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The Aztecs and Montezuma Castle

ruins of Montezuma castle

The magnificence, majesty and mystery of Montezuma Castle

(1st edition - October 2005) by A.O. Kime
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Montezuma Castle is an imposing and majestic cliff dwelling in central Arizona dating back to the 12th century. Although some call it an ‘ancient high-rise apartment building’ due to its height (five stories) and 20 rooms, that is misleading because it implies times were peaceful, on the contrary… it was more a fortress to fend off attacks. Although it was abandoned in the 15th century, its majesty seems to have remained. So regal, so stately, so proudly standing erect... seemingly a silent proclamation from the Middle Ages about its 800 year-old claim. Haughty, confident, yet enveloped with poignancy too it seems, nestled protectively, the desert breeze whispering... I am Aztec, I am Aztec.

Except for Mexico, the land of the infamous yet mysterious Aztecs and Mayans, the southwestern United States has more ancient history than anyplace else in North America. For more than eleven thousand years, perhaps much longer, people have dwelled in the Southwest. The ruins of their villages are everywhere and some structures are still standing. Arrowheads, mattes, pottery, stone tools and other such indian artifacts are strewn across millions of square miles. In 1869, along with some military officers inspecting the ruins in the area, an observer wrote: "this country was once as densely populated as any of the eastern States of the Union now are."

It was estimated by the Amerind Foundation that there were once more indians living in Cochise County, Arizona than the county's 1970 population of 60,000. In Tonto Basin (Arizona), archaeologists have logged over 8,000 sites, while believing they still only counted perhaps half. In the San Juan Basin of New Mexico, over 10,000 sites were discovered including the magnificent Pueblo Bonita in Chaco Canyon. While in the process of plowing most any farm in southeastern Arizona, mattes are continually being uplifted and exposed.

At ground level 100 feet below Montezuma Castle, there once existed another high-rise thought to have been a six story structure with 45 rooms. The elements consumed it over the centuries however, and perhaps a fire, only the base of the walls remains today. In addition, seven miles northeast is ‘Montezuma well’… which actually is a spring at the bottom of an immense limestone sinkhole. At the bottom is a 50 feet deep crystal-clear pond 350 feet across flowing a million-plus gallons daily.

The misunderstandings over Montezuma Castle

Due to a literal interpretation, it has been mistakenly reasoned by many people that since Montezuma couldn't possibly have built this cliff dwelling, having been built centuries before, whoever named it did so in error. Not so, it was not meant to imply Montezuma built it, or built during his reign, he is merely a symbol of the Aztec people. At the time, Montezuma (Moctezuma II) was the name most associated with the Aztecs due to the fact he was the emperor when Hernán Cortés arrived in Mexico in 1519. Montezuma was also noted for his naïveté which lead to the defeat of the Aztec Empire in 1521. After having been held in captivity by the Spanish a short while, Montezuma was killed in June of 1520. The Spanish in the 1700s knew of his death and so too the Americans in the 1800s... yet, independently, they both were calling dwellings and pueblos in Arizona either Montezuma castle, house of Montezuma, palace of Montezuma or "some Montezuma town". It was simply a case of naming places after a famous person known to be associated with it... the naming of mines after King Solomon in Biblical times is an example. Therefore, in calling it Montezuma Castle does not imply they thought it was built after the fall of the Aztec Empire in Mexico. Actually, the mighty question once was, and still should be... did the Aztecs build it sometime before their demise? Chronologically however, this means 2-3 centuries before the Aztecs became the dominate force in Mexico (late 1300s to 1521). So, were the Aztecs a cohesive civilization in Arizona during the 12th century?

