Popular Science Monthly/Volume 37/October 1890/Ancient Dwellings of the Rio Verde Valley

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AS an officer of the medical department of the United States Army, the writer was assigned to the military department of Arizona in 1884, and took station at Fort Verde, in the central part of that territory, in March. Strange were the sensations that we experienced on the morning succeeding our arrival, as we looked for the first time upon the broad valley of the Rio Verde, hemmed in by rugged mountains on the west, and terraced limestone cliffs with intervening mesas on the east. To the northward Beaver Creek poured its turbid flood into the Verde, whose banks were filled to overflowing by the waters sent down by the melting snow upon the distant Mogollon Mountains. Eighty miles to the north, beyond the ruddy cliffs of the "Red Rock Country," San Francisco Peak, the highest point and most prominent landmark in the territory, gleamed in snowy whiteness. Indeed, it retained its snow-cap far into the hot summer months. The general course of the river at this point is a little east of south. The eye vainly followed its winding course for miles in either direction in quest of village or solitary dwelling. Not a human habitation could be seen. The handful of soldiers mounting guard upon the parade, to the music of trumpet, fife, and drum, but emphasized the solitude of the place. Trees marked the sinuous course of the stream, but the rest of the valley was bare of vegetation save patches of mesquite-bushes in the alluvial river-bottom, the ever-present cactus, aloe, and yucca, and a low growth of intermingled weeds and grasses, whose blended hues imparted to the valley a yellowish color. Dwarfed cedars and pinons barely existed upon the arid slopes of the Black Hills range, bounding the valley upon the west, and tall pines crowned their level summits.

I said there were no human habitations in sight; but closer scrutiny revealed stone edifices, erected by the hand of man, occupying commanding points upon the opposite side of the valley; huge piles of masonry, whose ruined walls still stand to a considerable height. Below these, emerging upon narrow ledges, in the face of the nearest cliffs, were lines of black holes, which I was told were entrances to the cave-dwellings of an extinct race of men. From the hospital piazza a view was obtained of a still more wonderful structure. In the vertical side of the canon, through which Beaver Creek flows, a large building four or five stories high had been built by this people, whose only history is written in monumental ruins.

Before our departure from Fort Verde in 1888 three railroads had penetrated toward the heart of the wilderness by which we were surrounded. Settlers were thronging in to engage in lumbering, mining, or stock-grazing in the mountainous portions, or to cultivate the soil of the irrigable valleys. Already the valley of the Verde begins to assume somewhat of the appearance that it presented centuries ago, when irrigated and cultivated by the populous cliff-dwellers. Again the Indian corn rustles in the broad fields in autumn, and golden pumpkins and squashes cluster beneath the stalks. Childish voices are borne on the breeze: a new cycle begins.

Curiosity concerning the people whose stone buildings challenge attention from most of the prominent points along the Verde River and its tributary streams led me to pay some attention to the study of archaeology, and to form a collection of such relics as might shed light upon the history and habits of the builders.[1]

On turning to the fourth volume of Hubert H. Bancroft's Native Races of the Pacific States, which is devoted to the study of antiquities, I was surprised to find that the extensive ruins of the Verde were at that time (1875) undescribed and unknown, save through vague accounts received from Mr. Leroux and other guides and trappers. On page 636 we read: "These ruins are not very far from Prescott in the north and Fort McDowell in the south; and I regret not having been able to obtain from officers in the Arizona service the information which they must have acquired respecting those remains, if they actually exist, during the past ten or fifteen years." Some of these ruins have since been examined by archæologists accompanying Government surveying parties, and models of several of them are to be seen in eastern museums; but no exhaustive account of them has ever been written, nor have any been more than superficially explored.

The writer has availed himself of the opportunity afforded by numerous tours of field-service and authorized hunting expeditions, amounting in the aggregate to several thousand miles of travel, to examine most of the principal ruins in the territory, from the famous Casa Grande of the Gila itself to the smaller casas and caves on the head-waters of its tributaries. Although highly diverse in form, style, material, and location, it is evident that these buildings belonged to a single race. This is shown by the similarity of products and identity of habits, as well as by the relation of the dwellings to each other. The implements and pottery found in the rude caves of the Upper Verde are identical with those which Mr. Cushing has recently obtained from the immense casas grandes of Salt River. In all, the food substances and mode of agriculture are essentially the same. Again, the proudest casas grandes are built on the summits of cliffs whose sides are honeycombed with cave-dwellings, thus combining in a single community the most diverse styles of habitations.

