Montezuma Castle near Camp Verde is an enigma.
The great Aztec chief Montezuma would never have seen the structure on the cliff walls. It certainly is not a castle, but merely secure living quarters for a long-gone people. Finally, it was an early Arizona tourist attraction that has been scavenged of its cultural significance.
Most believe that the structure was built some 3,000 to 4,000 years ago by the Sinagua. In fact, it is a 45- to 50-room pueblo built some 80 feet above Beaver Creek. It was occupied until about 1425 when its inhabitants abandoned the structure.
A series of ladders were used to climb up to the rooms. While the ladders allowed the occupants the ability to limit access to their homes, ladders were also used by tourists and scavengers by the 1870s.
It was noted in one news article “…a new industry has sprung up and every town vaunts it curio and bric-and-brac shop…art from the sites of ancient…nestlike homes of the cliff people…even the solitary trader at the water tank has become afflicted…and peddles his…wares through the halted train…”
In order to get these wares, sites such as Montezuma Castle had to be ruthlessly scavenged. In 1894, F. G. Steenberg noted on a visit to Montezuma Castle he found arrowheads, broken pottery and corncobs and admitted, “I brought home all I could tie up in my coat behind my saddle.”
By the late 1890s, there was significant tourist travel to Arizona.
Improved access allowed for even more relic hunters to get to significant sites. By 1897, reports noted “…heedless relic-hunters have so undermined the walls that some of them are in danger of falling; and when the process begins, the whole castle will go very fast.”
In 1895, a group of concerned citizens formed the Arizona Antiquarian Association in order to preserve Arizona history. The group was lead by Joshua Miller of Prescott. Miller had been the superintendent of the Arizona Insane Asylum and had a collection of some 1,500 artifacts that he wanted placed in a museum.
In 1897, the group got a bill introduced into the Territorial Legislature entitled “An Act to Establish a Museum of Antiquities.”
Miller offered to donate his entire collection to start the museum. The Legislature did not want to spend money on a museum, so the bill died.
With the failure of the bill, a group decided to take preservation efforts into their own hands. So, they decided “…whatever is done for the preservation of this grand old ruin must be done by private contribution.”
A committee was formed and $150 ($3,500 when adjusted for inflation) was collected. Miller supervised the restoration work. More than 3,000 pounds of material was used to anchor the structure to the cliff, fix walls, put a roof over exposed walls, and remove debris and clear paths for visitors.
Even with preservation, artifact collectors continued to wreak havoc on the castle. In 1903, it was reported “one of the principal rooms in the great pile was completely ruined last year by blasting…in hope of getting relics for exhibition at the Pan American Exposition…”
The loss of cultural resources finally got the attention of Congress.
A bill was drafted and compromises were made between competing interests and “An Act for the Preservation of American Antiquities”
was passed in 1906. The legislation created the designation of the National Monument. The National Monument was designed to be “the smallest area compatible with the proper care and management of the objects to be protected.”
On Dec. 8, 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt created the Montezuma Castle National Monument, one of the first three National Monuments. It contained only 160 acres surrounding the ruins.
While no funding was appropriated for care and growth of these monuments, various departments of the federal government worked together to protect the monuments. Tourists were still allowed to climb the ladders to the ruins until 1951. Since its creation, the monument has been expanded to include Montezuma’s Well. The monument gets approximately 800,000 visitors each year.
- Mike Miller. Photo courtesy of Arizona State Library, Archives and Public Records, Archives Division, Phoenix, #96-4639.