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Casa Grande Ruin.

by Cosmos Mindeleff.



The Casa Grande ruin, situated near Gila river, in southern Arizona, is perhaps the best known specimen of aboriginal architecture in the United States, and no treatise on American antiquities is complete without a more or less extended description of it. Its literature, which extends over two centuries, is voluminous, but of little value to the practical scientific worker, since hardly two descriptions can be found which agree. The variations in size of the ruin given by various authors is astonishing, ranging from 1,500 square feet to nearly 5 acres or about 200,000 square feet in area. These extreme variations are doubtless due to difference of judgment as to what portion of the area covered by remains of walls should be a.s.signed to the Casa Grande proper, for this structure is but a portion of a large group of ruins.

So far as known to the writer no accurate plan of the Casa Grande ruin proper has. .h.i.therto been made, although plans have been published; and very few data concerning the group of which it forms a part are available. It would seem, therefore, that a brief report presenting accurate plans and careful descriptions may be of value, even though no pretention to exhaustive treatment is made.


The earlier writers on the Casa Grande generally state that it was in ruins at the time of the first Spanish invasion of the country, in 1540, and quote in support of this a.s.sertion Castaneda’s description of a ruin encountered on the march.[1] Castaneda remarks that, “The structure was in ruins and without a roof.” Elsewhere he says that the name “Chichilticale” was given to the place where they stopped because the monks found in the vicinity a house which had been inhabited by a people who came from Cibola. He surmises that the ruin was formerly a fortress, destroyed long before by the barbarous tribes which they found in the country. His description of these tribes seems to apply to the Apache.

[Footnote 1: Castaneda in Ternaux-Compans. Voyage de Cibola. French text, p. 1, pp. 41, 161-162. (The original text–Spanish–is in the Lenox Library; no English translation has yet been published.)]

The geographic data furnished by Castaneda and the other chroniclers of Coronado’s expedition is very scanty, and the exact route followed has not yet been determined and probably never will be. So far as these data go, however, they are against the a.s.sumption that the Chichilticale of Castaneda is the Casa Grande of today. Mr. A. F. Bandelier, whose studies of the doc.u.mentary history of the southwest are well known, inclines to the opinion that the vicinity of Old Camp Grant, on the Rio San Pedro, Arizona, more nearly fill the descriptions. Be this as it may, however, the work of Castaneda was lost to sight, and it is not until more than a century later that the authentic history of the ruin commences.

In 1694 the Jesuit Father Kino heard of the ruin, and later in the same year visited it and said ma.s.s within its walls. His secretary and usual companion on his missionary journeys, Mange by name, was not with him on this occasion, but in 1697 another visit was paid to the ruin and the description recorded by Mange[1] in his diary heads the long list of accounts extending down to the present time.[2] Mange describes the ruin as consisting of–

A large edifice, the room in the center being four stories high, and those adjoining it on its four sides three stories, with walls 2 varas thick, of strong argamaso y baro (adobe) so smooth on the inside that they resemble planed boards, and so polished that they shine like Puebla pottery.

[Footnote 1: An English translation is given by H. H. Bancroft, Works, iv, p. 622, note. Also by Bartlett, Personal Narrative, 1854, vol. ii, pp. 281-282; another was published by Schoolcraft, Hist.

Cond. and Pros. of Am. Ind., vol. iii, 1853, p. 301.]

[Footnote 2: Quite an extensive list is given by Bancroft (op. cit., pp. 622-625, notes), and by Bandelier in Papers Arch.

Inst. of Amer., American series, i, p. 11, note.]

Mange also gives some details of construction, and states that in the immediate vicinity there were remains of twelve other buildings, the walls half fallen and the roofs burned out.

Following Mange’s account there were a number of descriptions of no special value, and a more useful one written by Padre Font, who in 1775 and 1776 made a journey to Gila and Colorado rivers and beyond. This description[1] is quite circ.u.mstantial and is of especial interest because it formed the basis of nearly all the accounts written up to the time when that country came into our possession. According to this authority–

The house forms an oblong square, facing exactly the four cardinal points, and round about it there are ruins indicating a fence or wall which surrounded the house and other buildings. The exterior or plaza extends north and south 420 feet and east and west 260 feet.

[Footnote 1: A number of copies of Font’s Journal are known.

Bancroft gives a partial translation in op. cit., p. 623, note, as does also Bartlett (op. cit., pp. 278-280); and a French translation is given by Ternaux Compans, ix, Voyages de Cibola, appendix.]

