The History of Casa Grande Ruins National Monument
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The Spanish penetration into Mexico resulted in 16th century explorations to the southwestern section of the present United States; the territory and the Indians of southwestern Arizona were not directly affected by Europeans until the close of the 17th century. Casa Grande came close to discovery in 1540, when Coronado and his force moved northward through the eastern part of Arizona, but these explorers were looking for gold and had little time for local scenery. The fact that Coronado found no gold probably accounts for the neglect of Arizona for many years to come. Another 150 years passed before the Spaniards began to move into the Arizona deserts.

This time it was men with a different purpose, Jesuit missionaries, whose interests were more in salvation than in exploitation. Such a man was Father Eusebio Francisco Kino, a priest with great missionizing zeal, and a spirit of adventure. He traveled in Pimeria Alta (now the states of Sonora, Mexico and Arizona, U.S.A.), visiting Indian villages and exploring routes to Baja California; he introduced both Christianity and the economic benefits of European crops and livestock to communities which, as visitas, (without a resident priest, but on the itinerary of traveling missionaries) developed into a chain of missions holding the northwestern frontier for Spain.

On the northern fringe of this frontier, Pimas spoke of a "hottai ki", a Great House (Kino 1711). In 1694 Kino, guided by Sopaipuri Indians of San Xavier del Bac, penetrated down the Santa Cruz River drainage, and became the first European to record the existence of the Casa Grande.

In the words of Father Kino's journal: "In November, 1694, I went inland with my servants and some justices of this Pimeria, as far as the casa grande, as these Pimas call it, which is on the large River of Hila that flows out of Nuevo Mexico and has its source near Acoma. This river and this large house and the neighboring houses are forty-three leagues beyond and to the northwest of the Sobaipuris of San Francico Xavier del Bac . . . 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." (Bolton 1948: 127-129).

From now on, the Casa Grande was to be a landmark on the journeys of Spanish, and of the later Americans, across the deserts of southwestern Arizona; nearby was the water of the Gila River and the farming communities of the friendly Pimas, who supplied food for travelers and for their livestock.

Two valuable accounts of the Casa Grande group of ruins resulted from the next Spanish visit, in 1697. This was something of an expedition, arranged by Kino and his friend, Captain Juan Mateo Manje, as an exploration which would demonstrate to the soldiery the friendliness and hospitality of the Pimeria. Kino and Manje were joined at Santa Cruz de Gaybanipitea, on the San Pedro River, by Captain Cristobal Martin Bernal and 22 soldiers. Chief Coro of the Sobaipuris, and 36 of his men, joined at Quiburi. All proceeded downriver to its junction with the Gila. By November 18th they were in the region of the Casa Grande; Ensign Acuna and several men crossed to the north bank of the river with difficulty (Manje had noted the day before that the Gila "carries so much water that a ship could be navigated," (Karns 1953:84)) and saw a ruin, square and very large, with very high walls more than a yard in thickness. Four leagues farther down the river the whole force came to the Casa Grande; here Father Kino, not yet having eaten, said Mass at 11 in the morning, "because on account of the high wind from the north he had not said it" earlier in the day (Bernal 1856:797-809).

The accounts of Captain Bernal and Captain Manje of the Casa Grande as it stood in 1697 are important, since it was to be 79 years before another traveler would write a detailed first-hand description that survived to the present time. [3]

According to Bernal: ". . . we saw the whole building which is very large and four stories high; the walls are square and very thick, about 2 yards through, of the aforementioned white clay; and although these pagans have burned it a number of times, one sees the 4 stories with good rooms, apartments, and windows curiously plastered inside and out so that the walls are smooth and mortered [plastered?] [4] with a reddish mud; the doors likewise. Just outside are 11 somewhat smaller houses made in the same curous way as the 'casa grande' and its stories. It is also clear that there was a very numerous population and they lived in a community, and over a large area is seen much painted and broken pottery; likewise a main canal is visible of 10 yards in width and 4 in depth, with very thick earthen banks, which extends up to the house through the plain; and while we were in the house 3 gentiles came, chiefs of a rancheria on the river, and with great love they embraced our father Kino . . ."

And Manje: "One of the houses was a large building four stories high with the main room in the center, with walls two varas of width made of strong argamasa y barro and so smooth inside that they looked like brushed wood and so polished that they shone like Puebla earthenware . . . The walls are 36 paces in length and 21 in width. Good architecture is apparent from the foundations up ... At a distance of an arcabuz shot are seen 12 more houses partly caved in. They have thick walls, and the roofs are burnt with the exception of one lower room which is built with smooth round beams—apparently cedar or juniper. On top of these are otates and over these a heavy coating of argamasa and hard clay has been placed. This room has a high ceiling of very interesting construction. All around there is evidence of many other ruins and high mounds for a stretch of two leagues . . . There is a main canal that flows from the river over the plain, encircling and leaving the town in the center. It is three leagues in circumference, 10 varas wide and four varas deep . . ." (Karns 1953:85-86). Kino, on this same trip, is more conservative in his estimate of the canal dimensions, giving them as 3 varas in depth, and 6 or 7 in width—although he doesn't hesitate to say this canal is wider than "the causeway of Guadalupe at Mexico." (Bolton 1948: 172).

Eighty-two years after the "discovery" of the Casa Grande the first non-Indian colonists crossed the deserts of southern Arizona, led by Lt. Col. Juan Bautista de Anza, and attended by Franciscan Friars Pedro Font, Francisco Garces, and Tomas Eixarch. The prospective California settlers and their military escort had assembled at the Presidio of Tubac and the mission of Tumacacori; the expedition was to end at the Presidio of Monterey, having established the fact that men, women, and children could be safely taken overland from Mexico to California. On October 30, 1775 the group of some 240 persons reached the Gila River in the vicinity of the Casa Grande; a day's rest was ordered by the commander. Font and Garces were among those taking advantage of this opportunity to see the celebrated ruin. Father Garces' diary refers to the journal of Padre Font for a description of the Casa Grande.

Font relates on Tuesday, October 31 (Coues 1900: 93-95), "I said mass, which some heathen Gila Indians heard with very quiet behavior. Determined the senor commandante today to rest the people from the long journey of yesterday, and with this we had an opportunity of going to examine the Casa Grande, that they call Moctezuma, situated at one league from the river Gila, and distant from the place of the laguna [Camani, where they had camped] some 3 leagues to the east-southeast; to the which we went after mass, [5] and returned after midday, accompanied by some Indians, and by the Governor of Uturituc,..." [Observations on the latitude and longitude of the ruin were made, and a plan of the principal buildings was drawn. Much of Font's account concerns his idea of the true history of the ruin, and an Indian legend of its origin; some of his objective observations on the Casa Grande follow S.V.V.] "We made an exact inspection of the edifice, and of its situation, and we measured it with a lance for the nonce, which measurement I reduced afterward to geometrical feet, and a little more or less it is the following: The Casa is an oblong square and perfectly to the four cardinal winds, east, west, north, and south, and roundabout are some ruins, which indicate some inclosure or wall, which surrounded the house and other buildings, particularly at the corners, where it seems there was some structure like an interior castle, or watch-tower, for in the corner which falls on the southwest there is a piece of groundwork with its divisions and an elevation . . . The woodwork was of pine, apparently, and the sierra most near, which has pines, is distant some twenty and five leagues; and also has some mesquite . . . There comes from the river, and from quite afar, an acequia very large with which was supplied with water the population, and it is now very blind [cegada, i. e., indistinct]."

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Last Updated: 02-Nov-2009