Montezuma Castle: History of a Pre-Columbian Cliff Dwelling

Updated on May 15, 2016
Montezuma Castle is located in an Alcove below top of Cliff
Montezuma Castle is located in an Alcove below top of Cliff | Source

Castle Mistakenly Attributed to Aztec Builders

Despite the fact that Arizona was the last of the lower forty-eight states to be admitted to the Union (it became a state in 1912 with Alaska and Hawaii being the only states to be admitted to the Union after Arizona) its rich and colorful history and geology are ancient.

Among the many historic places in Arizona is the ancient cliff dwelling known as Montezuma Castle National Monument, which is located along I-17 between Phoenix and Flagstaff.

The cliff dwelling is not a castle and never had any connection to the sixteenth century Aztec Emperor named Montezuma II.

However, when U.S. Army troops and settlers first began moving into and settling the area now known as the Verde Valley in Arizona they came upon the site and began calling it Montezuma’s Castle in the mistaken belief that it had been built by the Aztecs.

Montezuma Castle
Montezuma Castle | Source

It Was Long Believed that the Aztecs Built Montezuma Castle and Similar Structures in the American Southwest

These Americans were not the first to associate pre-Columbian pueblo style structures in the American Southwest with the sixteenth century Aztec Emperor Montezuma.

A report by a Spanish official following a visit to the Casa Grande ruins (now preserved as Casa Grande National Monument) in 1762 referred to the ruins as the House of Montezuma.

Following the Mexican War (1846-48) and the acquisition of the territory that now comprises the states of New Mexico, Arizona and California, troops and settlers began moving into the area where Montezuma Castle is located.

Many of the soldiers were veterans of the Mexican War and were familiar with the phrase Halls of Montezuma which referred to the American attack on Mexico City which had been the Aztec capital at the time of Cortez and his conquest of the Aztec Empire in the sixteenth century .

In addition to soldiers boasting about having taken the war to the Halls of Montezuma, the heart of Mexico, there was also a popular book, Conquest of Mexico, published by Walter Hickling Prescott in 1843 about the Spanish defeat of Emperor Montezuma II and the Aztec Empire in the early sixteenth century.

Prescott speculated that the Aztecs and their Toltec predecessors had come from the northwest and that the pre-Columbian ruins in the American Southwest had been built by the Aztecs and Toltecs before migrating to Mexico. Other books and articles, some written as recently as the early twentieth century, attributed the building of places like Montezuma Castle to the Aztecs.

While archaeologists and historians have since proved that pre-Columbian ruins in the American Southwest were not built by the Aztecs, Montezuma Castle, Montezuma Well and Lake Montezuma are still known by the name given to them by the early American inhabitants of the Verde Valley.

Looking Up at Montezuma Castle
Looking Up at Montezuma Castle | Source

Origins of Builders of the Castle are Unclear

Montezuma Castle was built by a Native American culture known as the Southern Sinagua. This people resided in the Verde Valley for 800 years or more and developed an advanced culture built on farming and trade.

The origins of the Sinagua are unclear. One theory holds that the Sinagua were a separate group of people who moved from some place else to what is now Arizona with part of the group settling in the Flagstaff area and another group continuing south to the Verde Valley. The northern group is known as the Northern Sinagua and the group that settled in the Verde Valley is known as the Southern Sinagua.

A second theory is that the Southern Sinagua simply evolved as a separate culture that developed among of the various peoples living in Arizona’s Verde Valley around 600 A.D. The well watered and lush Verde Valley (verde is Spanish for green) has been inhabited by humans for the past 10,000 years. However, until about the year 600 these inhabitants consisted of wandering bands of hunter gathers.

Starting in the seventh century some of the inhabitants began to develop farming. While they continued to supplement their diets with hunting and gathering edible plants, their farms provided a reliable and regular source of food. This allowed them to begin to build permanent settlements as well as have time to start producing pottery, baskets, more sophisticated tools and other products to make their lives more comfortable. This was the start of the Southern Sinagua culture.