Only the aboriginal monuments of the Verde region will here receive attention. They are uniform with those of the rest of the Gila Basin. In fact, little violence would be done by uniting all of our southwestern ruins with those of the northern tier of Mexican States into a single group. They were the work of substantially the same people.

The accompanying map indicates the location of only such remains as are personally known to the writer. Detailed descriptions of all of them would prove tedious to the reader and exceed our present limits.

The walled buildings are of two kinds—those occupying natural hollows or cavities in the faces of cliffs, and those built in exposed situations. The former, whose walls are protected by sheltering cliffs, are sometimes found in almost as perfect a state of {{hws|preserva|

PSM V37 D768 Map of ancient dwellings of the verde valley.jpg
Map of the Verde Valley, showing its Ancient Dwellings.

reservation as when deserted by the builders, unless the torch has been applied. The latter, or Pueblo style of architecture, usually occupying high points and commanding a wide extent of country, are in a ruined state, although walls are commonly standing to the height of one or more stories, with some of the timbers intact.

Another and very common form of dwellings is the caves, which are excavated in the cliffs by means of stone picks or other implements. They are found in all suitable localities that are contiguous to water and good agricultural land, but are most numerous in the vicinity of large casas grandes. Most of them are in limestone cliffs, as the substratum of sandstone is not as commonly exposed in the canons and cliffs, but many cavate dwellings are in sandstone.

The additional remains observed by me are mounds in the vicinity of ancient dwellings, extensive walls of stone and mortar, large quantities of stone implements and fragments of broken pottery, acequias or irrigating ditches, ancient burial grounds, and hieroglyphic inscriptions on stones and cliffs—the last two to be doubtfully referred to the cliff-dwellers..

PSM V37 D769 Casa grande twelve miles southeast of fort verde.jpg
Fig. 1.—Casa Grande in Right Bluff of a Cañon entering the Verde River from the East, about twelve miles southeast of Fort Verde.

Of the cliff-houses, as contradistinguished from those of Pueblo pattern, many excellent examples are found in the Verde region. One, into which I was probably the first white man to set foot, is built in the right wall of a deep canon, between Hackberry Flat and the Rio Verde. It was found when searching for a still larger

PSM V37 D770 Montezuma castle.jpg
Fig. 2.—"Montezuma's Castle."

and more nearly perfect building near the same locality, which an old settler had found many years ago. There are many others on Beaver Creek, and in the "box cañons" of the Upper and Lower Verde.

The building known as "Montezuma's Castle," on the right bank of Beaver Creek, in sight of and three miles from Fort Verde, is (perhaps excepting a building near Salt River) the finest that I have seen, and typical of this class of structures. This casa, doubtless a fortress, is fitted into a natural depression, high up in a vertical limestone cliff, the base of which is distant three hundred and forty-eight feet from the edge of the stream and about forty feet above it. The casa is accessible only by means of ladders, its lowest foundations being forty-two feet above the bottom of the cliff. The post quartermaster of Fort Verde has provided four substantial wooden ones, which make the ascent easy from one narrow ledge to the next. After ascending three ladders a ledge is reached upon which six cave-rooms open (Fig. 3).

On a ledge eight feet below this one, and eighty feet to the northeast, are two cave-dwellings, neatly walled up in front, with a well-made window in each for entrance. There are many other cave-dwellings in the cliff, at either side of the casa, long lines of them extending toward the southwest. One or two isolated chambers, walled in front and windowed, may be seen far up the side of the cliff, where they are altogether inaccessible. These, together, constituted the settlement.