Font measured the five rooms of the main building, and recorded many interesting details. It will be noticed that he described a surrounding wall inclosing a comparatively large area; and nearly all the writers who published accounts prior to our conquest of the country in 1846 based their descriptions on Font’s journal and erroneously applied his measurement of the supposed circ.u.mscribing wall to the Casa Grande proper.

The conquest of the country by the “Army of the West” attracted attention anew to the ruin, through the descriptions of Colonel Emory and Captain Johnston. The expedition pa.s.sed up the Gila valley, and Colonel Emory, in his journal, gives a fanciful ill.u.s.tration and a slight description. The journal of Captain Johnston contained a somewhat better description and a rough but fairly good sketch. The best description of that period, however, was that given by John Russell Bartlett, in his “Personal Narrative,” published in 1854.

Bartlett observed that the ruin consists of three buildings, “all included within an area of 150 yards.” He described these buildings and gave ground plans of two of them and elevations of the structure. He also gave a translation of a portion of Font’s journal, as well as the previous description of Mange. He surmised that the central room of the main building, and perhaps the whole structure, was used for the storage of corn.

Bartlett’s account held place for nearly thirty years as the main reliance of compilers, and it forms today one of the most circ.u.mstantial and comprehensive descriptions extant. Other descriptions appeared at intervals of a few years, some compiled from Bartlett and Font, others based on personal observation, but none of them containing anything new, until the account of Mr. A. F. Bandelier, published some ten years ago,[1] is reached.

[Footnote 1: Archaeological Inst. of Amer., 5th Ann. Rep., 1884.]

Mr. Bandelier described the large group, of which the Casa Grande forms a part, and gave its dimensions as 400 meters (1,300 feet) north and south by 200 meters (650 feet) east and west. He also described and gave measurements of the Casa Grande proper and discusses its place in the field of aboriginal architecture. In a later publication[1] he discussed the ruin at somewhat greater length, and presented also a rough sketch plan of the group and ground plans of the Casa Grande and of the mound north of it. He gave a short history of the ruin and quite an extended account of the Pima traditions concerning it. He considered the Casa Grande a stronghold or fortress, a place of last resort, the counterpart, functionally, of the blockhouse of the early settlers of eastern United States.

[Footnote 1: Papers Archaeol. Inst. of Amer., Amer. ser., iv, Cambridge, 1892, p. 453 et sec.]

In 1888 Mr. F. H. Cushing presented to the Congres International des Americanistes[1] some “Preliminary notes” on his work as director of the Hemenway southwestern archeological expedition. Mr. Cushing did not describe the Casa Grande, but merely alluded to it as a surviving example of the temple, or structure, which occurred in conjunction with nearly all the settlements studied. As Mr. Cushing’s work was devoted, however, to the investigation of remains a.n.a.logous to, if not identical with, the Casa Grande, his report forms a valuable contribution to the literature of this subject, and although not everyone can accept the broad inferences and generalizations drawn by Mr. Cushing–of which he was able, unfortunately, to present only a mere statement–the report should be consulted by every student of southwestern archeology.

[Footnote 1: Berlin meeting, 1888; Compte-Rendu, Berlin, 1890, p. 150 et seq.]

The latest contribution to the literature of the Casa Grande is a report by Dr. J. Walter Fewkes,[1] also of the Hemenway expedition, under the t.i.tle “On the present condition of a ruin in Arizona called Casa Grande.” Two magnificent ill.u.s.trations are presented, engravings from photographs, showing general views of the ruin, as well as a number of views depicting details, and the ground plan presented at the end of the report is the best so far published. It is unfortunate that this author was not able to give more time to the study of the ruin; yet his report is a valuable contribution to our knowledge concerning the Casa Grande.

[Footnote 1: Jour. of Amer. Ethn. and Arch., Cambridge, 1892, vol.

ii, page 179 et seq.]



The Casa Grande has been variously placed at from 2 leagues to 2 miles south of Gila river. The writer has never traversed the distance from the ruin to the river, but the ruin is about a mile from Walker ranch, which is well known in that neighborhood, and about half a mile from the river. This question, however, is not of much importance, as the ruin is easily found by anyone looking for it, being located directly on one of the stage routes from Casa Grande station, on the Southern Pacific railroad, to Florence, Arizona, and about 9 miles below, or west of, the latter place.

The name Casa Grande has been usually applied to a single structure standing near the southwestern corner of a large area covered by mounds and other debris, but some writers have applied it to the southwestern portion of the area and even to the whole area. The latter seems the proper application of the term, but to avoid confusion, where both the settlement as a whole and that portion which has formed the theme of so many writers are referred to, the settlement will be designated as the Casa Grande group, and the single structure with standing walls as the Casa Grande ruin.

