The McMillan Building

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The McMillan Building

It’s startling to remember that Northern Arizona has been part of Anglo culture for only 160 years. Native American tribes have made their homes here for centuries, and their reverence for the Peaks is legendary. I have about a raindrop’s worth of knowledge in the ocean of Native history, so I would direct any reader who wants to know more to check out their local library. However, I have learned a bit about the founding of Flagstaff, and Thomas McMillian’s name is always close to its beginnings.

With the end of the Mexican-American war in 1848 came the cessation of the territory that is now Northern Arizona. Expeditions soon began across the 35th Parallel, including those led by Whipple and Beale, as well as the migrating sheepherders and wagon trains. The San Francisco Peaks quickly became a landmark for the frontiers people. Not only did it aid in navigation (the trail was notorious for its haphazard markings) but it clearly inspired awe in the pioneers who passed through this area. Platt Cline quotes General William Palmer, a railroad surveyor, as writing: “…the people of the eastern half of our continent have scarcely a conception of the physical pleasure of mere existence in the pure air and fine weather of this…northern plateau.”

Thomas McMillan is credited by many as being the first white settler of this magnificent area. Historical accounts differ somewhat; he definitely was a sheepherder who had passed through what is now Flagstaff on his way to California. It’s also been written he was seeking gold in the western lands. Whichever is correct, McMillan was no rube; he had lived in Australia previously and his aunt was married to President James Polk. In 1876, a drought in California forced him to reconsider his future, and he herded his stock back to this area. He homesteaded land at the base of Mount Humphries, close to where the Museum of Northern Arizona is today, tending to his flocks and farming. He was soon joined by other settlers, including the Eldens, the Brannens, the Riordans and the Babbitts.

Come on one of our Freaky Foot Tours and learn more about the history of downtown Flagstaff, including the McMillan Building.