Regardless of whether the Southern Sinagua were a separate band from outside who moved in with their culture or people already living in the Verde Valley who transitioned from the nomadic to a more settled life, the Southern Sinagua ended up developing a more advanced culture in the valley.

Original Sinagua Dwellings Appear to Have Been Pit Houses

The original homes of the Southern Sinagua appear to have been pit houses - structures built partially underground and partially above ground. These were similar to the types of dwellings built by other tribes/cultures in the central Arizona area.

The two photos below show the remains of the floor of a pit house along with a picture of an artist's rendering of what it looked like originally.

Most pit house ruins are much smaller than this one. Archeologists speculate that this pit house may have been used for communal ceremonies or housed multiple families.

This pit house dates from about 1050 A.D. and is located within the bounds of the nearby Montezuma Well National Monument.

Native American Pit House

Artist Drawing of a Pit House that existed about 1050 A.D.  Drawing is on a sign at Montezuma Well National Monument
Artist Drawing of a Pit House that existed about 1050 A.D. Drawing is on a sign at Montezuma Well National Monument | Source

Remains of Floor of Pit House Depicted Above

Remains of floor of 11th Century Pit House above.  Holes are for posts that supported the roof.  Size indicates it may have been used for community ceremonies.
Remains of floor of 11th Century Pit House above. Holes are for posts that supported the roof. Size indicates it may have been used for community ceremonies. | Source

Beginning sometime in the early 1100s, a Southern Sinagua band began building what is now Montezuma Castle. The completed structure was originally much larger than what remains today.

In addition to the five-story structure containing about 20 rooms and sitting in the alcove about 100 feet above the floor of Beaver Creek Canyon, a much larger structure was built against and attached to the face of the cliff.

Castle A

Artist Rendering of Castle A that was built against the cliff wall just to the west of Montezuma Castle
Artist Rendering of Castle A that was built against the cliff wall just to the west of Montezuma Castle | Source

This second structure, dubbed Castle A by archeologists, was located a few yards west of what we now call the Castle and is estimated to have contained as many as 45 rooms.

The first of the five stories that comprised Castle A rested on the canyon floor and was attached to the face of the cliff with beams inserted into sockets that had been carved into the face of the cliff. Today all the remains of Castle A are the rows of sockets and a few reconstructed ruins of the original rooms.

Socket Holes for Castle 'A'

Parallel lines of socket holes for roof beams along cliff wall just west of Castle show location where Castle A once stood.
Parallel lines of socket holes for roof beams along cliff wall just west of Castle show location where Castle A once stood. | Source

Castle A appears to have been destroyed by fire sometime before the area was abandoned by the Southern Sinagua. Since no signs of warfare have been detected, the cause of the fire was either accidental or result of some natural cause such as lightning.

My wife standing in ruins of one of the rooms at base of Castle A
My wife standing in ruins of one of the rooms at base of Castle A | Source

A hundred yards or so south of the cliff is Beaver Creek. More a small river than a creek, at least at this point, Beaver Creek provides a year round supply of water. This abundant water supply was one of the major factors in the Southern Sinagua band’s decision to settle and build here.

One of the sources of the water in Beaver Creek is nearby Montezuma Well. The well is actually a huge, collapsed limestone cavern that is fed by springs at the rate of a million gallons of water a day. Part of this water flows continuously from the well into Beaver Creek as it flows past the well.

Beaver Creek

Beaver Creek, which provided water, as it Flows Past Montezuma Castle
Beaver Creek, which provided water, as it Flows Past Montezuma Castle | Source

Sinagua Culture Begins to Decline

Sometime in the early 1400s the Southern Sinagua began abandoning Montezuma Castle and other large pueblo style settlements, such as nearby Tuzigoot. Why they left the area in which they had resided for close to eight centuries and abandoned settlements, like Montezuma Castle, in which they had lived for around 300 years is a mystery.