While archaeologists say it was the Sinagua indians who abandoned Montezuma Castle in the 1400s, the last to occupy it, uncertainty and confusion still exists as to which culture actually built it. Science has stated there were five pre-Columbian civilizations in the Southwest… the Anasazi, Hohokam, Sinagua, Salado and the Mogollon. Of these, some believe the Hohokam built it while others credit the Anasazi and/or the Sinagua (which some archaeologists consider ‘Western Anasazi’). Virtually nothing is known about any of them however, but for good reason.... these are only 'given' names to represent a people otherwise unknown. This is done based on the differences in the artifacts found (cultural differences). It is a common practice... similarly the 'Clovis people', likewise a representational name, are often said to have existed at any location where large spear points are found. Aside from the Clovis, the Anasazi are considered the oldest of these mythical civilizations (if not to consider the growing belief in pre-Clovis peoples).

While there is value to labeling, the use of representational names, some given names are misleading and reminiscent of Greek mythology. Some are not misleading though, for example, 'Clovis' is clearly not an 'indian-sounding' name nor are 'Basketmaker II', 'Pueblo IV', or 'Archaic people'. Any novice would know they are representational. On the other hand, names such as Anasazi, Hohokam, Sinagua, Salado and the Mogollon are 'indian-sounding' and give the impression they were actual tribes (or civilizations). It implies fact rather than conjecture and creates, in effect, make-believe history. The public would be better served if 'fabled' accompanied their use... such as the 'fabled Sinagua'. Three of these five names, the Anasazi, Hohokam and the Mogollon, while essentially the same culturally, were created to represent effectively the same people but which occupied three different regions.

The first Europeans arrive

The first Europeans to see Montezuma Castle (Spanish) may have occurred as early as 1583 when 15 men lead by Antonio de Espejo set out from Chihuahua, Mexico to rescue two friars in New Mexico. On their return trip, they ventured into the Verde Valley on their way to locate a mine some Hopis had told them about. The mine was supposedly in the vicinity of what is now Jerome, Arizona.

In what scholars believe describes the Verde Valley, Montezuma’s well and a nearby abandoned pueblo, the chronicler of the expedition, Diego Pérez de Luxán wrote:

"This river we named El Río de las Parras. We found a ranchería belonging to mountain people who fled from us as we could see by the tracks. We saw plants of natural flax similar to that of Spain and numerous prickly pears. We left this place on the seventh of the month and after marching six leagues we reached a cienaguilla which flows into a small water ditch and we came to an abandoned pueblo."

Antonio de Espejo later wrote:

"The region where these mines are is for the most part mountainous, as is also the road leading to them. There are some pueblos of mountain Indians, who came forth to receive us in some places, with small crosses on their heads. They gave us some of their food and I presented them with some gifts. Where the mines are located the country is good, having rivers, marshes, and forests; on the banks of the river are many Castillian grapes, walnuts, flax, blackberries, maguey plants, and prickly pears. The Indians of that region plant fields of maize, and have good houses. They told us by signs that behind these mountains at a distance we were unable to understand clearly, flowed a very large river.”

Again in 1598, an expedition of eight men plus their Hopi guides was led by Marcos Farfán de los Godos into the general area. Their purpose was to reassess the mine in Jerome which the 1583 expedition wasn’t particularly impressed with. However Farfán’s expedition found instead rich veins of ore within the mine and staked out several claims. While the accounts of their trip seemingly described the Verde Valley, there was no mention of any prehistoric ruins.

Then again in 1604, Don Juan de Oñate, earlier commissioned to conquer and create settlements in New Mexico (who had earlier ordered Farfán on the 1598 expedition), ventured himself into the Verde Valley but made no mention of any prehistoric ruins either. Following these three Spanish expeditions into the Verde Valley, there is no known record of any Europeans having been there until two hundred years later.

While the king of Spain approved the establishment of missions in the area in 1726, continual attacks by the Apaches prevented it… therefore no further expeditions were made and the nearest Spanish outposts (Catholic missions) were destined to remain in Southern Arizona, New Mexico and California.

The first Americans arrive

Fur trappers in the early 1800s were the first Americans to enter the area and a few accounts suggest they worked the Verde River and nearby Beaver Creek. In 1826 and again in 1829 groups of trappers led by James Ohio Pattie and Ewing Young were in the general area but they made no mention of any prehistoric ruins. The '29 group was comprised of 40 men which included the legendary kit Carson.

