The Founding of Arizona State University
Arizona State University was founded as the territorial normal school in 1885 by an act
of the Thirteenth Territorial Legislature, but the institution might not have been located
in Tempe without the skillful political maneuvers of John S. Armstrong and the support of
Charles Trumbull Hayden.
Since the days of Governor Anson P. K. Safford, Arizonans recognized the need for an
institution to train teachers to work in the territorial public schools, but it was not
until the Thirteenth Legislature was seated in 1885 that the political will to address
Arizona education was manifest. The Legislature would consider in this session big-ticket
appropriations for a mental health facility, a university and a normal school. Citizens of
Tucson also hoped the Thirteenth would restore the territorial capital to their city since
it was moved back to Prescott in 1878. As a result a number of political prizes were
available for barter during this legislative session, and because of the substantial
$100,000 appropriation attached to the mental health facility it was this institution
that many sought as their first priority.
At twenty-eight years old John Armstrong was the second youngest representative in the
Thirteenth Legislature, a Democrat in his first term who was elected on a platform of
securing both the mental health facility and the university for predominantly Republican
Maricopa County. Upon his election he immediately applied for appointment to the House
Education Committee. In a surprise move he was appointed chair of that committee by Speaker
R. G. Rollins of Tucson, but his appointment was balanced by the assignment of the formidable
C. C. Stephens of Tucson as chair of the Council (Senate) Committee on Education. Any bill
to establish a normal school or a university would have to be approved by both the House
and Council and signed by the Governor.
There are conflicting accounts of when John Armstrong decided to pursue the normal school
for Tempe. The appointment of Stephens to chair the Council education committee and of E.
W. Risley of Tucson to serve in the related House committee suggested that the Tucson
interests could not secure the votes to return the capital to their city, and were
positioning themselves to bargain for the university. Armstrong apparently recognized
the opportunity and built a coalition to bring the normal school to Tempe in exchange for
supporting a public school reform bill and for locating the mental health facility in
On February 26, 1885 Armstrong introduced House Bill no. 164, "An Act to establish a
Normal School in the Territory of Arizona." The bill would establish a territorial normal
school at Tempe to train public school teachers and also teach "husbandry" (agriculture)
and the mechanical arts. $5,000 was proposed for founding the institution and $3,500 was
set aside for two years' operating expenses, after which the institution would be
supported by tax revenue. The founding appropriations would be provided if the citizens
of Tempe donated land for the school within 60 days of the bill's passage.
Welcome to the "New ASU Story."
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HB 164 passed the House education committee on March 3rd, and on March 5th Mr. Stephens
introduced Council Bill no. 76, "An Act to Organize the University of the Territory of
Arizona and to locate it at Tucson." This bill was read and referred to the Council
Committee on Education. Back in the House on March 6th, Armstrong called for suspension
of the rules and a vote on HB 164. The members agreed and passed the bill later that day.
Stephens spent the weekend assessing the prospects for his university bill and realized he
needed Armstrong's support for House approval. On Tuesday March 10th, Stephens moved that
HB 164 and CB 76 be considered by committee of the whole, bypassing his own Council education
committee and ensuring that the bills would be considered together.
On the morning of March 11th, Council passed HB 164, sending the bill to the governor for
signature and ensuring the establishment of the normal school at Tempe. During the afternoon
session the House passed CB 76, establishing the university at Tucson. Governor F.A. Tritle
signed both bills on March 12, 1885.
All that remained was securing twenty acres for the school from the citizens of Tempe. One
account states that Charles T. Hayden, the founder and leading citizen of Tempe, had
arranged for a town meeting in January in which the citizens of Tempe agreed that a
normal school was desirable and that George and Martha Wilson's cow pasture was the
best location. The Wilsons originally agreed to donate five acres in exchange for $500
raised by the citizens of Tempe at that meeting. Now they would have to donate their
entire pasture, which was needed to support their business, the Pioneer Meat Market, to
meet the twenty acre requirement. On May 5th the Wilsons donated the entire twenty acres
in exchange for $500, creating the core of the original campus and ensuring the
establishment of Arizona State University.