Archeologists have found no sign of major warfare or natural disasters to explain the disappearance of the Southern Sinagua culture.

While there is no evidence of major warfare, some believe that the destruction of the neighboring Hohokam people’s farm irrigation systems in the Phoenix area by flooding may have driven the Hohokam to begin raiding Southern Sinagua and other tribes to the north of Phoenix.

Farming at Montezuma Castle

Sinagua cultivating their fields at Montezima Castle
Sinagua cultivating their fields at Montezima Castle | Source

Decline in Trade

During the period from about 1100 A.D. through the mid 1300s the area occupied by the Southern Sinagua was in the middle of a series of trade routes that ran from the present day Four Corners area (the area where the borders of Arizona, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico meet) southwestward to the Pacific coast and northwestern Mexico.

The Southern Sinagua were involved in this trade system which began to decline about the same time the Southern Sinagua began disappearing from the Verde Valley.

This decline in trade would have negatively impacted the economy of the Southern Sinagua and, depending upon the magnitude of the decline, could have been a major factor in the decline of the Sinagua culture.

There is no evidence of the Sinagua culture suddenly disappearing. Instead, the culture declined and disappeared as villages were abandoned over time.

Many Sinagua appear to have moved north and merged with what later became the Hopi. In fact some Hopi clans today claim descent from the Sinagua.

Other Southern Sinagua appear to have remained behind in the Verde Valley intermarrying with the Yavapai, a hunter gather group that was moving into the Valley at that time.

The Yavapai still live in the Verde Valley.

Montezuma Castle Left Alone and Abandoned

By 1425 Montezuma Castle stood abandoned and ignored by the tribes in the area.

It wasn’t until 1583 when a small Spanish expedition from Mexico, led by Antonio de Espejo and assisted by Hopi guides, entered Arizona from New Mexico in search of gold and silver.

Based on Espejo’s report of the expedition and the journal of Diego Pérez de Luxán who was with Espejo on the expedition, it is apparent that they traveled along Beaver Creek and saw Montezuma Well and the ruins at that site. They may have also seen Montezuma Castle.

The next European to visit the area of Montezuma Castle was the Spaniard Marcos Farfán de los Godos who was dispatched in 1598 by Don Juan de Oñate to look for gold and silver mines in the area Espejo had visited earlier.

Accompanied by eight companions and some Hopi guides, Farfán appears to have traveled almost the same route as Espejo but he made no mention of anything resembling Montezuma Well or Montezuma Castle.

Room Inside Montezuma Castle

Picture of what a room would have looked like when Sinagua resided at Montezuma Castle
Picture of what a room would have looked like when Sinagua resided at Montezuma Castle | Source

Arrival of Americans

Following Farfán’s trip there is no other record of Europeans visiting the Verde Valley for the next two centuries.

It wasn’t until the late 1820’s when a group of fur trappers, which included the young Kit Carson, entered the Verde Valley to trap beavers.

While the Beaver Creek area appears to have been among the areas where they trapped, there is no mention of their having visited, or seen, Montezuma Castle.

A couple more decades passed before American troops and settlers entered the valley and began putting down stakes. It was at this time that Montezuma Castle was rediscovered by non-Indians and mistakenly given the name Montezuma Castle.

With the new arrivals the castle increasingly became a place to visit and to take away artifacts. Initially the castle was simply an old, long abandoned building whose contents belonged to no one and were considered free for the taking by anyone.

Vegetation in canyon below Montezuma Castle
Vegetation in canyon below Montezuma Castle | Source

Concern for Preservation of Ruins in the West Increases

As the American West became more settled and open to travel during the last quarter of the nineteenth century, knowledge of and interest in preserving the pre-Columbian ruins began to slowly increase.