After the Spanish, the earliest to mention the ruins was Lieutenant A. W. Whipple during his 1853-54 survey for a railroad route to California. Antoine Leroux, a guide for the survey party wrote:

“We were struck by the beauty of some ruins, very likely those of some Indian town, and being in the centre of an open valley. The walls of the principal building, forming a long square, are in some places twenty feet high and three feet thick, and have in many places loop-holes like those of a fortress. The walls were as regularly built as those of any building erected by civilized nations; to judge by the decay of the stones, these ruins might be several centuries old, (maybe those of some Montezuma town). Heaps of broken petrified vessels are strewn in all directions. Near camp are the ruins of another Indian village. Those ruins show that this country was once under cultivation; who were its inhabitants, and what became of them, is hard to tell. . . . The district passed over is mostly covered with old ruins.”

Lieutenant Whipple added this:

"The river banks were covered with ruins of stone houses and regular fortifications; . . . From his (Leroux's) description, the style of the building seems to be similar to chichiticales, or red house, above the Pimas, rather than like the Indian towns of New Mexico. In other respects, however, Leroux says that they reminded him of the great pueblos of the Moquinos. The large stones of which those structures were built, were often transported from a great distance. At another place he saw a well-built town and fortification about eight or ten miles from the nearest water. He believes that, since they were built, the conformation of the country has been changed, so as to convert springs and a fertile soil into a dry and barren waste. . . . This conforms to the Indian traditions of the Montezuma era, attributing to the high mesas an arable soil; and also partially accounts for the desertion of some of the more recent pueblos of New Mexico."

portrait of Montezuma

In 1864, the large spring seven miles from Montezuma Castle was first called ‘Montezuma well’ by King S. Woolsey during his second expedition against a band of troublemaking Apaches, he chronicled:

“We arrived at the Verde on the third day, nothing of note happening, except the discovery of a small lake, or more properly speaking, an immense spring, some two hundred yards in breadth, of circular form. The water was clear, and as blue as the sea. It was very deep, and on one side there flowed out a stream sufficiently large for two sluice heads. This spring is surrounded on three sides by high bluffs, and in these bluffs were caves either natural or cut out, which were walled up in front, with door ways and passages from one room to another. They were probably built by the Aztecs. We gave the name of Montezuma to the well. In the afternoon of the 16th we struck out from the Rio Verde, to Woolsey's Ranch on the Agua Fria, the knawing of hunger urging us to a quick pace.”

Public awareness of the Aztecs in the 1800s

The best-selling book Conquest of Mexico written by historian Walter Hickling Prescott in 1843 added to the public awareness of the Aztecs. Prescott, after whom the first capital of Arizona was named, dwelled heavily on the Aztecs in his book. Interestingly he wrote "The Aztec character was perfectly original and unique. It was made up of incongruities apparently irreconcilable . . . the extremes of barbarism and refinement". Of Montezuma’s “hard fate” Prescott uncharacteristically admitted, is "wholly indebted for his portraiture to the pencil of his enemies".

Three years later was the United States' 1846 war with Mexico. The returning veterans, having seen the ancient Mayan monuments, plus whatever Aztec structures were left standing following the destructive rampage by the victorious Spanish in 1521, further enlightened the American public. So about the Aztecs, the 19th century was, therefore, typically well-informed. While Prescott was of the opinion the Aztecs were the pueblo builders of the Southwest, an opinion he shared with the Spanish, it wasn't because he was fond of Montezuma or the Aztecs:

“How can a nation, where human sacrifices prevail, and especially when combined with cannibalism, further the march of civilization? . . . The heart was hardened, the manners were made ferocious, the feeble light of civilization, transmitted from a milder race, was growing fainter and fainter, as thousands and thousands of miserable victims, throughout the empire, were yearly fattened in its cages, sacrificed on its altars, dressed and served at its banquets! The whole land was converted into a vast human shambles! The empire of the Aztecs did not fall before its time.” Walter Hickling Prescott (1796-1859)

