Lesson Plan

Tonto National Monument: Saving a National Treasure

A cliff dwelling at Tonto National Monument
Grade Level:
Middle School: Sixth Grade through Eighth Grade
Literacy and Language Arts,Social Studies
Lesson Duration:
90 Minutes
Common Core Standards:
6-8.RH.2, 6-8.RH.3, 6-8.RH.4, 6-8.RH.5, 6-8.RH.6, 6-8.RH.7, 6-8.RH.8, 6-8.RH.9, 6-8.RH.10, 9-10.RH.1, 9-10.RH.2, 9-10.RH.3, 9-10.RH.4, 9-10.RH.5, 9-10.RH.6, 9-10.RH.7, 9-10.RH.8, 9-10.RH.9, 9-10.RH.10
Additional Standards:
US History Era 1 Standard 1A: The student understands the patterns of change in indigenous societies in the Americas up to the Columbian voyages.
Curriculum Standards for Social Studies from the National Council for the Social Studies
Thinking Skills:
Remembering: Recalling or recognizing information ideas, and principles. Understanding: Understand the main idea of material heard, viewed, or read. Interpret or summarize the ideas in own words. Applying: Apply an abstract idea in a concrete situation to solve a problem or relate it to a prior experience. Analyzing: Break down a concept or idea into parts and show the relationships among the parts. Creating: Bring together parts (elements, compounds) of knowledge to form a whole and build relationships for NEW situations. Evaluating: Make informed judgements about the value of ideas or materials. Use standards and criteria to support opinions and views.

Essential Question

How does the nation save historic and prehistoric sites for future generations?


1. Describe how archeology helped researchers learn about the Salado culture of the Tonto Basin, including why they lived in cliff dwellings.
2. Explain the importance of preserving remains of the Salado and other past cultures.
3. Outline the context that led to the passage of the 1906 Antiquities Act and explain the impact the Act had on the preservation of ancient ruins.
4. Debate the relative merits of preserving a historic place in their community or allowing the site to be developed.


Time Period: Pre-European contact to contemporary; 19th through early 20th century
Topics: This lesson can be used in American history units on historical archeology, the late 19th and early 20th century conservation movement, U.S. government policy specifically dealing with preservation and conservation issues, American Indian culture, and 19th-century westward expansion.


Tucked into cool recesses of erosion-carved caves high above Arizona's Tonto Basin stands long deserted cliff dwellings of the ancient Salado people. From about A.D. 1050 until approximately 1450, the Salado culture thrived in this valley where the Tonto Creek joins the Salt River. Around 1300, people of the Salado culture spread out from the valley onto hillside slopes, plateaus and caves. Today wind, sun, desert creatures and visitors roam through the mud-plastered structures built by the Salado people, but long ago the hillsides bustled with human life. No one knows for certain why some groups of Salado moved into caves, but it is widely accepted that a growing population and shrinking resources forced the Salado to move upward, into the hillsides. The Salado left no written records; their stories had to be told through careful archeological investigation and studies of the skillfully painted pottery, woven fabrics, and other physical remains they left behind. These materials lay undisturbed for centuries among the ruins and beneath the surface of the rugged terrain. The site containing them is a jewel in our nation's historical crown. Yet it was nearly lost when progress, ignorance, greed and a lack of national policies to protect historic places like this conspired to threaten the Salado stories.

The Antiquities Act of 1906 was inspired by the need to safeguard ancient American Indian ruins in the southwestern United States during the 19th-century push to open the country's western frontier. One hundred years after its enactment, the American Antiquities Act remains one of the nation's most important conservation laws. Because of its passage, Tonto National Monument and the history of the Salado people survive to tell the stories of an unwritten past.

Lesson Hook/Preview

Artifacts, such as stone tools, pottery, and other objects, indicate that people lived in the southwestern United States as early as 10,500 years ago. At that time, small bands of people who lived from the land on available game and plant foods occupied the area. For several thousand years the population grew and agriculture developed in what is now Arizona. Cultural groups eventually formed, such as the Hohokam ("ho-ho-kam"), Mogollon ("muggy-YOHN") and those such as the Hopi to the north who constructed Pueblos (called puebloan communities). These groups interacted with each other and moved, when necessary, in search of food, firewood and other resources. In the mid 1100s, interaction between the Hohokam, who lived in the Tonto Basin area, and groups native to northern Arizona banded together to create a culture later called Salado, named for the nearby Rio Salado, or Salt River. Occupation of the area by the Salado people is thought to have ended around A.D. 1450. Most researchers believe that eventually some residents of Tonto Basin roamed north to join the puebloan tribes, others moved south to join what is now the Tohono O'Odham nation, and still others returned to hunting animals and gathering plants. Apaches moved into the area in the 1500s and are still nearby today.

