The Casa Grande of Arizona
Casa Grande Ruins National Monument is open every day of the year from 8 am to 5 pm except Thanksgiving Day and December 25th. The park is in Coolidge, Arizona. From Interstate 10 take the Coolidge exits and follow the signs to the park entrance. Entrance Fee for Casa Grande Ruins National Monument is $ 5 per person (16 and older) and is valid for 7 days from date of purchase. Children 15 and younger are free.
By Cosmos Mindeleff
The New England magazine. Volume 22, Issue 5, July 1897
The Casa Grande or "great house," on the Gila River, in southern Arizona, has attracted more attention than any other ruin in the country; but of the hundreds of descriptions published not more than half a dozen are the result of personal observation. In fact, it may be said that with one exception,Bartlett’s Personal Narrative, published in 1854,we have no real account of the most interesting ruin in the Southwest and the sole survivor in this country of a class of highly developed structures which were once abundant in the valley of the Gila River.
One of the most picturesque chapters in American history is that which relates to the efforts in the Southwest of the Spanish conquistadores of the 16th century and the ubiquitous monks who did not wait to follow but often preceded the soldiers. Full of zeal for God and gold, these men endured hardships and made journeys under conditions which seem incredible. The wanderings of Cabeza de Vaca and his four companions, who were wrecked at the mouth of the Mississippi River in 1528 and reached Mexico eight years later, having in the meantime traversed on foot the whole of northern Texas, entailed but little more hardship and certainly required no more courage and perseverance than subsequent expeditions which were undertaken voluntarily and without definite hope of reward.
In 1539 the Franciscan friar Marcos de Niza was sent out on an expedition or reconnaissance of the regions of the North. He was alone, so far as white companions were concerned, but was accompanied by a Negro slave who had formed one of Vaca’s party and by a number of Indians. Traveling on foot and making but slow progress, for the country was wholly unknown to him, he penetrated into what is now New Mexico as far as the present village of Zuni where the Negro and a number of his Indian companions who were in advance were killed. But notwithstanding this mishap and the mutinous feelings of his own followers caused by it, the doughty friar pushed on to the place, and from a distant elevation viewed the “city.” He was determined to see for himself the things which he was to report upon; but although he risked his life to obtain personal knowledge, for three centuries and a half he was held up as “the greatest liar in Christendom”and it is only during the past decade that students of the history of the Southwest have succeeded in obtaining his due for the worthy friar.
After seeing one of the wonderful “Seven Cities of Cibola,” of which he was in search, which has now been identified as a ruin near Zuni, the friar returned hastily to Mexico, “with far more fear than food,” as he himself puts it. The entire time consumed in the expedition was but little more than four months. Niza's reports of what he saw and particularly of what he had heard created a great interest among the Spaniards, which through judicious fostering soon grew to such proportions as to become almost a craze. The monk is careful to discriminate in his own narrative between what he saw and what he heard; but he was soon after appointed provincial of the Franciscan order, and it is probable that his subordinates and others who came in contact with them did not draw the line so carefully.
The conditions in Mexico or, as it was then called, New Spain, were peculiar. The country was overrun by adventurers, many of them young men of excellent family, who had been sent out to reform and recuperate after sowing their wild oats in Spain. These young blades were men of ability, and in action second to none, but in time of peace they formed a heavy burden to the viceroy, Mendoza, who was compelled to entertain them on account of their standing and family connections. The conquest of a new country afforded to the viceroy an opportunity he had long sought to be rid of these “caballeros,” who came and went when they pleased, who used his houses and stables as freely as if they were their own, and who did very much what they pleased with his and other people’s property, but who resented any discourtesy or improper treatment, and who were able moreover through powerful friends and connections at court to make their resentment felt.