Economic growth during this period resulted in improved transportation and communication both of which made it easier for scientists, journalists and even some tourists to visit the Southwestern lands. Increasing numbers of articles and books, illustrated with photographs, were published and read by people in the rest of the nation.

Interest increased and many people began realizing that these pre-Columbian ruins were a part of our history and heritage that needed to be preserved. The problem was that most of the ruins were not owned or cared for by anyone as they were located on the vast Western public lands owned by the Federal Government which lacked the resources and incentive to properly protect and manage them.

Congress Passes Antiquities Act of 1906

By the start of the twentieth century there were growing demands for the government to take steps to preserve this heritage. In response to the lobbying efforts by concerned citizens Congress passed the Antiquities Act of 1906 which President Theodore Roosevelt signed into law on June 8, 1906.

The Antiquities Act provided:

  • That any person who shall appropriate, excavate, injure, or destroy any historic or prehistoric ruin or monument, or any object of antiquity, situated on lands owned or controlled by the U.S. Government without permission shall be fined no more than $500 and/or sentenced up to 90 days in jail.

  • The President was authorized, at his discretion, to declare by proclamation historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest that are situated upon the lands owned or controlled by the Government of the United States to be national monuments, and may reserve as a part thereof parcels of land, the limits of which in all cases shall be confined to the smallest area compatible with proper care and management of the objects to be protected. Further, when such objects are situated upon a tract covered by a bonafide unperfected claim or held in private ownership, the tract, or so much thereof as may be necessary for the proper care and management of the object, may be relinquished to the Government.

  • The Secretaries of the Interior, Agriculture and War were responsible for issuing permits for the examination of ruins, excavation of archaeological sites and the gathering of objects of antiquity found on lands under their respective jurisdictions. It was up the three departments to determine which institutions were properly qualified to conduct such examinations, excavations and gathering of objects. These activities were to be limited to reputable museums, universities and other recognized scientific or educational institutions for the purpose of increasing knowledge and any objects gathered were to be for the purpose of their permanent preservation in public museums.

Efforts Prior to 1906 Led to Montezuma Castle Becoming One of First National Monuments

Even before the passage of the Antiquities Act, those seeking to preserve and protect Montezuma Castle had managed to get the Federal Government, which owned the land on which the Castle sat, to begin limiting access and preventing the removal of artifacts.

Being only a territory at the time, Arizona had little clout in Washington. However, interested private citizens in Arizona and around the nation lobbied to have Montezuma Castle protected.

With the passage of the Antiquities Act, these efforts increased and, on August 24, 1906 a draft proclamation creating the Montezuma National Monument was forwarded by the Secretary of the Interior to the President.

A few months later, on December 8, 2006, President Theodore Roosevelt signed and formally issued the proclamation designating Montezuma Castle a National Monument.

Stone utensil used by Sinagua to grind corn.
Stone utensil used by Sinagua to grind corn. | Source

Montezuma Castle has the distinction of being the first historic ruin to be designated as a National Monument.

It also has the distinction one of the first three National Monuments created, as President Roosevelt issued two other proclamations that day, one designating a rock formation in New Mexico containing pre-Columbian petroglyphs and inscriptions by Spanish explorers and known as El Morro, as well as a proclamation designating the Petrified Forest in Arizona as national monuments.

These three, all created on December 8,1906, were the first national monuments to be created under the Antiquities Act.

Viewing the Interior of Montezuma Castle

Since it became a National Monument in 1906, Montezuma Castle has inspired increasing interest among both tourists and scientists.

Until 1951, the monument's managers guided tourists who were willing to climb up the cliff on ladders around the alcove and through the interior of the castle.

However, with the opening of Interstate 17 in 1951, tourist visits to Montezuma Castle began to surge and officials became worried that the Castle could not withstand the pressure of thousands of people walking through it each year. Since 1951 access to the Castle itself has been limited to researchers.