Ascending the fourth ladder (Fig. 6, z), the casa is reached. The foundation rests upon cedar timbers laid longitudinally upon flat stones on the ledge. The projecting ends of these timbers show plainly the marks of stone axes used in cutting them. The front wall (Fig. 4, a b) is a little over two feet wide at the bottom and thirteen inches wide at the top. It leans slightly in toward the cliff. One part of this wall (Fig. 5) rests on what appears to be a very precarious footing, although it has stood for centuries. The timbers are so placed that in the middle they project beyond the edge of the ledge.

The casa is entered at a projecting angle (Fig. 6, c), through a window of sub-Gothic form (Fig. 7), measuring three feet and three inches in height by two feet and four inches in width at the bottom. This small apartment (Fig. 6, a) is smoothly plastered within, and blackened by fire. The plastering bears fingermarks and impressions of the thumb and hand, showing that it was laid on and smoothed by the hands. The roof is formed by willows laid horizontally across eleven rafters of ash and black alder; upon this a thick layer of reeds is placed transversely, and the whole plastered on top with mortar, forming a floor to the chamber above it. The rafters are peeled, except one or two that

PSM V37 D772 Structure of the casa.jpg

were evidently taken dry. They average about fifteen inches in circumference, and were set into the walls at the time the latter were built. They were burned off flush with the wall outside. Some of them show hatchet-marks, where branches were lopped off. From this room the only means of exit, except the window by which it was entered, is a small hole in the ceiling, just within the entrance (Fig. 8, x), measuring thirteen by eighteen inches, and bordered by flat stones laid upon the reed layer of the roof. These stones are smoothly polished by the hands of the dwellers in passing back and forth, as this was apparently the only means of entering the seventeen apartments above it. The traveler in this region is quite certain of being entertained by exaggerated stories about gigantic human skeletons having been discovered in the ruined casas grandes; but if he be a good-sized man, and possessed of the usual amount of adipose tissue appertaining to the age of threescore years, he will become skeptical thereof when he comes to squeeze himself through the narrow portals of the ancient halls of Montezuma's Castle.

Except a store-room, another small room (Fig. 6, b), separate from the one just described, is all that remains on the first floor. It can only be entered through a small scuttle in the floor of the room over it (Fig. 8, t).

The first and second stories occupy an outer ledge, lower than the rest of the casa. The great outer wall of the upper stories (Fig. 8, c) is founded upon a ledge in the rear of the second floor, forming its back wall.

The second story is much more spacious than the first. The roof of the latter brings the building to the level of another ledge, which, extending laterally in each direction, serves as a floor for additional rooms. This story is composed of a tier of four rooms, bounded behind by the most massive wall of masonry in the whole casa, which, as previously stated, rests on a ledge even with the floor of the second story. This arrangement, besides giving more room to the stories above, secured the greatest amount of stability to this wall, which is the most important in the structure. It is twenty-eight feet in height, rising to the fifth story, around the front of which it forms a battlement four and a half feet high. It leans slightly toward the cliff, and is strongly curved inward, though not symmetrically. The chord of the arc described by the top of the wall measures forty-three feet, and the greatest distance from chord to circumference eight feet. As the wall is built against the cliff, there is no way of ascertaining its thickness at the bottom. It is fourteen inches wide on top.

The third floor (Fig. 9) comprises the most extensive tier of rooms in the structure, extending across the entire alcove in the cliff in which the casa is built.

The balcony above rooms C and D of the second story, as stated, had a battlement around it, which is still intact where supported by the wall of room G. A portion of the flooring has

PSM V37 D774 Floor plan of the 5th floor.jpg

broken down into room D of the second story. Metates and grinding-stones were of frequent use in its construction; this and other appearances lead us to the conclusion that this remarkable structure was not built at one time, but grew up gradually from successive building. The caves in the cliff were probably first inhabited and the casas subsequently erected.

When taking the dimensions of room G on this floor a singular incident occurred. Mr. Daniels, my assistant, discovered a stone axe lying between the two timbers which formed the lintel of the window, the latter having been splintered by a bullet, which also struck the axe and loosened it in its position. Thus a careless shot, aimed at the building by some passing hunter, put us in possession of an interesting relic.