Accordingly within six months after the return of Niza an expedition was organized for the conquest of the country he had discovered. This expedition included two hundred and fifty of these gentlemen on horseback, with some seventy footmen and several hundred Indians, and made a splendid array when it was reviewed by the viceroy on the day before the start was made, late in February, 1540. Complaint was made that the country was being stripped of its defenders and left at the mercy of any Indians who might seize the opportunity for an uprising. But the secretaries of the viceroy made a count and description of the force, and a sworn report was submitted a few days after the departure of the expedition, in which it was stated that in the whole army there were only two or three men who had ever been settled residents of the country, and that these were men who had failed to make a living. In short, it was considered a good riddance, and the orders given to the commander of the expedition, Coronado by name, one of the young gentlemen referred to, but an able man and governor of a province, might have been: “Go, and do not return !“
The expedition had hardly started before doubts arose as to the truth of the statements which had been made by the friar Niza; or rather it should be said that the glowing picture that was in the minds of the young and ardent soldiers began to fade. Curses loud and deep were poured out on the head of the devoted monk, who had joined the expedition and who, in the consciousness of his own good faith, continued to act as its guide notwithstanding the bitter maledictions which greeted him at every step. The route was through an inhabited country at first and then through a wilderness; and a ruin which was discovered on the borders of this wilderness did much to discourage the explorers. This place was known as or called Chichilticalli, the red house; and while they were in search of a wonderful region containing seven cities and a great population whose houses were encrusted with turquoise and precious stones and full of utensils of gold, here they found only a ruin, which is described by Castaneda, the historian of the expedition, as “one tumbledown house without any roof, although it appeared to have been a strong place at some former time when it was inhabited, and it was very plain that it had been built by a civilized and warlike race of strangers who had come from a distance. This building was made of red earth.” He adds that “the house was large and appeared to have been a fortress. It must have been destroyed by the people of the district, who are the most barbarous people that have yet been seen."
Coronado's March by Frederic Remington
This vague mention has been supposed heretofore to be a reference to the Casa Grande; but the consensus of opinion among historical students now appears to be that the expedition did not visit that place. The exact route which it followed has not been definitely determined and probably never will be, for the geographical data of the various narratives is scanty. The Chichilticalli of Castaneda has been variously located at points as far south as the Casas Grandes of Chihuahua and as far north as the vicinity of Camp Grant in Arizona, with perhaps a slight preponderance of evidence or argument in favor of the latter. But the identification of the Casa Grande of Arizona as the site of the ruin mentioned has been practically abandoned.
Much of the zeal for conquest that characterized the Spaniards who took part in the Coronado expedition survived them and continued into the next century; but in the latter period it took the form of conquest of souls rather than of territory. Perhaps by that time the soldiers had satisfied themselves that no great amount of gold or other riches would reward their efforts, and perhaps too the subjugation of all the Pueblo country to the crown of Spain and the administration of its affairs may have absorbed their energy. In 1680 there was a great revolt of the Pueblo Indians, and every Spaniard in the country was killed or driven out. The province was not again subdued until 1693. But numerous small expeditions were made into it in the meantime, and the monks vied with their armed brethren in their efforts to bring the recalcitrant Indians again within the pale.
The Jesuit missionary Kino made numerous trips into southern Arizona during this period, and in one of them heard of the Casa Grande. In 1694 he visited the place, which he found to be in ruin, and said mass within its walls. In 1697 he made another visit to it, this time accompanied by his military secretary and usual companion, Mange by name. The description recorded by the latter in his diary heads an extensive bibliography, the end of which is not yet in sight. The building is described as “a large edifice, the principal room in the center being four stories high, and those adjoining it on its four sides three stories, with walls two varas thick, of strong argarnasso y baro (adobe), so smooth on the inside that they resemble planed boards, and so polished that they shine like Puebla pottery.” He also mentions the remains of twelve other large buildings in the immediate vicinity, only two of which can now be traced.
The ruin is unique, in that it has a clear historical record of over two centuries, and it is probable that a century and a half before, when the first Europeans entered the country which is now the United States, it was in much the same condition as when the Padre Kino said mass within its ancient walls. More than this, it is the sole survivor in this country, so far as known, of its time and of a type of house structure which is nearly the highest attained by any American tribe, although there is reason to suppose that this type was once widely distributed throughout the region where this remnant is found. This position gives it a peculiar value and a certain interest that does not pertain to other remains in the Southwest.
