern Pacific railroads were considered transcontinental mainlines. The Southern Pacific closely followed the Butterfield Overland Mail Route across southern Arizona using established pioneer and Native American trails. The Butterfield was a stagecoach and mail service lasting from 1857 to 1861, its demise, the Civil War. When Phoenix was connected with the rest of the United States via the railroads, the American frontier was over per Trimble.

How was the railroad route established in northern Arizona? How did Manifest Destiny and Mr. Horace Greely affect western expansion? Let’s take a look.

Manifest Destiny was a widely held belief in the 19th century that the United States was to expand, and had the right to expand coast to coast, because of divine providence. Journalist John L. O’Sullivan in 1839, wrote an article about “divine destiny” addressing America’s “moral dignity.” 

In 1845, O’Sullivan wrote another essay in which he first used Manifest Destiny. Later that year, December 27, 1845, he used Manifest Destiny again in his newspaper, the New York Morning News, and the phrase became extremely influential nationally.

“Go west, young man, go west, and grow up with the country.” These famous words were written and published in an editorial in the New York Tribune on July 13, 1865, by Horace Greely. The immortal words captured the spirit of returning Civil War veterans who headed west and took advantage of the 1862 Homestead Act. Horace Greely was the founder and editor of the New York Tribune, which was considered one of the great newspapers of the time. Interestingly, Greely did not coin the famous phrase. It was first used by John Babsone Lane Soule in 1851. When the “Go West” phrase became famous, Greely gave credit to Soule.

Congress was aware a northern railroad route was needed in Arizona somewhere along the 35th parallel. Monies were allocated, and expeditions were funded. Lt. Lorenzo Sitgreaves commanded the first expedition along the 35th parallel starting in September 1851. 

Lt. Amiel Weeks Whipple started his expedition July 1853. His expedition included about 70 men, 240 mules, a flock of sheep for food, and a scientific staff of 17, including geologists, naturalists, botanists, and surveyors. 

In 1857, Edward Fitzgerald Beale was appointed to survey a wagon road near the 35th parallel. Beale used Egyptian camels to transport supplies. These three expeditions (and there were others) were instrumental in establishing the future routes for the Santa Fe Railroad, Route 66 and Interstate 40 in Northern Arizona. 

After the Santa Fe route across northern Arizona was completed in 1882/1883, the final route was to bring a spur line to Prescott and finally to Phoenix. This was a job for Frank Murphy. Trimble says in his book, “Arizona, A Cavalcade Of History,” “…Murphy was one of the most energetic and resourceful … entrepreneurial giants. Murphy, more than any other was responsible for attracting eastern capital…”  The first leg of the journey to Prescott (from Ash Fork) was a 57-mile line called the Peavine because of all the twists and turns. This line was finished April 24, 1892. The final leg of the journey into Phoenix was completed March 13, 1895. The American frontier came to a close.

Kraig Nelson has been the Cave Creek Museum historian since 2016, when the board of directors voted unanimously hire him. A docent since 2008, he’s a former member of the museum’s board of directors. He hosts townwide history lectures and a YouTube channel with national exposure.