A Photographic History of the Cliff Dwelling Communities of Palatki, Montezuma Castle and Montezuma’s Well, Arizona

Smithsonian archaeologist Jesse Walter Fewkes made the first official investigations of the ancient indigenous community nestled at the base of the Mogollon Rim approximately thirteen miles northwest of present day Sedona, Arizona.  Fewkes seemed to believe that some sect of the Hopi people constructed the site and deemed it “Palatki,” meaning Red House. Current investigations indicate that the Southern Sinagua established the cliff dwellings of Palatki sometime after A.D. 1150. Sinagua in Spanish means without water – a name not applied to these people until around 1939.[1] The Sinagua practiced dry-land farming but some copying of the Hohokam irrigation systems did exist.[2] Why the Sinagua came into the Red Rock country and established their communities is debatable.

One theory holds that the Southern Sinagua migrated into and built their communities along the Verde River around A.D. 600. Another archaeological faction claims that the Southern Sinagua were ancestors of the Late Archaic peoples who inhabited the Red Rock area prior to the appearance of Sinagua culture and evolved locally. A third, likely the most accurate explanation contends that the Hohokam arrived first in the Verde Valley and small bands of Sinagua came behind them. Evidence of Hohokam dams and irrigation ditches along Beaver Creek (approximately thirty-two miles south of Palatki) support their presence in the Verde Valley area. The Hohokam and Sinagua cultivated corn, squash and beans as dietary staples and gathered wild plants as a supplement food source. Both peoples hunted small game such as rabbits. Other common traits will be discussed later.

View from Palatki cliff dwelling.

Before modern discoveries and investigations are addressed, we shall attempt to view Palatki as Fewkes and his associates saw it in the summer of 1896 when they first set eyes on this marvel of workmanship and ingenuity. Fewkes earned his Ph.D. in zoology in 1877 and then studied abroad until 1880. He became deeply interested in Hopi religious practices and culture. That fact probably attests to why he was prone to attributing Hopi influences wherever he visited in the Southwest. Fewkes was a latecomer to the ruins and cliff dwellings along the Verde River. Palatki and it’s nearby sister community of Honanki (Bear House) marked the beginnings of his extensive archaeological research in the Southwest.

When Fewkes first saw the ruins he immediately surmised that few or no white men had ever seen the site, though he admitted a local rancher directed him to the location.[3] The area surrounding the cliffs was covered in woods, he wrote. “The precipice rises about fifty feet behind it and arches over the ruin, forming a roof, protecting it from falling rain.”[4] Today, from a distance about 400 yards out from the base of the cliff the houses cannot be seen due to the heavy groundcover. Standing near the dwellings, it is easy to imagine Fewkes looking up to clearly grasp how the top of the cliff juts out over the structures and prevented storms and rain from affecting the inhabitants:

The altitude of the front wall at its highest point was about thirty feet, and there are evidences of the former existence of three tiers of rooms, one above the other. The external walls of the ground floor were built of large, roughly hewn stones, covered with adobe on tlle outer faces. This is a feature of cliff-ruin masonry as far north as the San Juan and Mancos canyons, where it has been commented on by [Gustaf Nordenskiöld] Nordenskiol.[5]

Facing the structures, the dwelling on the right has square opening in the middle of the adobe walls through which Fewkes crawled to enter the first building. Within the dwelling, Fewkes observed that it was “divided into several compartments, indicated by fragments vigas and flooring, all of which have been charred by fire.”[6] The inside walls were smooth plaster and appeared in such fine condition that Fewkes noted it looked as though the former inhabitants had only recently departed. “The floor,” however, “was littered with debris, fragments of agave leaves, basketware (so), and broken pottery.”[7] What exactly Fewkes made of this jetsam is not exactly clear. Most likely the upper floors collapsed over time, spilling construction material and abandoned contents onto the ground floor. The Fewkes team soon began to excavate within the first structure:

Excavation revealed fragments of cloth made of agave fiber and cotton, fallen beams, and broken pottery of the rough kind. There were many flakes of obsidian, stone implements and spear-point fragments of pigments, kaolin, and a few marine shells.[8]

Stone “mortar” at Montezuma Castle. Missing the “pestle” used in grinding corn.

Stone “mortar” at Montezuma Castle. Missing the “pestle” used in grinding corn.

