By 7000 BCE, American Indians were living in Arizona’s Verde Valley. While these earliest inhabitants of the area had a hunting and gathering subsistence, by 700 CE there were farmers, called the Southern Sinagua people by archaeologists, living in the area. At this time they were growing crops similar to other Southwestern peoples: corn, beans, squash, and cotton. By 1000 CE their population had increased and they had begun to build cliff dwellings. Life in the Verde Valley, however, was interrupted in 1064 when the Sunset Crater volcano erupted, spreading a half billion tons of ash across 800 square miles. The Southern Sinagua people temporarily abandoned the valley.
Shown above is the excavation of a pit house that was occupied during the Camp Verde phase (900 to 1125 CE). The photograph is from the 1958 excavation of the site.
When the Sinagua people abandoned the Verde Valley, they simply moved to the nearby hills where they sustained themselves on agriculture dependent on rain.
By 1100 the Southern Sinagua people were returning to the Verde Valley and by 1130 they had started construction on a cliff dwelling which would later be called Montezuma Castle. This was a twenty-room, five-story dwelling located in a limestone cliff about 100 feet above Beaver Creek. The natural overhang shades the rooms and shelters them from the rain. This structure is estimated to have housed about 50 people. By 1300, there were an estimated 6-8,000 people living in small villages in the well-watered area.
Like their Hohokam cousins to the south, the Sinagua people used an irrigation system to bring water to their fields. About 11 miles away from Montezuma Castle is an immense sinkhole that was formed when an underground cavern collapsed. It is about 55 feet deep and 368 feet in diameter. An estimated 1.4 million gallons of water flow through the well daily. The Sinagua people dug irrigation ditches to channel this water to their fields.
Montezuma Castle was abandoned by the Sinagua people about 1425 CE. According to Hopi oral traditions, the Sinagua people migrated to the north where they become incorporated with the Hopi. Archaeologists do not know why the Sinagua people left the area, but the hypotheses include warfare, drought, and clashes with the newly-arrived Yavapai people.
In the mid-nineteenth century, the abandoned pueblo was “discovered” by Americans who arrogantly assumed that such a complex and elaborate structure could not have been built by the “primitive” Indians of North America and thus believed that it had been built by the Mexican Aztecs. They named it Montezuma Castle based on this belief, naively unaware that the structure predated the rise of the Aztecs in Mexico. Caring little about its historical significance, the Americans then mined it for any artifacts that they might find, often destroying parts of the structure in their greedy quest. In some instances they used dynamite to destroy walls so that they could gain entrance to rooms in order to loot them.
Following the passage of the Antiquities Act in 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt declared four sites of historic and cultural significance as the first National Monuments in the United States. One of these first four was Montezuma Castle, which the President identified as “of the greatest ethnological value and scientific interest.” Montezuma Castle National Monument encloses 826 acres.
Shown above is an early photograph of the site.
The T-shaped doorways shown in the photograph above are similar to those found in Ancestral Puebloan sites such as Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde.
One of the first advocates for the creation of Montezuma Castle National Monument was Edgar Lee Hewitt who had worked on the drafting of the Antiquities Act. Hewitt felt that this was an archaeologically significant site that was being imperiled by aggressive pot hunting. The creation of Montezuma Castle National Monument was relatively uncontroversial and caused few complaints. The site was small, remote, and not being exploited by agriculture in the vicinity.
Montezuma Castle National Monument soon became a destination for America’s first car-bound tourists. While the early tourists who visited the National Monument were allowed to climb a series of ladders up the side of the limestone cliffs, public access of the ruins was discontinued in 1951 due to extensive damage from the visitors.
During the 1930s, there was more archaeological focus on the valley. Earl Jackson, a graduate student under Byron Cummings at the University of Arizona and the son of the Montezuma Castle custodian Martin Jackson, conducted an archeological survey of the entire Verde drainage area for his master’s thesis. In this work, Jackson specified the location of numerous sites and made comparisons of sherds, burials, and artifacts that he discovered. In 1933, archaeologists excavated Castle A, another 45-50 pueblo on the Monument. The findings from this excavation provided more detail about the Sinagua people who lived along Beaver Creek.
Shown above are photos from the excavation of Castle A. These are from a report by Martin L. Jackson entitled “Report on Montezuma Castle C.W.A. Work, Federal Project No. 5.”
In 1947, the National Park Service acquired Montezuma Well, a place which is sacred to a number of tribes, including the Yavapai and the Hopi. According to Yavapai tradition, Montezuma Well is the hole through which the Yavapai entered this world. Once they had entered this world, the hole filled with water. After acquiring the administration of this property, Park Service personnel noted that Yavapai, Apache, Hopi, and Navajo people frequently visited the site for spiritual reasons.
In 1949, Albert Schroeder, the first full-time archaeologists assigned to Montezuma Castle National Monument, visited with Hopi priests. He showed them sketches of the ruins near Montezuma Well. He reported:
They reminded me of a legend that had formerly been related to me of how the Snake arose from a great cavity or depression in the ground, and how, they had heard, water boiled out of that hole into a neighboring river. The Hopi have personal knowledge of the Well, for many of their number have visited the Verde Valley, and they claim the ruins there as the home of their ancestors. It would not be strange, therefore, if this marvelous crater was regarded by them as a house of Paluluken, their mythic Plumed Serpent.
The National Park Service at Montezuma Castle National Monument has facilitated visits by tribal members and groups for spiritual purposes. They allow Native people to collect water from Montezuma Well for spiritual purposes and provide them with private access to portions of the Monument for the performance of spiritual ceremonies.
In 1966, Montezuma Castle National Monument was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. This means that all of the prehistoric sites within the Monument are considered as contributing properties. Monument administration is thus required to consider the potential impacts of its undertakings on historic and prehistoric resources.
After the passage of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act (AIRFA) in 1978, the Monument collaborated more closely with the tribes to insure that tribal perspectives and interpretations are included on issues ranging from development plans to interpretive museum labels.
In the 1970s the National Park Service at Montezuma Castle National Monument began working with the Yavapai-Apache tribe to develop a tribal cultural information center. In 1981, the Yavapai-Apache completed a regional visitor information center, a gasoline station and convenience store, and a one-hundred-unit RV campground. The National Park Service began leasing roughly six thousand square feet of the information center building from the nation to serve as the administrative headquarters and visitor orientation center for Montezuma Castle and Tuzigoot National Monuments. In 1995, the tribe also opened Cliff Castle Casino and the Monument’s administration moved to Camp Verde.
After the passage of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990, the Monument removed from museum displays all artifacts associated with human remains or burials and those considered to be sacred objects.
About 350,000 tourists visit Montezuma Castle National Monument each year. The visitor center at the Monument includes a museum and, of course, a gift shop.