Montezuma Castle National Monument: Portal to an Ancient Past

Montezuma Castle

Near Camp Verde, Arizona, not far from Sedona AZ lay the remains of the “hitsatsinom” (Hopi word meaning‘People of long ago’), built into the cliffs above Beaver Creek, and scattered throughout the area. While it is debated who really created the dwellings, The Montezuma Castle and surrounding ruins stand as a monument to the ingenuity of the ancient people.

Archaeological evidence points toward the Sinagua peoples as designers and builders of Montezuma Castle. Without natural evidence to assist them, explorers were left only man-made artifacts from which to determine the history of these ruins. By examining pottery, tools, and construction techniques, they discerned that ancient Sinaguans were responsible, although critics contend that it is more likely that ancient Aztec tribes actually deserved credit.

All signs suggest that this community survived and flourished through farming and hunting. The residents harvested every resource, and utilized practices learned from other tribes to grow and maintain successful crops of beans, squash and corn. Medicines, clothing, and tools were gleaned from the many plants that grew in the area. Over time, trading with other tribes came into practice, to obtain other needed items.

Montezuma Castle, said to have been built by the women, consists of limestone blocks, mud, grass, sticks, and Sycamore trees. Excavations have unearthed at least 60 rooms, demonstrating that comfort and protection were major concerns back then just as they are today. The walls, 3 feet thick, were constructed at a curve to ensure stability. Doors were angled and cut so as to provide maximum protection from drafts, and to control inside temperatures. Seeking the utmost efficiency, storage, burial, meeting areas, and work stations were factored in to the design and the Castle was built to provide for all these needs.

As with many of Arizona’s ancient settlements, Montezuma Castle, and the surrounding community were completely abandoned sometime around 1425 A.D. Many have concluded, as with the Wupatki abandonment, that the inhabitants were forced out due to changes in climate and ecology, or that they simply sought better lives elsewhere. Conflicts with the Yavapai tribes may also have contributed to the demise of the settlement.

Over the next several centuries, ancestors of the Yavapai and Apache Tribes kept watch and resided in the area, and eventually Spanish and American settlers found their way in Verde Valley, stumbling upon the majestic wonder of the castle in the cliffs. More explorers completely passed by the Montezuma site than those who discovered it. Antonio De Espejo’s expedition may have been the first recorded discovery of the deserted compound in the late 1500’s. Two subsequent Spanish expeditions through the Verde Valley made no mention of the ruins. When American settlers entered the area, Montezuma Castle remained hidden from view until 1853. During a railroad survey, Lieutenant A.W. Whipple and his crew toured the remains, and thusly the connection to Montezuma was formed, when comparisons were made between the architectural style of the castle and that of the Montezuma Aztecs.

In 1856, the first scientific research of Montezuma Castle was conducted by Dr. Edward Palmer. However, not until 1864, when King S. Woolsey’s expedition came through, were the main water supply and other dwellings discovered. Once again finding Aztec connections, this natural formation was named Montezuma Well. Over the next several decades, as people moved through, the ruins were constantly looted and vandalized.

Two founders of the Arizona Antiquarian Society, Dr. Joshua Miller and Frank Reid, worked tirelessly to raise funds to preserve the castle. With relentless effort of the Society, in part, awareness reached a national level and in 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt designated Montezuma Castle as a national monument. It would take yet another decade for real work to begin on restoration of the faltering remains. Retired forest ranger, Alston Morse received a grant of $425 and undertook the painstaking job in 1917. Some years later, National Park Service employee, Frank Pinkley, and his hired assistant Martin Jackson took over custodial duties for the monument, often contributing their own money and labor to make much needed progress.

The University of Arizona commenced excavation of the Castle in 1933. A team of students, led by Salle Van Valkenburgh and Earl Jackson, unearthed 7 new rooms, provided more restoration work, and made improvements to monument grounds. After negotiations with the William Back family, the Montezuma Well was acquired in 1947, becoming part of the monument. With tourism always increasing, safety of visitors and protection of the ruins were growing concerns for the park. In 1951, public access to the insides of the remains was banned.

As it stands today, protected, preserved and proud, the Montezuma Castle National Monument provides a fascinating examination of Arizona’s prehistoric past.

Also see Montezuma Well