The (Mis)Truth About Montezuma’s Castle
Although the history of Montezuma Castle is pretty well documented, considering that nobody wrote down much of anything when it was a hot spot of ancestral civilization, there’s this one thing that sticks out as a case of mistaken identity. Or make that, mistaken transplantation.
Montezuma, the great Aztec leader, had no association whatsoever with the ruins that bear his name near Camp Verde. In fact, he was never in Arizona. What happened all those years ago was that early White settlers mistakenly figured that the structure had been built by Aztec refugees who fled Mexico during the Spanish conquest. But scholars have since determined that neither Montezuma or any of his followers made it this far north.
Despite that, the misnomer remains, with some slight bureaucratic adjustments. Now it’s properly known as Montezuma Castle National Monument. The structure is well-preserved because it is situated in a cliff recess about 100 feet above the surrounding valley. Visitors can look but not touch because the ladders that once allowed entry have long since deteriorated. Those who want to go take a peek can get there by taking Exit 289 off I-17 at Camp Verde.
When Arizona became a territory in 1863 the new territorial delegation was much impressed with the work of noted anthropologist William Hickling Prescott who had documented the downfall of Montezuma and the Aztecs at the hands of Hernan Cortez. When they got to Central Arizona they found many ruins of a lost civilization which they deemed to be of a “Montezuma Race.” Therefor they named the new Territorial Capitol established in safe proximity to Fort Whipple “Prescott” in honor of the author, the main streets Montezuma and Cortez, and the cross streets Gurley and Goodwin in honor of the first governors.
In the 1960s, it was still possible to go into part of the ruins if accompanied by a ranger. My school went there on a field trip. Our guide took us through some of the lower rooms. It was fascinating but, in retrospect, a bad idea. Kids poking their inquisitive fingers into everything (even though they were told in no uncertain terms not to touch anything) cannot have furthered the preservation efforts. Oddly, in all these decades, I’ve never seen the nearby Montezuma Well.
[…] a lesser known part of the Montezuma Castle National Monument, 11 miles north of the uber-popular Montezuma’s Castle. Upon arrival, it’s easy to see why the natural limestone sinkhole is sacred to Native American […]
An addendum to Bill Cowan’s post: W.H. Prescott’s theory was that the legendary Aztec homeland Aztlan was located in what is now central Arizona. Additionally, some of the soldiers stationed at Fort Verde (Camp Lincoln) and other Arizona posts were veterans of the Mexican-American War and equated the ruins with “the halls of Montezuma”.
[…] it a day trip: Check out nearby Montezuma’s Castle and Montezuma’s […]
[…] Montezuma Castle […]