The apartments of the fourth floor (Fig. 10) are rather neater in construction than the rooms below, but they are otherwise so nearly alike that a detailed description would involve a needless and tiresome repetition of details. The door-ways are neatly executed, each having four good-sized lintel-pieces.

The fifth story can only be reached by climbing up through a small hole in the ceiling of room O, similar to that in room A of the first floor. This, the uppermost story (Fig. 11), consists of a long porch or gallery, having a battlement in front and an elevated backward extension on the right, with two rooms (R and S) filling the corresponding space on the left. The two rooms on this floor are roofed by the rocky arch of the cliff, and are loftier than the lower chambers.

It is said that only a few axes, metates, and other stone implements, with broken vessels of pottery, were found in this building when first explored by the whites. Upon my first visit, in 1884, it was evident that nothing more than a superficial examination had ever been made. In 1886 I caused the débris on the floors to be shoveled over. This material consisted of a quantity of dust and broken fragments of pottery and stone implements, together with an enormous accumulation of guano from bats that inhabited the building. This accumulation, in the largest room of the top floor, was four feet in depth. As no one had ever disturbed it, the floor was found in exactly the same condition in which it was left by the latest occupants. In front of the entrance the remains of a fire was found, and a goodly bundle of fagots lay against the wall at a convenient distance. An earthen vessel contained food, and a small basket of mesquite-seeds stood hard by. On further search, a large spoon of sycamore wood and some gourd cups were found. A large metate and grinder, weighing upward of a hundred pounds, proved to be a troublesome acquisition to our collection; but the labor expended in getting it safely down to the ground served to increase our respect for those who carried it up. Shells and shell ornaments were secured, as well as paints of various colors. Some oven-shaped cupboards were built along the wall, containing remains of mescal, Spanish bayonet, nuts of the pinon-pine, and other food substances; and corn-cobs were found in abundance.

PSM V37 D776 Ruins on the middle verde arizona.jpg

In other parts of the building several bone implements, including a corn-shucker and a handsomely wrought marlin-spike, fashioned from the leg-bone of deer, were obtained. Scalps or headdresses were also unearthed. Indeed, the materials here found formed quite an extensive collection, including numerous food articles, bones of various animals, pieces of cloth, matting and basket-work, ropes and cords of cotton and yucca, sticks for fire-making, knitting or weaving, and many other uses.

None of the ancient buildings of this region exceed this one in picturesque grandeur, although many are more extensive. Its very location excites admiration and inspires respect for those who built it, whatever may have been the motive which prompted to the selection of such a site; nor is it lacking in architectural beauty. Its existence proves its great strength.

Of the ruined pueblos, an extensive group of buildings on the left bank of the Verde River, six miles northwest of Fort Verde, Arizona, may be fairly considered a representative example. This pueblo consisted of two terraced buildings surmounting a limestone cliff. The larger one, in which I have made some exploration, faces the Verde, the other fronting on a side canon to the south; the walls of the latter, as well as the face of the cliff, contain numerous cave-dwellings, in which sundry articles of pottery and basket-work, as well as stone tools, were exhumed. The accompanying plan (Fig. 12) exhibits the relations of these structures. This ruin, which does not differ materially from many others in the Verde region, is quite similar to the inhabited villages of the Moquis of Eastern Arizona and the modern pueblos of New Mexico. As it was conveniently accessible from the fort, I made it the subject of some research, and caused considerable excavations to be made in parts of the larger building, and also in the caves of the adjacent cañon.

The larger edifice had been three stories in height in front, where it rested upon the level rock, thence terraced down the slope of a ravine behind it, the lower tiers of rooms having apparently, been but a single story in height. Previous to my first visit the front of the building had been thrown down over the cliff by the white settlers to supply material for repairing an old acequia, which has since served the whites, as it did the cliffdwellers of old, with water for irrigating purposes. Several of the ranchmen in the vicinity called my attention to articles made of pottery, and a varied assortment of interesting relics, which they had secured when tearing down the ruin, in which they claimed to have discovered dozens of human skeletons, one of gigantic stature (the usual story), and a quantity of burial urns and other vessels of pottery and stone. These accounts were in some measure substantiated by the abundance of broken pottery, rough mortars, metates, and stone implements to be seen in the walls of the new acequia. The writer, whose appetite for discovery had been whetted by his surprising success when excavating in the high tier of cave-dwellings in the frowning cliffs of Clear Creek, eleven miles to the southeast, immediately commenced an examination of this majestic pile of ruined walls, forming a mound two hundred and eighty feet in length by one hundred feet in width, having an average depth of seven or eight feet. The walls are now standing to that height, the lower rooms being filled with the débris of the fallen upper stories. The building had been destroyed by fire, three layers of charcoal in the rubbish

