Casa Grande Ruins
Administrative History
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Many late nineteenth and early twentieth century writers believed that the early Spanish explorers Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca, Fray Marcos de Niza, and Francisco Vasquez de Coronado viewed the Casa Grande between 1537 and 1540. Some of these authors were certain that it was the "Red House" described in Coronado's journal. These men's travels, however, did not take them to the Hohokam Great House. It was not until 154 years after Coronado traveled through Arizona that the first European beheld the remains of this once great culture. [1]

In 1694, when the Jesuit padre Eusebio Francisco Kino arrived in present-day southern Arizona for the first time, he heard the Piman-speaking peoples talk of a hottai ki not far away. In November of that year, accompanied by Sobaipuri Indians from the village of Bac, Kino set out to view this hottai ki or Casa Grande as he translated it in Spanish. After traveling forty-three leagues (about sixty-four miles) north of Bac, Kino found the large building. He recorded in his journal that

the Casa Grande is a four story building, as large as a castle and equal to the largest church in these lands of Sonora. Close to this Casa Grande there are thirteen smaller houses, somewhat more dilapidated, and the ruins of many others, which make it evident that in ancient times there had been a city here. On this occasion and on later ones I have learned and heard, and at times have seen, that further to the east, north, and west there are seven or eight more of these large old houses and the ruins of whole cities, with many broken metates and jars, charcoal, etc. [2]

From that point onward, the Great House received a notoriety that caused many travelers to come to behold this work of a mysterious people and to speculate on its origin and meaning. Padre Kino led a large party which included Capts. Juan Mateo Manje and Cristobal Martin Bernal to the Casa Grande three years later. When they arrived on November 18, 1697, Kino said Mass in the Great House. Following the service, the men explored the immediate area, and Bernal and Manje wrote descriptions of the prehistoric remains. These accounts present the first detailed narrative of the Great House and its surroundings. Manje's report provided enough detail that visitors two hundred years later could note that little had changed in the structure. He wrote:

there was one great edifice with the principal room in the middle of four stories, and the adjoining rooms on its four sides of three stories, with the walls five and one-half feet in thickness, of strong mortar and clay, so smooth and shining within that they appear like burnished tables, and so polished that they shine like the earthware of Puebla. At a distance of an arquebus shot twelve other houses are to be seen, also half fallen having thick walls, and all the ceilings burnt except in the lower room of one house which is of round timbers, smooth and not thick, which appear to be of cedar or savin, and over them sticks of very equal size and a cake of mortar and hard clay, making a roof or ceiling of great ingenuity. In the environs are to be seen many other ruins and heaps of broken earth which circumscribe it two leagues, with much broken earthware, plates and pots of fine clay, painted many colors, and which resemble the jars of Guadalajara in Spain. It may be inferred that a city of this body politic was very large; and that it was of one government is shown by a main canal which comes from the river from the plain, running around for the distance of three leagues and enclosing the inhabitants of its area, being in breadth ten varas [twenty-eight feet] and in depth about four [eleven feet], through which was directed perhaps one-half the volume of the river, in such a manner that it might serve as a defensive moat as well as to supply the wards with water and irrigate the plantations in the adjacencies. [3]

Manje also noted that the Great House measured thirty-one paces long and twenty paces wide. Bernal added that the plaster used on the interior and exterior of the Great House was reddish-colored mud. He also agreed with Manje's dimensions for the large canal, but Kino differed from them when he wrote that it was three varas deep [8.4 feet] and six or seven wide [16.8 to 19.6 feet]. The observation that the roofs had burned would be repeated by nearly everyone who subsequently visited. Later, many writers would erroneously ascribe the burning to Apache activity. It was probably not wanton destruction which accounted for the burning, but rather a method used by local Pima Indians to remove much needed construction timber from the buildings. [4]

Other padres purportedly visited Casa Grande in 1736, 1744, and 1762. Of these men, only the anonymous author of Rudo Ensayo provided a description which remains. As a result of his 1762 visit, this individual wrote that the roof was intact. The author for the first time referred to the Casa Grande as the house of Montezuma. He did so because he thought that the Aztecs had built it while on a sojourn before their travels ultimately took them to the Valley of Mexico. This misrepresentation persisted until the twentieth century. [5]

