Montezuma Castle - History and Facts | History Hit

Montezuma Castle

Camp Verde, Arizona, United States

Montezuma Castle is a 12th century cliff dwelling in Arizona.

Peta Stamper

16 Apr 2021
Image Credit: Shutterstock

About Montezuma Castle

Montezuma Castle in Arizona, USA is a well-preserved cliff dwelling built by the indigenous Sinagua people in around 1100 AD. Covering an area of around 4,000 square feet, Montezuma Castle is an eminently impressive limestone and mud structure of 20 rooms.

Unfortunately, because of safety and conservation reasons, the public cannot actually enter Montezuma Castle and have not been able to do so since 1951. Those interested in further exploring the castle’s history and excavation can do so via the onsite museum.

Montezuma Castle history

After 1125, the Sinagua people resettled in the Verde Valley after a volcanic eruption to the north. The fertile soil and reliable water supply allowed widespread farming, and it was during this time the castle was built, likely gradually building level upon level. Despite being called a ‘castle’, Montezuma Castle was instead the equivalent to a modern-day apartment complex.

The region’s population peaked around 1300 AD, at which point the 20 rooms of Montezuma Castle would have housed between 30 and 50 people. The castle is believed to have been occupied until around 1425 AD when the Sinagua people abandoned this permanent settlement to migrate. The reasons why could include drought or other loss of resources, or additionally clashes with their newly arrived Yavapai neighbours.

The castle’s name was also the result of historical ignorance. The European-Americans who found the ruins in the 1860s incorrectly assumed that all pre-Columbian archaeological sites in the Americas had been constructed by the Aztecs, whose ruler Montezuma was known for making first contact with the Spanish conquistadors, in particular Hernán Cortés.

Montezuma Castle was declared a US National Monument in 1906 and was one of 4 original sites given the title by President Theodore Roosevelt.

Montezuma Castle today

Today, you can follow a drive around the cliffside, looking up at the impressive dwelling ruins. The visitor centre compensates for not being able to enter the castle. Inside you can tour the museum which displays artefacts found on site including stone tools, bone needles and shell or gemstone ornaments.

The museum also explores Sinagua culture, demonstrating their fine craftsmanship and role as prolific traders, as many objects made by other communities were found among the ruins.

For those who do not get a chance to visit the museum, the National Parks Service has collaborated on a digitised virtual museum so that you can now view historic photos, maps and artefacts from Montezuma Castle online. Otherwise the park is open 8 – 5 each day except Christmas Day.

Getting to Montezuma Castle

Located just a short distance off Interstate 17 at exit 289, Montezuma Castle is an easy site to visit by car. There is a 1/3 mile paved trail from the visitor centre that traces the base of the cliff housing the ruins.

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