PSM V37 D778 Metate and grinding stone from casa grande.jpg
Fig. 13.—Metate and Grinding-Stone from Casa Grande of the Middle Verde, five miles north of Fort Verde.

corresponding to the roof and ceilings, which were evidently constructed of wood, reeds, and grass. Nearly all the inflammable materials had been destroyed, while many bone implements, and even some of stone, had been cracked and charred by the fire; and the greater part of the pottery, of which a large quantity was unearthed, had been broken by the fallen walls.

The labor of removing the débris from the rooms proved rather slow and difficult. As most of the pottery and implements

PSM V37 D779 Shell ornaments arrow points and stone from a war club.jpg
Fig. 14. — Shell Ornaments, Arrow- Points, and Stone from a War-Club, from various parts of the Verde Valley.

were found upon the ground floor, the excitement of the quest increased proportionately as the bottom was approached. The standing walls were found to be from one and a half to three

and a half feet in thickness, sometimes plastered on the inside. The upper walls were doubtless of adobe, as the mined pile contains a large quantity of that material. There is a natural stone-quarry in the rear of the buildings.

The rooms were spacious and the floors smoothly plastered. Beneath them were found vaults, plastered within, containing

PSM V37 D780 Ladle from ruins near the verde river.jpg
Fig. 15.—Ladle from Ruins near the Verde River.

human skeletons. In one room, ranged along two sides, close to the substantial partition walls, were tombs devoted exclusively to the sepulture of infants and children. The vaults were covered with large, flat stones, some of which were painted red. In one of them an olla was found, with the skeleton of an infant. The

PSM V37 D780 Ancient pottery from the verde valley.jpg
Fig. 16.—Ancient Pottery from the Verde Valley.

bodies apparently had not been incased in burial clothes, as was the case with those found in the burial caves of Clear Creek, as well as some of the adult skeletons exhumed from other parts of this building.

This casa proved quite productive in mineral and bone material, but most of the more perishable articles had been destroyed. Of stone implements, the metates, used for grinding maize, form an exceedingly interesting set of specimens, exhibiting considerable variation in size and form. The greater number were of the hard, porous, gray scoria known as malpais, a material well adapted for grinding. Others were hewn out of sandstone, varying in color from red to creamy white. The manner in which they are fashioned with no better tool than another stone speaks in eloquent praise of the skill and indefatigable patience of these aboriginal workmen. A series of these primitive stone mills may be seen in the writer's collection at the American Museum. Grooved stone axes and hatchets were numerous, and likewise exhibit an unusually wide range of variation in size, shape, material, and workmanship. Several of them are, in form and finish, scarcely inferior to the modern articles. Some of the picks and hammers were also models of the handicraft of the stone age. Not the least interesting were stone wedges (doubtless intended for splitting timbers) and agricultural tools. There was also a large assortment of stone knives, resembling in shape the chopping-knife of modern housewives. Heavy malls, pipes of lava, whetstones, polishing-stones, and other implements whose use is not apparent, were obtained^ besides mortars and pestles, stone vessels, and plates or platters of volcanic rock. Besides such articles of domestic use, there were the implements of warfare and the chase, including rounded stone hammers, mostly of sandstone and scoria, grooved for attachment to a handle by means of a hide thong; also grooved stones used in arrow-making, spearheads and arrow-points of obsidian or agate, and flints from the war-club (maquahuitl).