However many historians believe much said about the Aztecs by their Spanish conquerors was highly exaggerated... or untrue. There are doubts the Aztecs practiced cannibalism and doubts Montezuma was stoned to death by his own people as his jailers claim. While the Aztecs were later ‘officially’ discounted by archaeologists as the pueblo builders of the Southwest, there is a high probability politics entered into it. Naming places associated with Montezuma was creating a controversy and the following passage gives a sense of the prevailing tone.

“In the 11 May 1864 edition of the Arizona Miner, an editorial written by a chief justice from El Paso exemplified the widespread acceptance of Prescott's theory of the Aztec's southwestern origins. The author recommended that the capital of the Territory of Arizona be named Aztlán in memory of the ancient Aztec empire that, he claimed, occupied the present location of the territory. His suggestion, however, was not accepted. Yet when New Englanders arrived to establish the new government of the Territory of Arizona in 1864, territorial officials platted a capital town that they named Prescott, "an appropriate commemoration of the great American authority upon Aztec and Spanish-American history." The officials stuck with this theme when they named the main streets of the new town Cortez and Montezuma. Nearby, miners in the Agua Fria River Valley called their gold camp Montezuma City, and soon other miners gave the name to ruins to the east. By the late 1880s, however, historian H. H. Bancroft wrote in an infuriated tone that the haphazard misnaming of places in Arizona should be discontinued because evidence indicated that the prehistoric peoples of the Southwest were not the ancestors of the Aztecs. Bancroft attributed the origins of the Montezuma myth to the Spanish but noted that his and others' research dispelled this myth by pointing to the cultural differences between the Aztecs and the Pueblo communities.” (From the book A Past Preserved in Stone: A History of Montezuma Castle National Monument by Josh Protas)

Comparing cultural differences to determine ancestry is more an art than a science however and is highly prone to error. A lot of differences can pile up after a few generations… especially when distanced in a faraway land with different resources. The works of a single creative individual within a tribe can skew an analysis. In fact, there could be hundreds, if not thousands, of unknown contributing factors which, if known, could unravel an assessment.

Who were these ancient pueblo builders anyway?

So… did the pueblo builders consider themselves Aztecs or not? After all, their name should not be determined by what outsiders call them, but what they called themselves. Well, unfortunately they left no calling cards, no name on a mailbox, but the institutional habit of titling an unknown people spreads misinformation… especially if it is possible they essentially belong to another tribe. So what does ‘essentially’ entail? Does that mean they essentially haven’t been an independent tribe long enough? Less than 100 years? 500? 1,000? Or can you call a tribe by another name which split the scene the week before? When does one become an Aztec or cease to be one?

In this, there are no clear-cut answers because purity is a relative matter determined by a given number of interbreeding generations. After ten thousand years, every tribe in the Americas would have crossbred… mixed blood would have been fairly common. Pureblood, therefore, is a futile pursuit... only a distinct cohesiveness group is identifiable. Today however, in trying to be overly specific, archaeologists have created confusion over who built Montezuma Castle. As a result, some think the Sinagua did, others think the Hohokam did, others think Anasazi, except, of course… tribes by those names never existed. Rather than archaeology inventing tribes, without proof it should be said Mesoamericans (or other general characterization) was who built Montezuma Castle. Some evidence exists, however, that the pueblo builders of the Southwest was a distinct cohesive group who called themselves Aztecs.

In reference to those indian tribes still remaining in the southwest in the 1600-1700s, about two dozen, the Spanish just called them all 'Pueblo Indians' regardless of any language differences. Several were Uto-Aztecan languages, the same as Nahuatl, the Aztec language. While ‘Pueblo Indians’ might seem an overly broad characterization, it nonetheless is appropriate in lieu of correct titles. The archaeological creation of names such as ‘Hohokam’ and ‘Sinagua’ is actually a social and intellectual insult to American Indians and Anglos alike. It is similar to the Russian practice of changing the names of their cities or the re-naming of a conquered enemy. These so-called 'civilizations' may have only been a few generations removed from a known tribe and, as said, these are not the names these people used.