Actuated by a desire to preserve the ruin for future generations, Congress in 1889 made a small appropriation for its restoration and preservation, and after some difficulty the work was finally completed in 1891. In this also the ruin is believed to be unique, for in no other instance has an appropriation of public money been made for such a purpose.
The Casa Grande, or that portion marked by standing walls, is but a small portion of a large group, but all the other structures are now marked only by low and more or less rounded mounds. The area covered by well defined remains measures about 1,800 by 1,500 feet, or altogether about sixty-five acres. Within this area there were seven or eight house clusters; but there is evidence that they were not all occupied at one time, but rather consecutively. Most of the mounds which mark the sites of these villages or clusters rise but ten feet or less above the surrounding level, and their profiles vary considerably, some being more rounded and smoothed off than others. The least rounded examples are those in the immediate vicinity of the standing wall, where presumably the ground surface was most recently formed and where walls were standing within the historical period.
The difference in contour of the mounds suggests that they are not all of the same age and that the interval which elapsed between the occupation of the structures whose sites are now indicated by the lowest mounds and the abandonment of the most recent buildings was a long one. The student of Southwestern village remains is soon impressed with a fact which is emphasized by nearly every ruin he examines that each village site marks but an epoch in the history of the tribe which occupied it, a period during which there was constant, incessant change. New bands or minor divisions of the tribe appeared on the scene, small divisions left the parent village to occupy more favorable sites, and so the ebb and flow continued until at some period in its history the population of a village became so reduced that the small remainder, as a matter of precaution or perhaps of necessity, abandoned it. It was a kind of slow migration, to which the Pueblo tribes were constantly subjected. This phase of Pueblo life, more prominent in the olden days than now, but still existent and hardly modified so late as fifty years ago, is well established by a long line of evidence derived from traditions, mythology, customs, arts and language, as well as from study of the ruins themselves. It has not received the prominence its importance deserves. Its effects can be seen in almost every ruin; not all the villages of a group nor even all the parts of a village were inhabited at the same time, and estimates of population based on the number of ruins within a given area, and even those based on the size of a ruin, must be materially revised. In this peculiar phase of Pueblo life we have the key. to a problem which has puzzled many writers, that is, the enormous number of ruins in the Southwest. This has commonly been interpreted to mean an enormous population, and estimates of 100,000, 150,000, or even 250,000 are not unusual. In other words, it is claimed that one-half of the total Indian population at the time of the discovery of America were congregated within an area of a few hundred square miles while the remainder were scattered over several millions. It is now generally agreed among students of the Southwest that the Pueblo population never exceeded 30,000, if indeed it reached that figure. The great number of ruins found are the product of numerous small bands in incessant movement, rather than of large groups which remained in one place. The Casa Grande seems to have formed no exception to the general rule; its population changed from time to time, and the extent of the remains is no criterion of the former number of inhabitants.
The most interesting part of the group, not excluding the Casa Grande itself, is a large mound occupying the north central part of it. This is really two connected mounds, each four or five times the size of the ruin, resting on a flat-topped base or terrace about five feet above the general level. The sides of the mounds slope very sharply and are cut and seamed by deep rain-washed gullies. It has been surmised that these structures were mounds, pure and simple, used for sacrifice or worship, and resembling in function the well-known pyramid of Cholula in Mexico; but there is no doubt that they are the remains of house structures, for a careful examination of the ground surface reveals the ends of walls on the sloping sides. They must have been grand buildings in their time; one, measuring not less than 150 by 250 feet, was L-shaped, and the other, which must have been about i 50 by 200 feet, was approximately square. Both were at least four stories high and commanded an extensive outlook over the great valley of the Gila River.
There are a number of depressions scattered about the area covered by remains. These are usually of irregular outline, two to three feet deep, and nearly always located in the immediate vicinity of some mound or former group of buildings. With a single exception none of these are so situated that they could be used for the storage of water; their catchment is so small, and the rate of evaporation in this region is so great, that their use as reservoirs is out of the question. It seems probable that they were the places where building material was obtained, after the methods employed in the Southwest today as well as in olden times. The sites of villages were often dictated by convenience of building material, and it was very seldom that such material was transported more than a few feet.