Pigments—red, blue, gray, and black—were found; also a heavy, black powder, and the usual chipped pieces of obsidian (volcanic glass) and agate, together with ornamental pebbles, etc. Nor were ornaments lacking, such as amulets of shells and rings of bone and shell. Several heavy pieces of obsidian, which were probably transported from New Mexico, were doubtless kept in stock for the manufacture of knives and weapons. A heavy block of red catlinite, or "pipe-stone" of which small fetiches found in several localities were made, extends the commerce of this people to the region of the Upper Missouri, where the only known quarries of this material exist; and sea-shells, doubtless from the Pacific, are of equal interest, as showing the extent of traffic to the westward.

In several rooms large earthenware vessels were uncovered, which, although broken, were still held in position by the pressure of their contents and the earth surrounding them; fine rootlets also penetrated the cracks and formed a meshwork serving to hold them together. The largest were of coarse material and had a capacity of about thirty gallons. Some of the smaller pieces were unbroken, and, although unglazed, were smoothly finished and decorated in colored patterns with rare taste. There were ladles or dippers, shallow saucers, graceful ollas, and vases displaying much artistic feeling in their conception and execution. One room appeared to have served as a store-room for earthenware utensils, some of which were found in nests, contained one within another, the smaller specimen measuring but one and one fourth inches in diameter. A few perforated discs of pottery, resembling wooden ones from cliff and cave dwellings, were noted.

Numerous tools of bone, chiefly such as were employed in the manufacture of ropes, neatly carved from the bones of deer or antelope, were among the relics found. Various food substances were examined, including bones, teeth, or horns (usually charred by fire) of elk, mule-deer, antelope, beaver, spermophile, pouched gopher, wood-rat, muskrat, mice, cotton-tail and jack-rabbit, turkey, serpent, turtle, and fish. A sandal of yucca, differing in design from that taken from the wall of Montezuma's Castle, and several pieces of human scalps, complete the list of relics from this casa.

There are many ruins of the class just described in the Verde region, as indicated on the accompanying map. Among them are several conspicuously perched on the summits of high, isolated, flat-topped buttes on the Rio Verde and on Oak, Beaver, and other tributary creeks; others are built on the precipitous edges of table-lands bordering canons in which streams flow; while some occupy lower positions in the valleys. It would appear, from the location of some of these casas grandes, that the water supply has diminished or otherwise greatly altered since they were occupied, as there is now no water to be found within several miles of them. Cisterns were doubtless utilized, but must have proved inadequate to supply the needs of so large a population.

These pueblos frequently inclosed an open square or court. There is such a one on Oak Creek, built on a bluff butte, level on the top, which is one hundred and twenty-five feet above the surrounding mesa. The building is subrectangular in shape, conforming to that of the summit of the butte, the sides of which are precipitous. Other villages, perhaps less prosperous on account of their inferior advantages for agriculture, are to be seen in many localities, which were evidently but one story high. Such is the case with a pueblo built on the point of a mesa east of the Lower Verde settlement.

Furnaces, probably used for firing pottery, were discovered in some of these ruins. There is a very perfectly preserved one in a ruin on the right bank of Oak Creek, close to its junction with the Verde River, having walls standing to the height of fifteen to twenty feet.

Large pits are often seen in the vicinity of casas, whence the material used in making mortar was taken. The mortar used is of excellent quality, resembling fire-brick.

In concluding this brief sketch of the ancient remains of the Verde Valley, I would remark that they still present the most inviting field for the researches of the student of American anthropology and the included sciences of archæology and ethnology. From a merely superficial examination of their works much information has been derived concerning these remarkable cultures of our southwestern territory. In order that our knowledge of them may become as comprehensive as the material procurable for study will permit, it is desirable that a systematic exploration of these ruins be undertaken at once, either through private enterprise or by some one of the educational institutions of our country, before the treasures contained in them become scattered through the curiosity of unscientific relic-seekers. The writer's experience proves that an enormous mass of information and a large collection of valuable specimens would result from such an examination. Once possessed of these collected facts, it remains but to construct them by synthesis into a positive knowledge of much that relates to these people, than whom none are more interesting to the American anthropologist.

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  1. This collection, comprising several thousand specimens, has been donated to the American Museum of Natural History, New York. The human skeletons and crania will be sent to the Army Medical Museum at Washington.