Montezuma Castle is an ancient abode structure located in the Verde Valley in central Arizona. Thanks to its colorful name, the five-story, 20-room building sheltered high in a limestone cliff is sometimes thought to be the former home of the Aztec emperor, Montezuma. Scholars have proven, however, that the early white settlers who assumed the structure was built by the Aztecs were mistaken. In truth, Montezuma likely never stepped foot in Arizona, and Montezuma Castle was built by cliff-dwelling Sinagua Indians.
The Sinagua—peaceful, pre-Colombian Native Americans—were hunter gatherers and farmers who grew mainly corn, squash and beans. Their exact origin is unclear.
Recovered Sinagua artifacts have shown they were simple people yet gifted craftsmen who used their natural resources to create practical tools and ornamental items. They were also master spinners and weavers who fashioned intricate designs made of cotton they grew themselves.
Many artifacts recovered at Montezuma Castle weren’t native to the area. In fact, the Sinagua were master traders and bartered for items hundreds of miles away. Montezuma Castle was a thriving commercial center and traded a variety of goods and ideas.
No one knows why the Sinagua left Montezuma Castle and its surrounding area. But by 1425 A.D., they were gone.
Some archaeologists think they left because overpopulation depleted the local resources. Others believe the high arsenic content in their water supply led them to depart.
Whatever the reason, most Sinagua (the name is Spanish for “without water”) eventually settled elsewhere, leaving the area free to be inhabited by other Native American tribes such as the Hopi and also early white settlers.
How the Sinagua Built Montezuma Castle
It’s estimated that the Sinagua built Montezuma Castle somewhere between 1100 and 1350 A.D. They erected the structure about one-third the way up a 150-foot limestone cliff high above Beaver Creek.
The dwelling’s walls were made from limestone and mud mortar. Large beams covered by smaller beams were used to frame the roof, which was then covered with thatch and mud.
Stone axes were used to harvest the trees (usually sycamore, alder or ash) used to make the larger beams. The axes could reportedly drop an average-sized tree in 15 minutes.
The walls of Montezuma Castle were two feet thick at the bottom and narrowed to one foot thick at the top. The ceilings were six-feet high and the T-shaped doors five feet. The doors were kept low and small to preserve heat in the room.
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The Sinagua used Montezuma Castle not just as their home but as a community center where they held community meetings, worked, stored crops and seeds and even buried dead family members, most of who didn’t live past their life expectancy of 40 years.
Montezuma Well is located about six miles upstream from Montezuma Castle. It’s a massive limestone sinkhole caused by a sunken cavern. The well is 55 feet deep and 368 feet wide. Underground natural springs constantly pump over 1.5 million gallons of warm water (74 degrees) into the well each day.
Ancient dwellings surround the well as well as an ancient irrigation ditch, parts of which are at least 1,000 years old. The Sinagua used the ditch to reroute water to their crops. The ditch was later used by early white settlers and is still used today by residents of the Verde Valley.
Montezuma Well supports a thriving ecosystem which includes a handful of unique species. The well may be best known, however, for its population of Sonoran mud turtles. The medium-sized, water-dwelling turtles are thought to be native to the well.
When the population of Sonoran mud turtles began to decline due to the introduction of non-native turtle species, the National Park Service intervened and methodically removed the non-native invaders.
Montezuma Castle Restoration
Montezuma Castle is still standing thanks to its low humidity and an alcove which protects it from the elements. But by the late 1800s, looters, curiosity-seekers and amateur archaeologists had ransacked it, leaving it in danger of crumpling. In 1897, the Arizona Antiquarian Association fortified the structure and repaired as much damage as possible.
In 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt declared Montezuma Castle, Montezuma Well and its surrounding 840 acres one of America’s first National Monuments, guaranteeing its ongoing protection.
At first, tourists could tour the abode by climbing ladders up the side of limestone cliffs. But this direct contact left it in disrepair and public access ended in 1951.
Preserving Montezuma Castle is no easy task. The first restoration effort took place in 1933 to repair damage caused by looters. Other efforts to stabilize the structure have taken place every decade or so since. A major restoration occurred in the mid-1990s after a carpenter bee infestation bore holes into the adobe plaster.
To ensure authenticity, preservationists strive to complete renovations in the Sinagua tradition using local materials and often performing repairs by hand.
Weather, insects, flooding and rot constantly threaten the centuries-old Montezuma Castle. The National Park Service continues to monitor it closely and regularly takes proactive measures to preserve this national treasure for the more than 350,000 tourists who visit it each year.
Inside Montezuma Castle: Preservation. National Park Service.
Montezuma Castle. National Geographic Society.
Montezuma Castle: History and Overview. National Park Service.
Montezuma Well Overview. American Southwest Virtual Museum.
Preservation: Montezuma Castle. American Southwest Virtual Museum.
Sinagua Pueblo Life. National Park Service.
Sonoran Mud Turtles. American Southwest Virtual Museum.
The Sinagua People at Montezuma Castle. Mesa Community College.
Visiting Montezuma Well. National Park Service.