Verde Canyon Echoes

Can You Hear the Ancient Echoes of the Verde Canyon?

“The country between the Verde Valley, north to Oak Creek and Flagstaff, is wild and mountainous…from its highest point travelers can see stretching far to the west an area seldom designated on maps, but known for the color of its cliffs, and the history of its people. Although now uninhabited it was once the site of a considerable population, which has left ruins of uncommon size in its rugged canyons.”
–Archaeologist Jesse Walter Fewkes, 1895

Through the ages, the deep and remote canyons of the Southwest’s backcountry have drawn so many nearer to nature. In particular, the untamed multicolored cliffs, canyons and wildflowers of the Verde Canyon, in their full spectrum of seasonal abundance, left an everlasting impression on ancient cultures.

Still, today, the canyon’s vibrantly diverse landscape, pristine chasms enveloping the clear, clean waters of the Verde, sun-burnt plains alive with Indian lore, verdant valleys, and the everlasting expanse of blue sky continue to leave a memorable impression with Verde Canyon Railroad passengers.

In this region there were at least five groups of prehistoric peoples. Nobody knows what they called themselves, but we called them Hohokam, Anasazi, Sinagua, Mogollon, and Salado. Archeologists regard the Verde Valley as an aboriginal melting pot where at least four prehistoric cultures intermingled. Montezuma Castle National Monument preserves the remains of at least two of the cultures that once flourished here.

The first permanent settlers in the valley were the Hohokam–a Pima word for “all used up.” These resourceful farmers arrived in the area around 600 AD and lived in one-room houses made of poles, sticks and mud. They irrigated their crops of corn, beans and squash with spring-fed water that came from fissures in limestone rocks, Beaver Creek, and the sinkhole we now call Montezuma Well. A semi-subterranean dwelling near the Well is the only typical Hohokam house on display in the National Park Service system.

In the Grand Canyon area the predominant tribe was the Anasazi. Around Flagstaff the largest tribe was the Sinagua. Unlike the Hohokam, who did amazing engineering of irrigation canals, the Sinagua farmed with almost no water, as the name “sin agua” (Spanish for “without water”) indicates.

In 1065 AD, the Verde Valley, near what is now Sedona, was populated with Hohokam. At this time, a volcano, now known as Sunset Crater near the San Francisco Peaks, erupted. The falling ash fertilized the surrounding area and made it particularly good for crops. Many of the Hohokam moved to the area, displacing the Sinagua, who then moved into the Verde Valley. About 1150 AD, the Sinagua started building their pueblos in the valley. The Sinagua stayed in the Verde Valley until the early 1400s and then disappeared into history -nobody knows why.

The Sinagua lived in the nearby foothills and the plateau beyond the Verde Valley. Like the Anasazi, they were pit house dwellers and dry farmers, who depended on rain for their crops. By 1125 AD, they began to build above ground masonry structures and large pueblos on hilltops or alcoves of cliffs.

Tuzigoot, located just one mile from the Verde Canyon Railroad, is an entire village centered on a pueblo two stories high built on a hill, one hundred and twenty feet above the Verde River. The foundation was built solely out of rock cemented with three to four inches of mortar. Walls were rarely tied to one another and while the ceilings are now gone, entry to rooms was via the ceiling and ladders. There were 77 ground floor rooms in the pueblo. Found at the site were axes, bowls, grinding stones, baskets, and jewelry. Non-native items such as parrot feathers and seashells indicate that Tuzigoot’s location made it a lively, ancient trade center.

Recovered artifacts indicate that the Sinagua believed there are six directions, each ruled over by an animal. Up is ruled by the soaring eagle, down is ruled by the tunneling mole. North is the territory of the fearless mountain lion, south belongs to the diligent badger. East is the province of the wily wolf, and west is the direction of the mighty bear. Travel plans would require supplication to the right animal. The eagle rarely got anything out of this.

Life at Tuzigoot was hard for the Sinagua. Almost half of the bodies found buried at the site were under nine years of age. Of those that lived past their ninth birthday, 24% died before they reached age and only 4% were past the age of forty-five.

Activity for the Sinagua people centered on farming, weaving cotton textiles and making functional, non-decorated pottery. Situated at a crossroads between northern plateaus and southern deserts, this was an ideal location for trade. Discovered here is evidence of shell from the gulf of California, as well as Zuni artifacts and Mexican Macaws.

Montezuma Castle, just 20 miles from the Railroad off of Interstate 17, actually got its name from an inaccurate first guess made by explorers thinking the Aztecs had built it.

Sometime after 1125 AD, the Sinagua began building the five-story, 20-room “castle,” which stands in a cliff recess 100 feet above the valley floor. It was so well constructed that it has withstood vandalism and the elements for more than 600 years and remains one of the best preserved prehistoric structures in the deserts of the American Southwest. Nobody is quite sure why they built into the cliff. Perhaps it was more defensible; perhaps it just gave a good view. The adjacent creek, with its natural source of fresh water, was an added inducement.

Montezuma Well is actually a limestone sinkhole formed by the collapse of an immense underground cavern. Over one and one half million gallons of water a day flow continuously, providing a lush oasis in the midst of the surrounding desert. You can climb down into the sinkhole (not the water) and see the caves. The outlet of the springs can also be seen.

The prehistoric population in this region peaked in the 1300s and remained stable for another century. Suddenly, and mysteriously, in the early 1400s, the Sinagua abandoned the Verde Valley, never to return.

Today, over 100,000 visitors explore the history that has been unearthed at these two sites. High above the rails, looming over the Verde River and the Verde Canyon Railroad tracks are visible Sinagua cliff dwellings. The ancient walls built to trap game are still visible to passengers as the train passes. They remind us of a time gone by, and encourage us to imagine the canyon walls echoing with the laughter and the industrious lives of those ancient people. The same features that enchant train passengers today drew these people to this canyon, creating a bond that spans the generations.

Portions of story courtesy of Mark R. Leeper