The Casa Grande proper occupies but an insignificant area as compared with the group, but it has attracted the greater attention because it comprises all the standing wall now remaining. There is one small fragment of wall east of the main building and another south of it, but there is reason to believe that both were at one time connected with it. It is located in the southwestern corner of the group, and the ground about it for miles in every direction is so flat that from the summit of the walls an immense stretch of country is brought under view. On the east is the broad valley of the Gila River rising in a great plain to a distant range of mountains. About a mile and a half to the north a heavy fringe of cottonwood trees marks the course of the river, beyond which the plain continues, broken here and there by hills and buttes, until the view is closed by the Superstition Mountains far away. On the northwest the valley of the river runs into the horizon, with a few buttes of black and forbidding aspect here and there. On the west lies a range of high mountains closing the valley in that direction, while toward the southwest and south it extends until in places it meets the horizon, while in other places it is closed by ranges of mountains, blue and misty in the distance. In the many thousands of ruins which are scattered over the Southwest, few if any are so well situated as this.
The character of the site occupied indicates that the ruin belongs to a late if not to the final period in the occupancy of this region, a period when, by natural increase of numbers or perhaps by aggregation of a number of related gentes or clans, the people no longer relied for defense on the site they occupied, but felt free to select a place for their homes with reference only to their wants as a horticultural people. This period or stage in development has been reached by many of the Pueblo tribes, although mostly within the historical period; but some of them, the Mokis for example, are still in a prior stage.
The area covered and enclosed by standing walls measures forty-three feet by fifty-nine feet, but the building is not rectangular nor do its sides face the cardinal points, as is often stated. It consists of three central rooms, each approximately ten by twenty-four feet, arranged side by side with the longer axes north and south, and two other rooms, each about nine feet by thirty-five feet, occupying respectively the north and south ends of the building and arranged transversely across the ends of the central rooms with their longer axes running east and west. The northeastern and southeastern corners of the building have fallen, and large blocks of the material of which they were composed are strewn upon the ground in the vicinity. It is probable that the destruction of these corners prior to that of the rest of the building was due to the disintegration of minor walls connected with them and extending, as shown by ridges on the ground, northward and eastward. It is not likely that the main building originally stood alone as at present; on the contrary there is reason to suppose that it was connected with other structures of equal or greater size south and east of it, now marked only by the fragments of standing wall mentioned. The whole probably formed a cluster, the remains of which can still be made out in the immediate vicinity. This cluster occupied an area of about 400 feet by 240 feet; it was not rectangular, although the eastern and western sides, now marked by long ridges, were roughly parallel. There is no doubt that this is the area measured by the Padre Font in 1776. His description was copied by many later writers, and his measurements were erroneously applied by Humboldt and others to the ruin itself.
The exterior walls rise to a height of from twenty to twenty-five feet above the ground. There were two stories, but the top of the wall is now from one to two feet higher than the roof level of the second story. The middle room was three stories high,and the walls are now twenty-eight to thirty feet above the ground level. The exterior surface of the walls is very rough, but the interiors of the rooms are finished with a remarkable degree of smoothness, so much so as to attract the attention of everyone who visits the ruin. Mange, who wrote in 1697, says that the walls shine like Pueblo pottery; and they still retain this finish wherever the surface has not cracked off. They are not of even thickness. At the ground level the exterior wall is from three and a half to four and a half feet thick, and in one place reaches a maximum of over five feet. The interior walls are from three to four feet thick at their base; but at the top they are reduced to about two feet. This is accomplished by set-backs or steps at the various floor levels. The interior wall surfaces are approximately vertical, but are not plane surfaces. The building was constructed by crude methods, aboriginal in character, and there is no uniformity in it. The walls are not of even thickness, the floor joists are seldom on a straight line, and measurements made at the two ends of a room seldom agree.