To allow people to see what the interior of the Castle looks like, a diorama was constructed on the trail along the path below the Castle. Here visitors can view a replica, complete with furnishings and residents, in miniature.

Life Inside Montezuma Castle

Diorama showing life inside Montezuma Castle.
Diorama showing life inside Montezuma Castle. | Source

Preserving Our Heritage

Each year thousands of people from all over the world visit and view the castle.

In managing Montezuma National Monument, the National Park Service has struck a good balance in making it easily accessible to tourists wishing to see it and allowing scientists to continue probing its past while, at the same time, preserving this impressive structure from our past for future generations to see and appreciate.

Phoenix, AZ:
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Montezuma Castle National Monument:
Montezuma Castle National Monument, Coconino National Forest, Camp Verde, AZ, USA

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Questions & Answers

    © 2014 Chuck Nugent


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      • Chuck profile imageAUTHOR

        Chuck Nugent 

        5 years ago from Tucson, Arizona

        RonHawk - thanks for visiting and glad you enjoyed the pictures. Montezuma Castle is a great location for taking pictures.

      • Chuck profile imageAUTHOR

        Chuck Nugent 

        5 years ago from Tucson, Arizona

        misirupp - thanks for your comments. One of these days I plan to visit Mesa Verde National Park and see those ruins. I have seen some pictures of Mesa Verde and it looks like an interesting place.

      • Chuck profile imageAUTHOR

        Chuck Nugent 

        5 years ago from Tucson, Arizona

        lions44 - I'm glad you enjoyed the Hub and your earlier visit to Montezuma Castle. Thanks for your comment and for voting it up.

      • Chuck profile imageAUTHOR

        Chuck Nugent 

        5 years ago from Tucson, Arizona

        DreamerMeg - thanks for visiting and commenting on my Hub. The location of the castle is beautiful but I agree that living there would be like living in a small cave.

      • RonHawk profile image

        Ron Hawkins 

        5 years ago from California, United States

        Good, informative hub with lots of fascinating pictures. Great job, my friend.

      • profile image


        5 years ago

        Voted up. Like ecoggins, it reminded me of Mesa Verde National Park.

      • lions44 profile image

        CJ Kelly 

        5 years ago from PNW

        This brought back great memories of visiting this place when I was a child. I could not remember where it was. Much appreciated. Voted up and shared.

      • DreamerMeg profile image


        5 years ago from Northern Ireland

        Interesting hub, I would love to visit that site. I think I would like living in a cave fitted into the hillside!

      • Chuck profile imageAUTHOR

        Chuck Nugent 

        6 years ago from Tucson, Arizona

        old albion - thanks for voting up my Hub and for your comments. My wife and I enjoyed our visit to Montezuma Castle and I enjoyed digging up and researching more about it for this Hub. I was especially intrigued with the trade with other areas that the Sinagua were involved with. It appeared to be more extensive and geographically more far flung than I was previously aware and am considering more research into that area and a future Hub on this trade.

      • Chuck profile imageAUTHOR

        Chuck Nugent 

        6 years ago from Tucson, Arizona

        girlpower - thank you for your comments. Glad you enjoyed this Hub.

      • Chuck profile imageAUTHOR

        Chuck Nugent 

        6 years ago from Tucson, Arizona

        ecoggins - glad you enjoyed the Hub. One of these days my wife and I want to visit Mesa Verde in Colorado.

      • old albion profile image

        Graham Lee 

        6 years ago from Lancashire. England.

        Hi Chuck. Brilliant. Your research and effort in producing this hub are admirable. I found it interesting in every way. Your photographs added so much.

        voted up and all.


      • profile image


        6 years ago

        What a great hub, i will post it on my blogs, what a great piece of history you have gathered. Very interesting, good writing

      • ecoggins profile image


        6 years ago from Corona, California

        This is a fabulous hub. It is extremely interesting. My family was fascinated during our visit to Mesa Verde in Colorado where they have similar dwellings.


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