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Determining the Facts

Reading 1: Tonto National Monument

Around A.D. 1150, the Salado culture, named for its dependence on the nearby Rio Salado, or Salt River, took hold in the Arizona valley now known as the Tonto Basin, where Tonto Creek joins the Salt River. The Salado culture combined customs and characteristics of several American Indian groups who lived in the area, such as the Mogollon, whose pottery styles and burial traditions they adopted. Like the Hohokam people, the Salado channeled the river's waters to create farmland in the desert. They built Pueblo-style buildings. The Salado left no written records; their stories are largely told through archeological discoveries. Archeology is the study of the past through material remains--the possessions we leave behind, or artifacts, and the marks we leave on the landscape like building foundations, trash piles or road beds, known as features.

Based on the types of things they found, such as projectile points used as weapons and stone scrapers used for cutting and working animal hides, archeologists calculated that the first American Indians passed through the Tonto Basin as early as 3500 B.C. Archeological evidence indicates that by the late 8th century, members of the Hohokam culture lived here in permanent pit house settlements. Pit houses were hollows dug into the earth and covered with a domed roof made of branches and mud.

As the population grew, people organized irrigation districts along the Salt River. Each district was responsible for the ditches, fields, and crops along a few miles of the river. District activity was centered at structures that have come to be called "platform mounds," because masonry structures were built atop man-made hills. Although some are now probably below Roosevelt Lake, the ruins of platform mounds are still scattered along the length of both the Salt River and Tonto Creek in Tonto Basin.

By 1300 the growing population and shrinking amount of resources pushed the Salado people to spread throughout the region. Some Salado moved from the valley floor and settled in the hillsides, a few soaring 2,000 feet high. Others built settlements on plateaus and in shallow caves above Tonto Basin.

In the alcoves the Salado built structures from siltstone rock that littered the caves, and plastered their buildings with mud. Archeological excavation of Salado cliff dwellings in Tonto National Monument tells us that people of the Salado culture, like the Hohokam, farmed the rich soil of the Tonto Basin. Analysis of plant materials and seeds recovered from the soil reveals that they grew corn; beans; pumpkins; cotton; and amaranth, a type of grain. Evidence also suggests that the Salado supplemented farmed crops with the buds, leaves, and roots of a wide variety of native plants, including prickly pear and saguaro cactus, and such trees as mesquite, black walnut, sycamore, and hackberry. The yucca plant was valued for its edible buds and stalks; its fiber was woven into rope, mats, clothing, and sandals. Tips of the plant's stiff leaves were used as sewing needles and a type of soap was extracted from its roots. Analysis of recovered animal remains indicates that the Salado hunted local deer, rabbit, quail and other small game for food and fashioned tools from the bones.

Dwellings and Culture
On a cliff high above the Tonto Basin, ruins now known as the Upper Cliff Dwelling consisted of 32 ground floor rooms, eight of which had a second story. Archeologists think that the Salado used terraces and rooftops of the structures for work and recreation. Debris from ancient fires tell us that fire pits were dug into the floors. The Lower Cliff Dwelling included 16 ground floor rooms, three of which were two story structures. Ladders and hatchways in the ceilings provided access to the second stories and rooftops. Based on the artifacts found in certain areas, archeologists determined that some rooms were used as living space, while others were work rooms where people ground grain and other plant products. Still other rooms were storage rooms and held surplus food and various tools.

The Salado knew and used their surroundings well. They learned to cultivate crops in small patches of fertile land on the craggy hillsides. They collected rain water for later use. Some group members wove textiles from native plants, including cotton; others made pottery from local red clay and decorated the vessels with intricate black and white designs. The unique style of black and white designs on red pottery is associated with the Salado culture. However, archeologists found that not all ceramics were decorated. They believe that plain pottery was used for daily use and decorated ware was probably reserved for ceremonies. Because Salado pottery was found throughout the Southwest, decorated ware may also have been used for trade with other American Indian groups.