The Casa Grande is often referred to as an adobe structure; but adobe, under a proper definition, consists of molded brick dried in the sun but not baked. This construction is very largely used in the Southwest; perhaps nine out of ten houses of the Mexican population are so built, and it is often found in the Pueblo villages, but no well authenticated example has been found in the ruins, except in those known to have been inhabited since the Spanish conquest. It is not found in the Casa Grande. The walls are composed of huge blocks of earth, three to five feet long, two feet high, and three to four feet thick. These were manufactured in place on the wall, probably by the aid of a framework or box of poles woven with grass and canes. This open box or trough was placed on the wall and filled with a heavy paste formed of clayey earth obtained in the immediate vicinity and mixed with water to the proper consistency. When sufficiently dry the box was moved on to the next section and the process was repeated. By this most simple method excellent results were obtained. The lines marking the courses and the vertical joints can be clearly made out, for the material was admirably adapted to the method; and although the masonry has been exposed to the elements for over two centuries, probably for more than three, it is still in excellent condition. When dry it is almost as hard as sandstone and almost as durable.
Destruction of such walls does not come from weathering but from sapping at the ground level. The surface erosion is practically nothing, and in the plans made for the preservation of the ruin it was found that it could he ignored. The climate here is very dry, but occasionally there are heavy rainstorms, during which an enormous quantity of water is precipitated in a short time. After such a wetting the walls soon dry out and become as hard as before, but that portion nearest the ground dries last and is actually although perhaps very slightly less hard than the remainder. This lower part, moreover, is more exposed to the sandstorms which are a pronounced feature of the country; great clouds of sand and small gravel are swept along the ground and hurled with violence against any opposing object. As a result the walls are gradually eaten away at and immediately above the ground surface, often to a depth of two feet or more. Eventually the support or base of the wall becomes inadequate and it falls en masse; after which disintegration proceeds at a rapid rate, and in a few decades it becomes a shapeless mound.
In the two centuries which have elapsed since Kino’s visit to the ruin, damage by the elements has been very slight, not nearly so great as that accomplished by relic hunters in two decades. The latter seem to have had a craze for wood. The lintels of all the openings and even the stumps of floor joists have all been torn out and carried away. With the exception of one or two such stumps deeply embedded in the wall and not in sight from the ground, not a particle of wood was allowed to remain in the building, although there is good authority for the statement that twenty-five years ago a portion of the roof was still in place. In this system of architecture, roofs and floors are the same. A series of light joists or heavy poles is laid across the shorter axis of the room at the time the walls are built; over these another series of lighter poles is placed covered with reeds and coarse grass and with a final topping off or surfacing of clay trodden down and brought to a level. The primary joists are cut by guess wherever they can be found, and are carried or dragged to the place where the building is being erected. If too short they cannot be used, but if too long they are usually put in anyway, as to cut them again with the crude appliances the builders had would entail much labor. In the Casa Grande these beams often project three feet into the masonry. The positions of the floors and roofs are well marked by long lines of beam holes, and the prints of the upper members of the floor series, even of the grass and canes, are still to be seen on the walls.
The building was well provided with doorways and other openings arranged in series one above the other. There were doorways from each room into each adjoining room, except that the rooms of the central tier could be entered only from the east. Although these doorways are now much broken down, their size and shape can still be made out. They were usually two feet wide and four feet high, but no evidence of the use of doors of any kind is to be found, and it is hardly to be doubted that the only means at the disposal of the old inhabitants for closing these openings were those used by all the Pueblo Indians up to the last decade or two-a blanket suspended from a stick or from pegs. Some of the openings have a curious narrowing at the top, causing them to resemble strongly the type of doorway which characterizes some of the old ruins in Mexico; but this peculiarity is not universal and the resemblance is probably accidental.
The tearing out of the lintels of openings by relic-seeking tourists has damaged the ruin even more than the sandstorms to which it has been subjected. The weak point of rammed earth construction is in the openings; the ancient builders, with an apparent appreciation of this weakness, perhaps acquired through disastrous experience, resorted to peculiar means to overcome it. Elaborate lintels of poles and beams were built into the masonry when the wall was erected, and every precaution was taken to strengthen that part. The poles extended into the masonry sometimes for over a foot on each side of the opening, and in some instances were arranged in tiers one above another. As many as three separate lintels arranged in this manner one above the other have been found crowning one opening. When such lintels are removed the masonry above soon breaks down, and this process continues at an ever-increasing rate until the destruction is completed.