The story of life at Palatki began to unfold to Fewkes and subsequently the world. Fewkes claimed that the nomadic Apache were responsible for the damage done to Palatki after the original inhabitants abandoned the dwellings, stating the Apache had pulled the beams from the walls to use as firewood. He seemed to construe that roaming Apache had frequently used the structure as a temporary campsite. Not explaining why he felt so, Fewkes wrote that the Apache had overturned some of the walls.[9] It seemed to attribute an effort to do meaningless destruction by a people not typically known for such conduct.

Divided by a waterfall, active during rainy years, Palatki was split into two separate living areas. The dwelling to the left (west) required more effort to reach and therefore was found better preserved. Fewkes and his crew discovered “several good fragments of cotton cloth, much baketry [sp] and pottery with nets made of agave fiber.”[10] A fireplace in the center of the room serviced the dwelling. Also in the same house was a “stone box” that Fewkes thought was used in the process of grinding meal.[11]

West dwelling.

Both portions of the dwellings, east and west, were said to have been three stores high and Fewkes estimated that the entire complex could have housed up to 100 people comfortably. A total of sixty rooms made up the complex. Currently, the waterfall that once divided the two portions of the village is dry. According to tree-ring dating done on the timbers used in the construction the village was inhabited from 900-1300 A.D. While others argue that it was an active village only from 1100-1300 A.D. It is believed that the people who lived at Palatki may have come to the area when the climate changed, providing a more moderate environment with ample rainfall and vegetation. Many theories of why they suddenly abandoned Palatki abound. None are certain.

Fewkes was deeply concerned with the destruction of Palatki and other sites around the Southwest. Much of that destruction was caused as collateral damage from thieves searching for valuable antiques and native curios that could be sold to collectors around the world. The removal of artifacts from their original location was detrimental in itself and made it virtually impossible to piece together a comprehensive history of the people who had inhabited these cliff dwellings. There was no honor to the thievery – as archeologists had experienced in Egyptian tombs – the thieves that sought monetary gain above all other purpose were not above robbing graves and defiling corpses. Fewkes looked ahead to a time when nothing of historic or educational value would remain at Palatki and her sister sites in the Verde Valley.[12] He might have been correct in that prediction, thankfully we will never know. The Antiquities Act of 1906 afforded legal protection for Native American sites and artifacts. The historic sites eventually fell under the added protection of the National Parks Service, albeit professional institutions such as the Smithsonian, universities and museums were granted access to the sites for proper study and recording.

The National Park ranger at Palatki who gives a presentational history once the modern-day tourist negotiates the rocky pathway leading up to the ruins bases their information of common traits and archeological finds pertaining to the Sinagua. A common ritual among the Sinagua people was to bury their deceased infants under the floor of the parent’s home. The ranger notes that the infants were sometime buried in the cracks of the rocks in and near the dwellings. The ranger states, however, no adults are buried at the site – no one knows exactly where the Palatki adults are interred. Sinagua burial practices have been compared to those of the Salado.[13] The Salado, like the Sinagua, may have been a branch of the Hohokam or a mixture of other cultures.

The abundance of discarded corncobs found within the dwellings tells of the Sinagua’s reliance on corn. The ranger displays a nine-hundred-year-old cob that can be handled by the tour members. The layperson may notice that the cob, and therefore its long-ago consumed kernels, was significantly smaller than hybrid corn produced today.

Examples of potsherds are also exhibited comparing those of the Sinagua inhabitants and those of the Apache. The National Parks Service presentation does not apply the malicious intent to the presence of Apache artifacts that Fewkes did, and attribute them to possible traded items. The Sinagua were, in fact, known to have traded with other indigenous peoples from the Gulf of Mexico to California.

The method by which archeologists study the sand temper of pottery and how it determines tribal links is too intricate for discussion. It is enough to say that sand temper can be associated with a particular band or community simply because the local potter collected raw material from nearby sources.[14]  The ranger explains that the potsherds found at Palatki are distinguishable in origin because of the particular painted designs and patterns decorating the pottery. The method that can be used to delineate Sinagua pottery from all others is by the lack of design. The Sinagua created an unadorned and simple pottery used for storage and cooking called today “Alameda Brown Ware”. Evidence suggests that the culture of the Sinagua greatly borrowed from or was influenced by other major native cultures in the area, primarily the Hohokam, Anasazi and Mogollon. For example, the Sinagua used the Paddle-and-anvil method of pottery production most likely copied from the Hohokam.[15] Cultural markers and mannerisms evolving independently of the Sinagua people are otherwise difficult to discern.

