on-line book icon

table of contents

National Monument
NPS logo

aerial view of Montezuma Well
Aerial view showing Montezuma Well and Beaver Creek.

Man in the Verde Valley

The first human occupation of central Arizona began several thousand years ago. Very little is known about these Indians, but there is archeological evidence which indicates that they were hunters and food gatherers. These people had no pottery, and probably had no permanent houses or farms. The only objects recovered from their campsites have been their crude stone tools. One such site was discovered and investigated a short distance north of Montezuma Castle National Monument in 1949.

Shortly after A. D. 600, the Verde Valley attracted another group of people. They were farmers who came from the south, near the vicinity of modern Phoenix. We call these people of southern Arizona, who were the first known permanent settlers in the Verde Valley, the "Hohokam." They planted their crops in the bottom lands and built their houses on the adjacent terraces so they could overlook their fields. Their homes of poles, brush, and mud were individual dwellings large enough to house one family.

Utensils in the home were few, but important. They consisted of plain, unpolished, gray-brown pottery, used to hold water and food; grinding stones on which corn, nuts, and berries were ground; and hammerstones for crushing or mashing food. Also, such objects as scrapers for working hides, points for arrows, and knives for skinning game have been recovered by archeologists.

The Hohokam built a specialized structure not found among other prehistoric Indians of the Southwest. It was a prepared court, oval in shape, which bears a close similarity to the ball courts of Mexico. They may have played a game of some type on these courts which had some connection with their ceremonial rites, such as appears to have been the case in Central America. These people also had another trait which set them apart from other tribes—they cremated their dead.

There is no evidence of Hohokam occupation at Montezuma Castle, but remains of Hohokam type are found at Montezuma Well. We can imagine that a party of Indian colonists, about 1200 years ago, was very pleased to discover the Well and was as startled as we are to find a lake inside a hill.

In looking further, the Hohokam found the outlet on the south side of the Well through which a steady stream of water flowed, falling into Beaver Creek a few feet away. Here was a place to live! If this water could be diverted to the nearby flatlands, they would no longer need to depend on rain for their crops.

The Indians set about their task. They fashioned some stone hoes and dug a small section of ditch at the base of the cliff between the Well and Beaver Creek. After reaching the proper depth, a brush dam was made and the water was diverted from the outlet. Eager eyes watched the water enter and gradually fill their ditch. Another section was dug and water was again turned into it. High spots were noted and dug lower so the water would flow through. Rocky obstructions were broken with stone picks and river rocks. Sometimes the ground was too hard for their hoes, and water was allowed to flow in to soften it. Gradually their ditch was lengthened until it reached the flats which they planned to farm.

Their work was not yet complete, for the fields had to be cleared. Brush was cut, and fires were built at the base of large trees to burn the trunks until they weakened and fell.

Rocks which were cleared from the farm areas were lined up to mark the edges of small plots. Dirt was thrown over these rocks so water would not escape when the plots were irrigated. Some of the brush was saved for making dams to divert water from the main ditch to each of the farm plots. Small limbs from fallen trees were fashioned into digging and planting sticks. The fields were leveled with their stone hoes and tree limbs were dragged over the soil in a final smoothing process.

Finally they were ready for their planting. They had brought seeds of food crops—corn, beans, and squash—which were planted in these plots. Cotton was also planted. Then the water was turned onto the fields to complete their labor.

During the course of their pioneering work, this small group of Indians probably lived on the edge of the bluff above the fields and in three small caves along the bluff bordering their ditch. Food was not lacking, as the plants in the area provided them with many essentials. Mesquite beans, a common staple among the Indians were plentiful in the late summer and autumn, as were walnuts, berries, wild gourds, and sunflower seeds.

Yucca-fiber sandal
Yucca-fiber sandal made by prehistoric Indians of Montezuma Castle.

Other plants, particularly yucca, supplied necessary fibers for making sandals, matting, cordage, baskets, and other articles. Reeds and hardwoods were available to make bows and arrows and other wooden implements for hunting rabbits and ducks around the Well. Hunting parties no doubt went to the foothills for larger game such as deer.

At about the same time that the Hohokam were in the valley, an other group of Indians whom we call the "Sinagua," lived in the forested foothills to the north and east, and on the plateau above. Their small villages were located in open areas that could be dry farmed, as they depended on rain water for their crops. Their houses, like those of the Hohokam, were made of poles, brush, and mud; however, they were dug into the ground, with just a small portion of the walls and the roof projecting above the ground level.

Their utensils and habits were similar to those of the Hohokam, though different in some respects. For example, in contrast to the Hohokam practice, the Sinagua polished their plain brown pottery. Also, it is known that after 1070, they buried their dead in an extended position instead of cremating them as the Hohokam did. Although the Sinagua were basically farmers like the Hohokam, at this time they depended to a greater extent on foods they gathered and meat they hunted than they did later.

Sunset Crater
Sunset Crater north of Flagstaff.

About 1070, some of the Hohokam left the valley. Evidently many of these emigrants went north to the plateau region east of present-day Flagstaff, to plant in the moisture-conserving ash-fall area created by the eruption of Sunset Crater in 1064. Shortly after these Hohokam departed, many of the Sinagua moved down from the hills into the middle of the Verde Valley. This occurred about 1125. They lived much as they had before, but with two important changes: they adopted the Hohokam idea of irrigation, and they began building surface houses of rock and mud—an idea acquired from still another group, the Pueblo Indians, farther north. These Sinagua were the people who built the stone pueblos we find in the valley today.

