For more than 300 years from A.D. 1100 to A.D. 1400 Montezuma Castle was home for about 200 Sinagua Indians. From the well preserved cave dwelling, built into an alcove about a third of the way up the 150 feet up the limestone Beaver Creek canyon wall, it appears that they built with the intent of permanence. But, for unknown reasons, they disappeared. No one knows where they went or why they left. There are no wall drawings or carvings to tell their story. However, some believe that the Sinaguas may have migrated to northern Arizona to join the Hopi Indians. No one knows for sure. What we do know is that no separate Sinagua Indian tribes exist today.
After three centuries, something (disease, drought, overpopulation) or someone (invaders) drove them away sometime in the 1400s. All that remains of generations of families and friends who occupied these multi-family dwellings are their artifacts or what we would loosely call their trash - pottery shards, worn-out tools, animal bones, and other discards recovered by archeologists at the base of the canyon dwelling.
From these discards, archeologists are able to reconstruct the life of the prehistoric people who lived in Montezuma Castle and the much larger 45 room Castle A next door. Castle A, so named by the archeologists who excavated it in 1930, was partially destroyed by fire and was never fully reconstructed. Through close examination of artifacts in and around the Castle, nearby vegetation, animals and landscape, archeologists believe that the Sinaguas, a variation of the Spanish “sin aguas” which means “without water”, lived a peaceful and prosperous life through their intimate relationship with the land.
The Sinaguas were farmers, craftsmen and traders and used their ingenuity and all that nature had to offer in order to survive in the arid land. They dug ditches to divert water from nearby Beaver Creek to irrigate their crops of beans, corn, squash, and cotton. They used nearly every part of indigenous plants for food, clothing and other necessities. They ate delicious fruits from hackberry trees and amended their soups and stews with leaves and young shoots from saltbush shrubs. The golden blossoms and twigs from the saltbush shrubs were used to make bright yellow dye and the roots were chewed and applied to relieve painful ant and bee stings.
Medicines made from creosote bushes were used to treat ailments such as pneumonia, tetanus, intestinal disorder and cancer. They ate deer, rabbit, bear and other meat from animals attracted to the cool water in Beaver Creek. The long sweet-smelling bean pods from the common velvet mesquite tree were ground to make meal-cakes; the tree’s sap provided candy, black dye, and an adhesive for mending pottery. Sinaguas weaved baskets out of the tree’s inner bark. They also brewed the bark to make tea. They wove baskets, sandals and mats from the fibers readily available from the ubiquitous yucca.
The resourceful Sinaguas even made soap for washing clothes from the poisonous berry-like fruit of the western soapberry tree which grew along the river. The white-barked limbs and branches of the towering Arizona sycamore tree provided much-needed shade near streams and ponds and were used as posts and beams for house construction. In fact, seasoned sycamore beams still support ceilings in Montezuma Castle after 700 years.
The Sinaguas used a series of ladders to climb up the canyon walls to their dwelling which rises to five levels. Some of the 65 rooms have walls up to two feet thick with six foot ceilings. Homes were multi-purposed with different rooms used for living, working, storage, community meeting space, and even burial grounds. Young children were buried in the floor of their parent’s home.
No one knows what the Sinaguas called this place. It was named Montezuma Castle by European settlers and soldiers who first saw the cliff-dwelling in the mid 19th century and mistakenly believed that it was a castle built by Aztec refugees for their emperor. Of course, Montezuma, a 16th century leader of the Aztec empire in what we now know as Mexico, never set foot this far north.
As you walk along the concrete path that meanders through the area below Montezuma Castle, look for many bird species and watch out for snakes sunning themselves on a log or lizards skittering near your feet on their way to the safety of a tree.
There are many ancient Indian ruins in the US Southwest. The 900 year old Montezuma Castle is one of the best preserved. Park Rangers do provide informative talks but much can be learned about the Castle and its inhabitants from numerous signs located along the concrete walkway. It is a place that should be visited in order to appreciate the strength and vitality of the Sinagua Indians who lived there then disappeared.