In Spanish, the name Sinagua means ‘without water’, Salado means 'salty'... named after the Salt River (Rio Salado in Spanish), Anasazi means 'the ancient ones', Hohokam means either ‘ancient ones', 'departed ones’ or 'those who have gone' and Mogollon is in reference to the Mogollon Rim, a central Arizona mountain range which the Spanish named after Juan Ignacio Flores Mogollon, a colonial governor. These are hardly names a tribe would pick for themselves. Having been a victim of this trend, the 'Papago Indians' of central Arizona have recently gotten people to start calling them what they call themselves… the ‘Tohono O'odham’ (pronounced Tóno-oōhtam). Now that’s the way it ought to be done… let the American Indians decide who they are.

With the Navahos and Hopis trekking to Montezuma well for rituals periodically, which includes taking its water back to their reservations, and with some tribes having traced their roots to Chaco Canyon, plus an unknown number of other interrelationships the American Indians have surely established, there is a high probability all southwestern indians are related, however distant. Nonetheless, for scientific purposes, early archaeologists understandably wanted to 'group' people, but so did the indians, and they had already done so... their tribal names they would have shared with anyone who asked. They would have shared their history too. In lieu of proof who a particular people might have occupied an abandoned indian village, its ruins, just referring to them by a single name, like the Spanish did, seems sufficient and eliminates the false impressions, and false history, which hole-plugging titles create. Hole-plugging titles in order to create history is wrong and it likely wouldn't have been necessary if the indians were routinely consulted. Indians have largely been left out of the information gathering process. Having ignored American Indian Genealogy (external website) completely, archaeologists have created for themselves a pseudoscience.

Of course there is little educational value in using an overly broad characterization… the extreme being “people built it”. While this would be useless information, curiosity and the scholar within us demanding more, but to be overly specific, to reach too far, is highly prone to error and often becomes misinformation. On the middle road one shan't lose sight of prudence. For those who relish in pseudoscience, the Aztec, Olmec, Zapotec, Teotihuacan, Maya, Mixtec, Huastec, Totonac, Toltec and the Tarascan are considered major Mesoamerican civilizations.

The politics behind the naming of tribes

With the Aztecs being strongly associated with Mexico for centuries, deeply ingrained in its history, it is doubtful the U.S. Department of Interior would be happy to hear the Aztecs were once in the American Southwest. More accurately, they wouldn't want anyone else to hear about it, especially the Aztecs, a possible shuffling around of the indian reservations they'd think. It would also be an unwanted territorial tie with Mexico... however symbolic. If the Aztecs did ever return in mass, although highly doubtful, the state governments in Arizona and New Mexico wouldn't like it, the Christian religions wouldn't like it and in fear of Montezuma's revenge, the Apaches wouldn't like it. Such talk of the Aztecs would have been more-so troublesome in the 1800s however... to the world it would have made harder to justify Manifest Destiny. A lot of special interests, it seems, would like to keep the Aztecs out of the picture. Who knows, maybe some acknowledgements would pacify the Aztec gods... otherwise scheming to shift Manifest Destiny into reverse.

While the mythical builders of the Southwest weren’t contrived until much later, not until the mid 20th century, one should wonder if this was for political reasons as well. In light of all the 'Hohokam' ruins uncovered in the metro Phoenix and Casa Grande areas, if not for 'Hohokam', this would have created an indian-relations nightmare for the city fathers and local developers. Lucky for them the Hohokam disappeared without a trace.