In compliance with the Act of Congress passed for the protection of the ruin, plans were made by the writer for its restoration and preservation. It was found that the principal causes of destruction were the undermining of the walls and the breaking down of the masonry above the openings. To prevent the continuation of these causes was the first and most important care. This was accomplished by underpinning the walls with hard burnt brick, restoring the lintels and filling in above them with the same construction. The brick work was set back from the face of the wall about an inch and then surfaced with cement mortar to bring it out flush. By this means further disintegration of the walls near the ground and about openings was prevented, and the external appearance of the ruin was so little changed that the casual observer would hardly notice that any work had recently been done upon it. It was found necessary to use several tie rods and beams, however, which slightly disfigured the structure, but as the work was designed throughout to maintain the ruin in as nearly as possible its former condition, such disfigurement is not great. The whole amount appropriated and expended on this work was $2,000; but it was not sufficient to do all the work planned. The work was completed some years ago, but no account or notice of it has ever been printed, so far as known, so that it may fairly be inferred that no great change in the appearance of the ruin was made. An examination of the ruin made recently showed that the work was effective so far as it had been done.
It has been suggested that a roof should be placed over the ruin; but it is to be hoped that this project will not be carried out. Such disfigurement of one of the most unique and picturesque features of the country would be inexcusable. Furthermore it would be altogether unnecessary. For over two centuries the ruin has stood exposed to the sunshine of the sunniest of lands, washed by the rains, caressed by the breezes and whipped by the storms, and through it all has stood unmoved and practically unchanged. So long as the walls are upright there is practically no surface erosion, ‘for the material of which they are composed is now almost as hard as sandstone. The region is an arid one and the rainfall is so slight that agriculture without irrigation is almost impossible. The few rainstorms which visit it are violent but of short duration, and during most of the year an unclouded brilliant sky forms the most fitting roof to this old relic of a bygone time. So brilliant is the light that photographic exposures require but three-fourths of the time given similar subjects elsewhere.
The habits and customs and even the necessities and something of the history of a people are indelibly stamped on their architecture and are often exposed in the remains of their houses long after the people themselves have passed into oblivion. The historian may err in his inferences and conclusions if not in his facts; painters and sculptors may and generally do inject too much of their own personalities into their subjects; and the conceptions we form of a people who have run their course and disappeared in the distant past, leaving only some written or sculptured records, are always uncertain and subject to revision. So it has been with the ancient Egyptians; so it will be with our present conceptions of the ancient Aztec culture. But the record which a people leave in their house structures is an unconscious record, made without thought on their part; therefore it reflects their feelings and aspirations, their needs and necessities, with a faithfulness which no other kind of record can approach. We may be weak in reading what is recorded, or we may err in the reading, but the record is none the less clear and explicit.
So, knowing a little of the manner of life of modern village builders in the Southwest, we can read in the ground plans of the ruins something of the past of the people who once lived in them. We can see in the old record the results of periods of prosperity and plenty, when the village was the center of life of a region about it; when peace reigned over all and the men were not afraid to leave their women and children at home while they went away to a distance to farm some little fertile valley and gather the. stores which enabled them to pass the winter in comfort and in the observance of those rites which had come down to them from their fathers’ fathers and were the proper means of testifying their thankfulness to the gods for the favors accorded them or of offering up prayers that such favors might not be withdrawn. They were a religions people, and their deep reverence for all things pertaining to the worship of their gods is shown in the careful location and construction of the ceremonial chambers where the rites were usually observed. Under such favorable conditions the ground plan of a village shows a steady growth. Room after room was added, as maidens were given in marriage and the old clan or mother family grew larger and demanded more space; for in the Pueblo system descent and inheritance are in the female line, and when a man marries he goes to his wife’s home and becomes an adopted member of her family. The children belong to the mother and take her clan name, and if their quarters become inadequate new rooms must be built, not wherever their taste or fancy may dictate, but adjoining and connected with the rooms already inhabited by the family. These great artificial families or clans occupy each its own house cluster, which grow and wane with the number of girls who marry and have children.