The presence of seashells commonly found in California and feathers from Mexico suggest that the Salado may have been part of an expansive trade network exchanging goods and technological ideas from what is now Colorado to the Pacific shore. Burial practices and cremations of the Salado, similar to those found in cemeteries of other groups, provide additional evidence of the exchange of goods and ideas with various native tribes. The Salado population grew as people migrating from surrounding areas joined the community. They incorporated features of their own lifestyle, creating the unique Salado culture.

Experts widely agree that the Salado walked away from their cliff dwellings sometime around A.D. 1450. By this time, the population had grown so large that demand and overuse led to a scarcity of resources, and the quality of life declined. Internal strife, drought, and disease are other likely factors that caused the Salado to abandon their lofty homes. While experts believe they know why the Salado left, no one knows for certain where they went. It is widely agreed, and archeological research supports the theory that the Salado dispersed into smaller groups. It is thought that some Salado returned to a way of life based on hunting and gathering food, while others joined various settled cultural groups. Still others, it is believed, formed their own agricultural communities. Additional archeological investigations may provide more clues.

Ruins Discovered
Rugged natural terrain, remoteness and natural camouflage isolated and protected the Salado cliff dwellings until the mid-1870s when ranchers, soldiers, adventurers and settlers found their way into the Tonto Basin. The discoveries here and elsewhere in the American Southwest sparked a fascination with American Indian art and culture in both the public and scientific domains. The newly formed Archeological Institute of America commissioned anthropologist and historian Adolph F. Bandelier to explore the region. Bandelier spearheaded ethnographic and archeological research of the American Southwest by conducting the first systematic survey and careful exploration of the area in 1880. (Ethnography is the branch of anthropology that deals with the scientific description of specific human cultures.)

When Roosevelt Dam was constructed, between 1906 and 1911, some of the evidence of settlements and irrigation canals used by the early Salado were submerged beneath Roosevelt Lake. At the same time, the concentration of people working on the dam brought more attention to the dwellings. To protect Roosevelt Lake's watershed, President Theodore Roosevelt designated Tonto National Forest in 1905, incidentally providing some federal protection to the hundreds of archeological sites in Tonto Basin. Vandalism and relic hunters further threatened the area, however, and motivated President Roosevelt to add more protection for the site under the newly signed Antiquities Act of 1906.

While many questions still remain unanswered, most of what we know about the Salado people and how they lived in their desert environment was learned through archeology. It took conservation legislation like the Antiquities Act of 1906 to ensure protection for the Salado cliff dwellings and cultural remains; to build on the methodical study begun by Adolph Bandelier; and to open the site to systematic investigation, preservation, and interpretation to the public. Preservation and conservation under the Antiquities Act brought new life to the ancient ruins as visitors walk through rooms once home to the region's first settlers and wonder at displays of exquisite pottery, textiles and structures fashioned here hundreds of years ago.

Tonto National Monument is just one example of the important places recognized by this significant act of legislation. By establishing a national interest in protecting archeological sites and artifacts, the Antiquities Act of 1906 gives a voice to people who left behind no written record, but whose culture is part of our national heritage.

Questions for Reading 1

1. Since the Salado left no written records, how did scholars and archeologists learn about them?

2. Why do researchers think the Salado moved into caves above the river valley?

3. What are some native plants used by the Salado? What did they make from the yucca plant?

4. How long did the Salado people live in the Tonto Basin? What are some of the reasons they might have left?

Reading 1 was compiled from "The Salado: People of the Salt River" from the National Park Service Tonto National Monument website; Tonto National Monument "Draft Environmental Impact Statement" January 2002; National Park Service, Tonto National Monument "Natural and Cultural Resources Management Plan" November 1993; Tonto National Monument Archeological District, National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form, Washington D.C.; U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1987; Ronald F. Lee, "The Antiquities Act of 1906," 1970; and The National Park Service brochure for Tonto National Monument, 1993.


Comments or Questions

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