The question of what happened to the Sinagua cannot be answered with any certainty. The Sinagua may have abandoned their smaller outlying towns and gathered in larger communities at locations mutually supportable and better defendable against attack than were places such as Palatki. At some point these larger communities were also abandoned. The Sinagua people may have migrated and assimilated into the Hopi nation, known to Fewkes in the late 1800s. In the end he may have seen in the Sinagua community at Palatki a Hopi influence or he may have been looking at what would later be the Sinagua influence on the Hopi. The Hopi have a name for their ancient ancestors, which probably includes the Sinagua, Hisatsinom – the people of long ago.[16]

An added attraction for the modern visitor to Palatki is the rock paintings within a short walk of the cliff dwellings. Dwellings and paintings are seldom found this close together. The paintings show evidence that they postdate the Paleoindian and Archaic period, possibly placing their creation during the time of the Sinagua.[17] Anthropologists and archeologists diverge on opinions of what the individual depictions represent. For the layperson viewing the symbols they may see something quite different than the expert. The visitor can take pride in the fact that their interpretation could be what the ancient artists intended to convey. The Sinagua, like their forefathers, had no known written language and the wall paintings are as close as may ever be found to leaving a written record of their lives. Needless to say, the environmental damage to the paintings over more than a 1000 years has caused considerable deterioration. A good digital camera with a quality lens can bring out some symbols that the human eye may miss in the short time the visitor spends examining the walls of the cliff.

Common depictions observed appear to be sheep, dogs, people and snakes.  However, there is no evidence that the Pre-contact (Pre-Columbian) Sinagua possessed domesticated animals.[18] What then was the author of these painted stories attempting to pass on when he or she placed a figure of a person in the midst of large four-legged animals? 

Another human figure might be seen off to the right and appears to be suffering a goring attack by one of the horned beasts. Was it magic or courage that protected the center human figure, which seems to be standing in defiance with his hands upon his hips in the center of the herd?

The anthropologists and other experts are so ambiguous about certain pictographs that the round objects sometimes interpreted as shields, the sun, spider webs and medicine wheels are also safely labeled “Big Round Things.”[19]



Among the drawings is a human figure that is holding a bundle, basket, or other large object balanced upon the head. The arms are certainly bent to show that the bundle is being held in balance. Some of the drawings are so ambiguous that only those familiar with Native American culture and history might make an educated guess as to what they represent. The only thing that is certain is that these ancient people meant to send a message to other humans who the artist trusted was capable of interpreting the message.



















The Verde Valley was once dotted with thriving cliff dwelling Sinagua communities. More than 135 sites have been discovered but undoubtedly there are more to be located. The Spanish discovered the small community overlooking Montezuma’s Well in 1583. The site was already abandoned by that time, as was Palatki. The cliff dwelling village of Montezuma Castle and Montezuma’s Well are about eleven miles apart from one another. Fewkes was among the earliest research expedition sent to Montezuma’s Well by the Smithsonian.

Montezuma Castle

J.W. Tourney recorded his own finding in an 1892 article. Tourney lamented in his article that no sect of the Native Americans who were questioned during his fieldwork claimed to have knowledge of who built the cliff dwellings.[20] Tourney provided a description of the interior room layout that due to the collapsed ceilings at Palatki Fewkes was unable to postulate:

The rooms are small, only about five feet to ceiling. Generally a small opening two or three feet in diameter joins one room with another, and a similar orifice in the ceiling gives access to the room above. The ceilings are so low that steps are not necessary to pass from the first floor consecutively through the several stories of the structure. The openings in the ceiling never fall directly under each other. If the orifice is in the north-west corner in the first ceiling, it will be in the south-east corner in the next ceiling above, and so alternating back and forth to the top.[21]

Montezuma’s Well near old Fort Verde.

Around 1927 an armband was found near Montezuma’s Well, presumably at a burial site, by a missionary named J.P. Bray.[22] The armband was similar in design of those found and connected to the Northern Sinagua. The presence of armbands and their remains fails to provide answers to cultural significance. The bands may have been nothing more than well decorated ornaments or they might have had some religious or caste meaning.

Cliff dwelling above Montezuma’s Well.

We now know the Sinagua inhabited Montezuma Castle and Well for over 300 years. Today, Montezuma Castle is considered one of the best-preserved cliff structures in the country. The downside for the visitor is that it cannot be viewed close up as the Montezuma Castle dwellings are midways up a 150-foot cliff. Several Spanish explorers, beginning with Antonio de Espejo in 1583, passed under the Castle giving it little notice and less recorded description. American fur trappers are known to have discovered it in 1826, but again the Castle received not so much as a footnote in history.

