Yuma, overlooking the Colorado River

Yuma residents gather on the city streets for a celebration.
Yuma residents gather on the city streets for a celebration.(Arizona Historical Society)
Published: May. 19, 2022 at 5:20 PM MST
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YUMA, AZ (3TV/CBS5) - The lower Colorado River is a force of nature that’s provided sustenance for generations of people that called that desert area home. The location where the City of Yuma is situated is where ancient trails converged to a natural point on the river-- where fording the river was possible. It was one of the few spots where travelers could cross the otherwise very wide and wild Colorado River.

Native Indians were the earliest known inhabitants. They were there in 1540 when the first Spanish expeditions, led by Hernando de Alarcon and Melchior Diaz, sailed up the Colorado River from the Sea of Cortez. Although, their mission to deliver supplies to the Coronado Expedition was unsuccessful.

When the Spanish explorers first set eyes on the River Valley, the place was thriving with life. There were thriving communities along both sides of the river. They saw the heavy smoke produced by the cooking fires of the native people. The Spanish explorers called the place “Humo,” which is the Spanish word for smoke. Shortly thereafter, the local Indian tribe became known as the Umo Indians.

The discovery of gold in 1849 was a transforming event for the river-crossing site. The rush was on and everyone who came this way came along the Gila Trail. Thousands of fortune hunters headed west, coming through the quickest way to reach California-- 60,000 made their way along the trail in one year alone!

Wagons making their way across the Colorado River at the Yuma Crossing circa 1900.
Wagons making their way across the Colorado River at the Yuma Crossing circa 1900.(Arizona State Library)

Once English speakers started arriving in the Southwest, the word “humo” was slowly transformed into “Yuma.” The actual town that grew from the site was first called Colorado City. It formally became a part of the United States when the Gadsden Purchase was ratified in 1854. In 1862, a flood washed Colorado City from the map, only to be rebuilt and reborn as Arizona City 1862. Then finally, on Feb. 3, 1873, the name changed to what it is known as today-- Yuma.