At first they erected small settlements on well-drained ridges overlooking their farmlands. Occasionally, also, caves were utilized for dwellings; the first 3 or 4 rooms of Montezuma Castle were evidently built in the 1100's.

From 1125 to 1200, the settlement at Montezuma Well was increased by groups of these Sinagua Indians who had left their homes in the foothills to the north and east. It appears that they joined some of the remaining Hohokam, as several customs of the latter survived up to 1400. In this period the Sinagua also utilized caves near their fields, and built a small pueblo on the west rim of Montezuma Well. Limestone rock for their masonry was available on the rim of the Well, and river boulders for foundations were taken from the creek. Mud and clay, which they mixed for their mortar, were easily obtained along the creek.

As the years passed, more land was put under cultivation and more ditches were constructed. To insure adequate care of their farmland, 1- and 2-room "farm" structures were built on the slopes above and along the course of the main ditch. From these, the occupants were able to view the fields while irrigating and also could divert the water from the ditch below them whenever necessary. At their peak, the people at Montezuma Well were farming about 60 acres, or possibly more, and their main ditch was about 1 mile long.

Ancient irrigation ditch
Ancient irrigation ditch near Montezuma Well.

The Sinagua of the Verde generally lived in small pueblos until about 1250, at which time the center of the valley appears to have undergone a "real estate boom." The buildings increased in size, and many of them were converted into forts with defensive walls, parapets, peepholes, and sealed doorways. Since the pueblos on the north and east fringes of the valley were abandoned in the 1200's, it is believed that the Sinagua of that area probably were the ones who moved in to increase the population and size of the central villages.

Cut-away model of Montezuma Castle
Cut-away model of Montezuma Castle.

This move to the center of the valley was probably caused by nearly a century of almost continuous drought which began about 1200 and culminated in an especially severe drought from 1276 to 1299.

Many of the Sinagua in the modern Flagstaff region to the north began to leave their dry-farming area in the early 1200's. They also seem to have migrated into the Verde Valley. Since they had depended on rainfall for their crops, it is quite possible that the drought affected their entire area, forcing them to move down from the Flagstaff area as well as from the northern and eastern parts of the valley. The occupants of the central region of the valley were able to survive because of the spring-fed streams upon which they depended for their irrigation and water supply.

Such a move undoubtedly disturbed the balance of the people and the available food in the now overcrowded central area. Considerable friction must have arisen. The combination of too many people and not enough farmland may have eventually caused intervillage strife over water rights, with general population decline caused by soil exhaustion and the reduction of other resources.

Montezuma Castle was built up to its present size at this time, reaching its maximum in the 1300's. Consolidation was also in progress at Montezuma Well. Between 1300 and 1400, only 3 farm outlooks along that half of the irrigation ditch nearest the Well were occupied. In this way the area of settlement was contracted or reduced by abandonment of outlying sites. The concentration of population around the Well implies conflict of some sort; and, it was at this time that the large, definitely defensive pueblo on the rim was constructed. By 1400, or shortly thereafter, the Sinagua abandoned the Well.

Shortly after 1400, in fact, Montezuma Castle and the entire Verde Valley were abandoned by the Sinagua. There is no direct evidence to supply us with the reason for this complete exodus—a combination of circumstances is the probable answer.

A possible major factor causing the Sinagua to abandon the area may have been the Yavapai Indians whom the Spanish later encountered in the Verde Valley. The Yavapai could have been descendents of those Hohokam who had stayed in the valley and lived with the Sinagua between 1100 and 1400. (Like the Hohokam, the Yavapai cremated their dead, built pole-and-brush houses, and farmed small plots along the stream bottomlands.) If they were descendents of the Hohokam, the Yavapai might have been the victors in the intervillage strife that apparently occurred during the 1300's and forced the Sinagua to leave the valley.

Whatever the real reason, when the Sinagua left, they moved northeast and it is thought they eventually joined the ancestors of the modern Hopi Indians. Before the exodus, the Sinagua had obtained a black-on-yellow pottery from the Hopi country, so they knew the Hopi through their trade contacts. Oral traditions also indicate the possibility of such a move. The modern Hopi have legends of a people coming up from the south to join them. They say that these people were great warriors and that they had no priests or ceremonies. Since the Sinagua had no underground ceremonial chamber, or kiva, such as that of the Hopi, and since we lack evidence of ceremonialism among the Sinagua, these legends could well apply to them.

Early Spanish explorers remarked on the vast amount of cotton grown and woven by the Hopi. The Sinagua had been great cotton growers and expert weavers while they lived in the Verde Valley. They may have been responsible in part for such a development among the Hopi, first through trade and later by actually joining the Hopi.

Whatever the fate of the Sinagua, the Yavapai were in the Verde Valley when the Spanish reached the area in 1583. They described wild, but peaceful and friendly Indians in the region, living in huts instead of pueblos, planting corn, and hunting game. Similar references are made by later explorers. Although the names given them in the old Spanish documents are quite different, these people presumably were the Yavapai.

Still later, the Western Apache came into the story of the Verde Valley. Just when they entered central Arizona is unknown; but since the 1860's, certain Western Apache bands ranged as far west as the Verde. Two small caves at Montezuma Well show indications of Apache occupation, probably after 1800.

Previous Next

top of page

History  |   Links to the Past  |   National Park Service  |   Search  |   Contact

Last Modified: Mon, Jan 1 2001 10:00:00 pm PDT

ParkNet Home