People had been living in and around the volcanic hills of northern Arizona for generations before Sunset Crater Volcano erupted. To the Hopi, those people are the Hisatsinom, the people who came before. In the archeological literature, they are the Sinagua or the Ancestral Puebloan people. They were farmers, living all around what is now the Flagstaff area in villages and towns across the lands they tended. Their homes were pithouses, dug partially into the ground. These people lived their lives in a landscape much like what we see today: ponserosa forests and open meadows, framed by the San Francisco Peaks and other ancient volcanoes. Then, about a thousand years ago, a new volcano emerged literally before their eyes.
Warnings that something was about to occur came days or weeks ahead of time, in the form of earthquakes. No evidence has been found that people died as a direct result of the eruption, so it seems there was enough warning for people to evacuate from their homes. After the eruption, pithouses for miles around were burned and filled with cinders, and others were buried beneath the lava.
In the aftermath, the Sunset Crater area was no longer farmable. The volcano itself occupied one end of a small valley, and its two lava flows filled valleys to depths of 100 feet (34 meters). People relocated to other nearby communities like Walnut Canyon and Wupatki, where they found that thinner layers of ash and cinders from the eruption had improved the soil, holding more moisture and making traditional dryland farming easier. Within a generation after the people were displaced by the eruption, new villages had been built, new fields planted, and new lifeways begun. Agriculture and trade flourished in those areas for years before people once again moved on.
Their descendants, including the Hopi and A:shiwi, still live nearby; memories of the eruption live on in their stories and traditions. Indigenous names of the volcano often describe the eruption, like the Apache Ha Gudní Káá, which translates to "Where It Burned." Other names describe the resulting volcano, like the Hopi Palatsmo, "Red Hill" and the Diné Dził BilátahŁitsoí, "Yellow-Tipped Mountain."
Several centuries after the eruption of Sunset Crater Volcano, new groups of people began to appear in the area. In the 1530s, Estevanico, an enslaved man from Morocco and the first African to explore North America, may have passed through southern Arizona. With him were three other men, the only survivors of the ill-fated Narváez expedition. A few years later, in 1539, an Italian immigrant named Marco de Nizza crossed into Arizona in the San Rafael Valley, along the Santa Cruz River, then turned east to visit Zuni Pueblo before returning to Culiacán in the mountains of Sinaloa.
Two years after that, the Hopi town of Awatovi became the first to be visited and occupied by European colonizers. In 1540-41, a large Spanish force passed through northern Arizona. Francisco Vázquez de Coronado led a force of around 2500 people, including enslaved Indigenous and African people, Indigenous allies, and around 400 armed Spanish men, northwards from Culiacán along the Pacific coast. For six months they traveled north through the Arizona mountains to the Zuni town of Háwikku, which Coronado's army attacked and captured.
During the weeks that followed, Coronado sent out several scouting missions into the surrounding territory, where they came to Awatovi and Tusayan. From there, Hopi people led García López de Cárdenas and a small group of men westward through their homeland to the Grand Canyon. Though the canyon, Öngtupqa, has been known to the Hopi and their Indigenous neighbors for generations, it's likely that Cárdenas and his men were the first Europeans to see it.
After the Coronado expedition left the region in 1541, several decades passed without many - or any - European visitors. The next recorded visitor came to Hopi 40 years later, in 1583, when Antonio de Espejo traveled up the Rio Grande Valley and then west through Zuni, Acoma, and the Hopi mesas with a group of about 30 Indigenous servants, a dozen soldiers, a Catholic priest. Hopi guides led Espejo and his company through the Verde Valley and the mines around modern-day Jerome, Arizona.
Though the people traveling with Cárdenas's and Espejo's expeditions certainly saw the volcanoes of northern Arizona, it would be another few decades before a Spanish name was recorded for them. In 1629, the name Sierra de San Francisco was given to the Peaks, the largest of the region's volcanoes, by Catholic friars at a mission in Oraibi. The Spanish name Sierra Sin Agua, or Sierra Sinagua, is also used.
In Spain large mountain ranges often have springs, streams, and rivers, and so the Spanish armies who first used the name Sin Agua here were surprised to find mountains with little water and no permanent streams. Many Indigenous names for the mountains, however, reference snowfall and rain, and recognize the mountains as a significant water source in a dry land.
The Diné name for the Peaks is Dookʼoʼoosłííd, which means "the mountain that never thaws." The Hopi name is Nuvaʼtukyaʼovi, "shining on top" or "snow on top." Dookʼoʼoosłííd is the western sacred mountain of the Diné. Nuvaʼtukyaʼovi is also sacred to the Hopi, the A:shiwi (who call it Sunha Kʼhbchu Yalanne), and the Havasu 'Baaja (who call it Hvehasahpatch), among others.
Much later, in the 1800s, white colonists arrived in the region, and with them came ranching, logging, mining, and the railroad. The English name Sunset Volcano was given to the cinder cone by John Wesley Powell in 1885. He wrote:
The contrast in the colors is so great that on viewing the mountain from a distance the red cinders seem to be on fire.
In 1928 a movie company wishing to film a landslide proposed blowing up Sunset Crater Volcano. The citizens of Flagstaff feared irreversible damage to the volcano and advocated for its protection. In 1930 President Hoover established Sunset Crater National Monument and the National Park Service took on responsibility for the geologic and human history of the site. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) assisted in construction of some roads and visitor facilities during the 1930s, and others were constructed during the Mission 66 years.
Since 2000 Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument has had an average of around 165,000 visitors each year. Volcanic landscapes are in great abundance in northern Arizona, as is human history both ancient and new, and nowhere is the relationship between the two quite so apparent as it is here. Human activity has long been an essential part of this landscape, and as the National Park Service moves into its second century of managing public lands, questions of how much and what type of human activity is acceptable, permissible, or desirable continue to emerge. Our impact on this landscape - both collective and individual - will determine its future.