In a position to know and the Aztec exodus

In order to separate fact from fiction, one must first understand the idea the Aztecs were the pueblo builders of the Southwest originated with the Spanish. Nearly a century before the Americans came, a 1762 Catholic account entitled 'Rudo Ensayo' refers to the Casa Grande ruins as the “house of Montezuma". Casa Grande is about 140 miles south of Montezuma Castle between Phoenix and Tucson. With the nearby San Xavier del Bac Mission having been in Tucson since 1699... the Spanish were in a position to know the truth of the matter. In that same Catholic report, purportedly the author thought "the Aztecs had built it while on a sojourn before their travels ultimately took them to the Valley of Mexico". If this was the prevailing Spanish belief some 240 years ago, they surely had solid reasons for this belief. If anything, in light of the Catholic hatred for the Aztec culture, it's a wonder the Spaniards mentioned Montezuma at all. Later, in 1775, Franciscan friar Pedro Font called Casa Grande the "palace of Montezuma.".

There seems to be even more evidence the Aztec were the pueblo builders... virtually every indian settlement in Arizona was abandoned between 1350 and 1450 and this coincides exactly with when the Aztecs came to power in Mexico (late 14th century). Furthermore, although it is only legend, the word 'Aztec' means "someone who comes from Aztlán". Unfortunately no one knows where Aztlán is located and legend has it as only 'an unknown location north of Mexico'. Arizona and New Mexico are, of course, north of Mexico. While admittedly there is a lack of solid evidence, nonetheless it seems only logical that due to the increased frequencies of droughts archaeologists say these indians were experiencing, increasingly prolonged, and quite possibly due to the rigors of continually warring with the Yavapai and Apaches (real tribes), a mass exodus to Mexico surely occurred. A mass exodus to Mexico explains the abandonment of villages and the complete disappearances of these southwestern peoples.

Archaeologists would be quick to discount this theory however... too many differences in tool-making, art and building techniques they'd say. It would be the same thing they have been saying for 150 years. That story has found its way into the history books and is now etched in stone it seems. While perhaps hundreds of books have been written about this subject, scholarly books, books far exceeding the intellectual level of this article, nonetheless this exodus theory, which almost certainly must have been put forth in some of these books, obviously has not yet flown. In that this exodus theory has not yet flown should be curious... if is far more an affront to reason to claim whole civilizations are able to completely disappear. It is archaeological mythology for children.

The mass exodus could have been preceded by smaller groups to first survey and then begin establishing themselves. It may have taken several decades before this 'forward base' was able to accommodate a large influx of people. In the meantime, the 'forward base' people were adapting their methods to fit their new environment. Local artisans surely influenced and further educated these already experienced builders. For a civilization to quickly modernize and suddenly get creative is nothing new. The ancient Greeks did it... so did the Persians, Egyptians and Japanese.

According to legend, although legends can easily be twisted, this is the common theme from all the variations ... when the Aztecs arrived in the Anahuac Valley (Mexico), having come from the north (Aztlán), they were effectively considered 'uncivilized' in the opinion of the indigenous peoples. One version has it that the Aztecs "wanted to learn", especially from the highly advanced Toltecs who were considered the "originators of culture". The Aztec arrival dates mentioned were the 1200s to the mid 1300s. There was more to the legend but these were the important points for this article. History can testify to one point certainly... that the Aztecs did learn, learned well, and rapidly catapulted themselves into being the most advanced civilization in the Americas.

It is time to quit telling our children that civilizations can vanish into thin air.

A.O. Kime

“Many, very many, all too many ways lead to Rome. Idleness leads there; for Rome saves the trouble of independent thought. Dissoluteness leads there, for it impairs moral vigor. Conservatism, foolish conservatism, leads there, in the hope that the conservatism of the oldest abuse will be a shield for all abuses. Sensualism leads there, for it delights in parade and magnificent forms. Materialism leads there, for the superstitious can adore an image and think to become purified by bodily torments, hair shirts, and fastings, turning all religion into acts of the physical organs.” Walter Hickling Prescott (1796-1859)

Last modified: 03/04/16