Once Europeans arrived, Spain ruled the region from the 16th century until Mexico proclaimed its independence in 1821, after which Mexico governed the area until the mid 19th century. Land acquired by the United States from Mexico at the conclusion of the Mexican War in 1848 included Arizona. In combination with the territory added by the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, this land vastly expanded the boundaries of the nation. Reports of fertile soil and abundant natural resources in the West quickly reached the eastern United States, which had been hit hard by the economic depressions of 1818 and 1839. The promise of affordable land and new opportunities opened floodgates to the West. Waves of new settlers poured in, displacing and driving away the American Indians who had lived there for centuries. Calling it "manifest destiny," some of the country's leaders and many of its people believed they had an obligation to expand the nation's boundaries all the way to the Pacific Ocean.

Explorers, adventurers, ranchers, miners and settlers in search of natural resources or new homes penetrated the far and remote reaches of the newly opened Southwest lands. Some of these early visitors stumbled upon a few of the hundreds of ancient ruins protected for centuries by their isolation and inaccessibility. Some of these multilevel, stone apartment-style and platform-mound dwellings were once home to the American Indians of the Salado culture.

Word of discoveries spread quickly, inciting both national and international fascination with the culture and art of America's first settlers. Exhibitors, museums and private collectors alike created a demand for authentic American Indian objects. Museums sought artifacts to study and share with the public through exhibitions. Although sites were often systematically investigated, excavators were not held to stringent scientific or professional standards. Some treasure hunters, unhampered by laws or regulations, plundered ancient sites causing extensive damage and destruction. Without regulatory laws, irreplaceable American Indian artifacts became part of permanent collections in museums and private homes, both domestic and foreign.

During the late 19th century, anthropology and archeology gained a foothold in the curriculum of universities and with influential thinkers of the time. (Anthropology is the study of the origins and social relationships of human beings, and archeology is the study of past human life and culture by the recovery and examination of remaining artifacts.) Alarmed at the deteriorating state of the nation's ancient irreplaceable cultural resources, preservationists and conservationists called for legislation to protect them. One of the first sites protected by that legislation, known as the Antiquities Act of 1906, was Tonto National Monument, which was established as a national monument on December 19, 1907 by President Theodore Roosevelt.


Getting Started Prompt
Map: Orients the students and encourages them to think about how place affects culture and society
Readings: Primary and secondary source readings provide content and spark critical analysis.
Visual Evidence: Students critique and analyze visual evidence to tackle questions and support their own theories about the subject.
Optional post-lesson activities: If time allows, these will deepen your students' engagement with the topics and themes introduced in the lesson, and to help them develop essential skills.



Additional Resources

A National Register of Historic Places Travel Itinerary 
This National Register of Historic Places' on-line travel itinerary provides information on more than 58 historic places listed in the National Register that illustrate early periods of Southwestern history, including Tonto National Monument.

National Park Service Antiquities Act 1906-2006
Visit this NPS website to learn more about the history of the act--what it has accomplished and challenges today. Also included is a virtual map of the national monuments across the country. Learn about the controversy over President Franklin Roosevelt's decision to declare Jackson Hole, Wyoming, a national monument under the Antiquities Act.

Glimpses of Our National Monuments
The National Park Service provides further information about our National Monuments, including their administration and protection, in the on-line book, Glimpses of Our National Monuments.

National Park Service Archeology Program
Visit this NPS Archeology program website to read about governmental efforts to protect archeological places through laws, regulations, standards, guidelines and executive orders. The Archeology Program website has information about archeology in the parks as well as nationwide archeology efforts. The direction and focus for archeology programs of federal agencies is described on this website and linked articles.

Other Federal Preservation Programs:
National Register of Historic Places
National Park Service Tribal Preservation Program

Ancient Cultures of the Southwest 
The Logan Museum of Anthropology at Beloit College in Beloit, Wisconsin, possesses a vast collection of artifacts from the ancient Southwest. Visit the college's online exhibit--Ancient Cultures of the Southwest--for more detailed information about the Mogollon, Hohokam, and Salado cultures.

Digital History--Native American Voices
This online digital history developed through partnership with the University of Houston, the National Park Service, the Gilder Lehrman Institute, the Museum of Fine Arts--Houston, Chicago Historical Society, and Teaching American History includes an in depth overview of American Indian history from their prehistoric beginnings to their thriving cultures today.

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Last updated: July 21, 2023