In 1775, Lt. Col. Juan Bautista de Anza recruited potential settlers in the area of present day southern Arizona and northern Sonora for an overland journey to establish an outpost in the area of current day San Francisco, California. These people, with their military escort, began their journey from the Presidio at Tubac in October. The Franciscan Friars Pedro Font and Francisco Garces were among the travelers. Upon reaching the Gila River on October 31, 1775, de Anza decided to give the people a day of rest. Garces and Font took the opportunity to visit the nearby Casa Grande which Font termed the "Palace of Montezuma." Garces deferred to Font's diary description rather than write his own account. Font began with the assumption that the structure had been built by the Aztecs who had "lived here when the devil took them on their long journey." These two friars were the first to make interior measurements of the Great House rooms as well as give the exterior dimensions. It consisted of five "halls" of which the three in the center were identical in size measuring twenty-six feet north to south and ten feet east to west. The two "halls" at each end were twelve feet north to south and thirty-eight feet east to west. Font found the doors to be five feet high and two feet wide. Exterior walls were four feet thick while interior walls exceeded those of the exterior by two feet. Outside dimensions ran seventy feet north to south and fifty feet east to west. The outer surface of the exterior walls sloped inward near the top. The Great House consisted of three stories and the two friars thought they detected indications of a fourth floor. Font and Garces observed that the Great House was surrounded by an enclosure inside of which there were other buildings. The enclosure walls measured 420 feet north to south and 260 feet east to west. The ruin of a "castle or watch tower" was located in the southwest corner of the enclosure. Another ruin just east of the Great House had a twenty-six by eighteen-foot dimension. The remains of this structure was ultimately called Font's room where it was thought he had said a mass. Font reported that the ground was littered with pieces of pots and jars. [6]

Casa Grande drawing
Figure 1: 1846 Sketch of the Great House by Stanley of the Kearny Expedition.
Courtesy of Casa Grande Ruins National Monument.

For about sixty-five years after the Font and Garces visit, few white men visited Casa Grande, and no one published a description of the structure. The ten-year Mexican rebellion for independence succeeded in 1821. Politicians of the new republic, however, rarely took note of any activity outside of the Valley of Mexico. Consequently, American fur trappers began to arrive in the area in the early 1830s attracted by the beaver that inhabited the Gila River. Evidence of their presence is seen on a wall of the Great House where a trapper named Pauline Weaver scratched his name and date. Not everyone in Mexico ignored the area, however. Copies of Garces and Font's diaries evidently circulated about Mexico for years. In 1844 Eduard Muhlenpfordt, a German who had resided in Mexico for ten years, published a description of that nation. In it he wrote of having read the two friars' "incomplete" diaries. He wrote that little was known about the area of the Gila River except that there were ruins of an old city there "which is known to the neighboring Indians as Hottai-Ki." Muhlenpfordt gave the first report of artifact removal when he noted that more than one piece of pottery had been found there. As a consequence of his two-volume work, which he published in Germany, Casa Grande received greater foreign notice. [7]

On October 29, 1848, Cave J. Couts passed within sight of Casa Grande. He called it the "Aztec Castle or temple" and exaggerated its dimensions when he wrote that it "is seven stories high with walls 10 or 12 yards in thickness." The men in a neighboring Pima village told Couts that the building "was left by their grandfathers, as a sacred place." These Pima could not give a date when it had been built, but, according to their legend, all the races of mankind had come from it with the whites coming "from one side, Mexicans from another, Indians from another, etc." Since there were only four sides to the Great House, the Pima recognized only four races, but then they had not encountered other ethnic groups. [8]

Soon after Muhlenpfordt's work was published, the start of the Mexican-American War caused Casa Grande to be visited by ever increasing numbers of people from the United States. The first such group, a military detachment on its way to California under the command of Brig. Gen. Stephen Watts Kearny, arrived at noon on November 10, 1846. At the time the party halted for its midday meal, Major William Emory, among others, sighted the Casa Grande and went to investigate it. Emory called it the remains of a three-story mud house. He pronounced the relic to be sixty feet square with walls four feet thick. Ceiling timbers had been burned out of their seats in the walls to a depth of six inches. In fact Emory felt that the whole interior had been burned. As would become the fashion of future visitors, Emory and the others made a "long and careful search for household furniture, or other implements of Art." These early treasure seekers seemed not to have too much success, for they found only a corn grinder (metate) and a few marine shells which had been cut into various ornaments. While Emory inspected the ruin, a fellow traveler, Stanley, sketched it (figure 1). Dr. John Griffin, a surgeon for the detachment, called the Great House "Casa Montezuma". He probably talked with the local Native Americans who passed on the name they had heard mentioned by the Spanish. Griffin pronounced the structure to be an excellent house, built of cement and sand. Inside, it had a very fine finish. Although Emory did not mention anyone removing the remains of rafters from their wall seats, some were taken out because Griffin wrote that he had been told the butt ends had been cut with a stone ax. E.G. Squire incorporated Emory's account in his 1848 description of the region and provided a drawing (figure 2). [9]

Casa Grande drawing
Figure 2: Drawing of the Casa Grande. E.G. Squire, "New Mexico and California," American Review, November 1848

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Last Updated: 22-Jan-2002