On the other hand, we can read in the ruins the story of dark and troublous times, when war and all its horrors hovered over the little band; when the men timidly farmed the little tracts about the home, ready on the first alarm to drop their implements and flying to the village take up arms in its defense; when no man dared to go out of sight of his own home, where on the housetops sentinels were posted, who day and night scanned the horizon or peered into the darkness, that the enemy might not take them unawares. Old rooms were divided rather than new ones built. Long projecting rows of houses offered too good an opportunity for a daring enemy to attack many points at once, and they were not constructed, but instead rooms were added to the upper stories, and the village became more and more compact, less and less comfortable.
So it was with the Casa Grande. The building did not originally comprise five rooms upon the ground, nor was the middle tier higher than the others. It shows to-day that it attained its size by gradual growth. Probably in the beginning there were four rooms upon the ground in this portion of the cluster. Then four rooms above these were added, as a demand arose for more space, and still later the northern tier of two rooms was built. The joint made with the former exterior wall can still be seen. Finally the middle tier was carried up a story higher than the others and low parapets were constructed around the edge of the roof. This was the period of its greatest glory. The site, hallowed by the remains of older villages, was an ideal one, and from the summits of the buildings which composed the cluster an extensive view was had in all directions. An almost unlimited area of fine arable land surrounded the village and extended to the timber-fringed river, from which a large irrigating ditch brought the fertilizing waters. The village grew, and peace and plenty smiled upon the land.
But eventually a change came, not suddenly, but gradually. What the change was we can only surmise; it may have been the advent of the bloodthirsty Apache stock, or it may be that these wild nomads had already settled in part of the country and that their savage warriors became more numerous and arrogant and extended their range. The population of the village no longer grew, but contracted. Perhaps the men were killed in sorties against the enemy, perhaps, wearied and harassed by incessant alarms, they merely withdrew their wives and little ones to other places more secure. But room after room and building after building was abandoned and allowed to sink into decay. It is probable that what we now know as the Casa Grande was not built, at least not all of it, when the period of decadence commenced, but was gradually added to and enlarged during intermissions when it seemed that the good old times were coming back again. But it too suffered in the same way as the remainder of the village. The land about it was so desirable that it was farmed long after the village was abandoned; but the once great building gradually became less and less important, less and less what it used to be. Room after room was given up to the ravages of the elements, and the doorways connecting them with still used chambers were sealed up with huge blocks of masonry, which are still in place. Soon it came about that only a few rooms were occupied, and they were reached only by long ladders from the ground. Peep-holes were left in the blocks which sealed openings sometimes so arranged with reference to each other that through them a far-reaching but contracted view of the country about could be obtained from the innermost and most secure room in the building. The upper terraces, once merry with the prattle of children who used them as playgrounds and were protected from harm by the low parapets which bounded them, were abandoned and sank to decay; while the low cooing songs of the maidens as they worked over the mealing troughs preparing the corn for the day’s food were heard no more. We can imagine the last users of the old building, who doubtless came there to farm the lands about, safely ensconced in an inner room and able to defy all assaults by their savage foes who thought to surprise them, until, weary of a fruitless siege, the assailants left them at liberty to return to their home village, many miles away. In the end, however, the conditions of life became too severe for even these hardy survivors, and the place was abandoned finally and forever.
[Note: The Remington illustrations were added for this web page; they did not appear in the original article. The illustrations of the ruins did, however.]
The Casa Grande Ruins today, photo courtesy National Parks Service
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Diaz, Bernal. The Conquest of New Spain. London: Penguin Books, 1963. Translated by J.M. Cohen. (Other translations and editions are available. This is the fascinating personal narrative of an ordinary soldier in the army of Cortes.)
Thomas, Hugh. Conquest: Montezuma, Cortes and the Fall of Old Mexico. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995. (A great book!)
Udall, Stewart L. Majestic Journey: Coronado's Inland Empire. Santa Fe: University of New Mexico Press, 1987.
Wise, Terence and Angus McBride. The Conquistadores. London: Osprey Men-at-Arms Series, 1996.