Montezuma Castle became the first archeological site to fall under the protection of the Antiquities Act of 1906, however it received little physical protection from the thieves robbing the Verde Valley monuments.[23] The Castle came under the jurisdiction of the new National Parks Service in 1916, but again, little was done to prevent further destruction of the Native sites. Frank Pinkley, a dedicated private citizen who devoted his time to restoring and preventing desecration of Montezuma Castle, ultimately saved the site and others in the Verde area at the turn of the century.[24]

Many of the Verde Valley cliff dwellings are not accessible to the public, however, Palatki, Montezuma’s Cattle and Montezuma’s Well are three of the sites that are open to view at some designated distance. Any or all three are well worth a trek in the desert to see. Generally, a two to three hour window should be allocated at each location in order to obtain the full benefit of the ancient culture and construction techniques.

[1] Dave D. White, Randy J. Virden and Kerri L. Cahill, “Visitor Experiences in National Park Service Cultural Sites in Arizona: Implications for Interpretive Planning and Management,” Journal of Park and Recreation Administration 23, no 3 (2005), 67.

[2] White, “Visitor Experiences,” 67.

[3]J. Walter Fewkes, “Two Ruins Recently Discovered in the Red Rock Country, Arizona,” American Anthropologist 9, no. 8 (1896), 266, 268.

[4] Fewkes, “Two Ruins,” American Anthropologist, 268.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid, 269; Vaga: a rough-hewn roof timber or rafter.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid, 270

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid, 269-270.

[13] Peter J. Pilles Jr., “Sinagua and Salado Similarities as Seen from the Verde Valley, Kiva 42, no. 1 (1976), 117-18.

[14] James M., Heidke, Susan C. Leary, Sarah A. Herr, and Mark D. Elson, “Alameda Brown Ware and San Francisco Mountain Gray Ware Technology and Economics.,” in Sunset Crater Archaeology: The History of a Volcanic Landscape. Ceramic Technology, Distribution, and Use, edited by S. Van Keuren, M. D. Elson, and S. A. Herr, 154.

[15] “Sinagua Culture” Logan Museum of Anthropology, https://www.beloit.edu/logan_online/exhibitions/virtual_exhibitions/north_america/southwest/sinagua/sinagua.php accessed 26 Nov. 2017.

[16] “The Sinagua,” Department of Anthropology, Northern Arizona State University, http://jan.ucc.nau.edu/d-antlab/Soutwestern%20Arch/Sinagua/sinagua.htm accessed 26 Nov. 2017.

[17] Ruth Ann Armitage, Marian Hyman, Marvin W. Rowe, Lawrence L. Loendorf and John R. Southon “Dated Rock Paintings at Red Cliffs, Arizona,” Kiva 65, no. 3 (2000), 254.

[18] Suzanne K. Fish and Paul R. Fish, “Prehistoric Landscapes of the Sonoran Desert Hohokam,” Population and Environment 13, no. 4 (1992), pp. 273.

[19] Armitage, “Dated Rock Paintings,” Kiva, 256.

[20] J. W. Tourney, “Cliff- and Cave-Dwellers of Central Arizona,” Science 20, no. 510 (1892), 269.

[21] Tourney, “Cliff- and Cave-Dwellers,” Science, 269.

[22] John C. Whittaker and Kathryn A. Kamp, “Sinagua Painted Armbands,” Kiva 58, no. 2 (1992), 184.

[23] Joshua M. Protas, “’For the Work We Have Done’: Frank Pinkley and the Transformation of Montezuma Castle National Monument,” Journal of the Southwest 40, no. 4 (1998), 465.

 [24] Protas, “For the Work,” 468-469.

Additional Works Consulted

Mitchell, Douglas R. “Burial Practices and Paleodemographic Reconstructions at Pueblo Grande.” Kiva 58, no. 1 (1992): 89-105.

Pilles, Peter J. Jr. “Sinagua and Salado Similarities as Seen from the Verde Valley,” Kiva 42, no. 1 (1976): 113-124.

Powell, J.W. Seventh Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology to the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institute 1895-96. Washington, D.C: Government Printing Office, 1898.

Timanus, Rod. Montezuma Castle National Monument. Mt. Pleasant, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2014.

Wasley, William W. and David E. Doyel. “Classic Period Hohokam.” Kiva 45, no. 4 (1980): 337-35