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Tonto National Monument, Arizona

(NPS Photo) Woven fabric with a swirly design from Tonto National Monument.

Around A.D. 1150, the Salado, a cultural group melding characteristics of Hohokam, Mogollon and puebloan communities, such as the Hopi, took hold in Arizona's Tonto Basin, where Tonto Creek joins the Salt River. By 1300, a growing population and shrinking resources probably pushed the Salado out from the valley and into the region's hillside slopes, plateaus and caves. The Salado knew and used their surroundings well. They cultivated crops on small patches of workable land on the craggy hillsides. They fashioned clothing and tools from native plants and developed a unique style of polychrome painted pottery. They constructed cliff dwellings from siltstone rocks found in erosion carved caves high above the valley. Then, sometime around 1450, for reasons not completely understood, but widely attributed to increased population pressure and depleted resources, the Salado walked away from their hillside and valley settlements and abandoned their lofty cliff dwellings. They most likely broke into smaller groups, joining various settled cultural groups in the region. Some may have returned to a hunting and gathering way of life; still others may have formed their own agricultural communities.

For hundreds of years, rugged terrain, remoteness and natural camouflage isolated and protected the cliff dwellings and the materials the Salado left. These irreplaceable treasures were threatened in the mid-1870s, however, when Western expansion and the fascination with Native American artifacts found their way into Arizona's Tonto Basin. Recognizing the significance of the Salado to America's cultural heritage, President Theodore Roosevelt declared the site a national monument in 1907, one of the first sites protected by the Antiquities Act of 1906. The proclamation mentioned “two prehistoric ruins of ancient cliff dwellings ... of great ethnologic, scientific and educational interest” (Proc. No. 787).

The site's earliest archeological research took place in 1937, when William A. Duffen excavated vandalized rooms and stabilized decaying walls of the Lower Cliff Dwelling. But professional archeological investigation at Tonto began in 1940 with Charles Steen's work at the Upper Cliff Dwellings. His research uncovered a variety of pottery types, along with plant and animal remains, and the most extensive collection of woven materials yet found in the Southwest.

Today, more than 63,000 visitors annually explore the site's 1,120 acres. They follow a self-guided half-mile trail to visit the 16 rooms of the Lower Ruin and take guided tours of the Upper Ruin's 40 rooms. In addition to distinctive pottery, the site's visitor center displays clothing and hunting tools fashioned by the Salado people.

In 2005, visitors to Tonto National Monument responded to the question, "In your opinion, what is the national significance of the park?" with these comments:

  • “Its historic relations to our past and the people that lived and died here. It's outstanding beauty.”
  • “More inspiring and awesome than I had thought it would be. Spectacular.”
  • “Preserves and presents our National History in a way that cannot be presented in classbooks or classrooms.”
  • “Tonto highlights how past groups of Native Americans interacted with each other and their natural environment.”
  • “A place to bring children for educational purposes. Of course this applies to adults as well. To learn much about our past.”
  • “Shows heritage before Europeans. Excited about ability to actually go in ruins.”
  • “It (Tonto) preserves our heritage which is so important. We have lost too much. Without this park and other national parks, we would lose it all.”

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