Probably no two investigators would a.s.sign the same limits to the area covered by the group, as the margins of this area merge imperceptibly into the surrounding country. The accompanying map (plate LI) shows this area as interpreted by the writer. The surface covered by well defined remains, as there shown, extends about 1,800 feet north and south and 1,500 feet east and west, or a total area of about 65 acres.

[Ill.u.s.tration: Pl. LI: Map of Casa Grande Group.]

The Casa Grande ruin, as the term is here used, occupies a position near the southwestern corner of the group, and it will be noticed that its size is insignificant as compared with that of the entire group, or even with the large structure in the north-central part of it. The division of the group into northern and southern portions, which has been made by some writers, is clearly shown on the map; but this division is more apparent than real. The contour interval on the map is one foot–a sufficiently small interval to show the surface configuration closely and to bring out some of its peculiarities. Depressions are shown by dotted contours. It will be noticed that while most of the mounds which mark the sites of former structures rise but 10 feet or less above the surrounding level, the profiles vary considerably, some being much more smoothed off and rounded than others, the former being shown on the map by even, “flowing” contours, while the latter are more irregular; and it will be further noticed that the irregularity reaches its maximum in the vicinity of the Casa Grande ruin proper, where the ground surface was more recently formed, from the fall of walls that were standing within the historical period.

External appearance is a very unsafe criterion of age, although in some cases, like the present, it affords a fair basis for hypothesis as to comparative age; but even in this case, where the various portions of the group have presumably been affected alike by climatic and other influences, such hypothesis, while perhaps interesting, must be used with the greatest caution. Within a few miles of this place the writer has seen the remains of a modern adobe house whose maximum age could not exceed a decade or two, yet which presented an appearance of antiquity quite as great as that of the wall remains east and southeast of the Casa Grande ruin.

The application of the hypothesis to the map brings out some interesting results. In the first place, it may be seen that in the lowest mounds, such as those in the northwestern corner of the sheet, on the southern margin, and southwest of the well-marked mound on the eastern margin, the contours are more flowing and the slopes more gentle than in others.

This suggests that these smoothed mounds are older than the others, and, further, that their present height is not so great as their former height; and again, under this hypothesis, it suggests that the remains do not belong to one period, but that the interval which elapsed between the abandonment of the structures whose sites are marked by the low mounds and the most recent abandonment was long. In other words, this group, under the hypothesis, affords another ill.u.s.tration of a fact constantly impressed on the student of southwestern village remains, that each village site marks but an epoch in the history of the tribe occupying it–a period during which there was constant, incessant change, new bands or minor divisions of the tribe appearing on the scene, other divisions leaving the parent village for other sites, and the ebb and flow continuing until at some period in its history the population of a village sometimes became so reduced that the remainder, as a matter of precaution, or for some trifling reason, abandoned it en This phase of pueblo life, more prominent in the olden days than at present, but still extant, has not received the prominence it deserves in the study of southwestern remains. Its effects can be seen in almost every ruin; not all the villages of a group, nor even all the parts of a village, were inhabited at the same time, and estimates of population based on the number of ruins within a given region, and even those based on the size of a given ruin, must be materially revised. As this subject has been elsewhere[1] discussed, it can be dismissed here with the statement that the Casa Grande group seems to have formed no exception to the general rule, but that its population changed from time to time, and that the extent of the remains is no criterion of the former population.

[Footnote 1: See pp. 179-261 of this Report, “Aboriginal Remains in Verde Valley.”]

It will be noticed that in some of the mounds, noticeably those in the immediate vicinity of the Casa Grande ruin, the surface is very irregular. In this instance the irregularity indicates a recent formation of surface; for at this point many walls now marked only by mounds were standing within the historical period. External contour is of course a product of erosion, yet similarity of contour does not necessarily indicate either equal erosion or equal antiquity. Surface erosion does not become a prominent factor until after the walls have fallen, and one wall may easily last for a century or two centuries longer than another similarly situated. The surface erosion of a standing wall of grout, such as these under discussion, is very slight; photographs of the Casa Grande ruin, extending over a period of sixteen years, and made from practically the same point of view, show that the skyline or silhouette remained essentially unchanged during that period, every little k.n.o.b and projection remaining the same. It is through sapping or undermining at the ground surface that walls are destroyed.

An inspection of the ill.u.s.trations accompanying this paper will show what is meant by sapping: the external walls are cut away at the ground surface to a depth varying from a few inches to nearly 2 feet. After a rain the ground, and that portion of the walls at present below its surface, retains moisture much longer than the part of the walls which stands clear; the moisture rises by capillary attraction a foot or two above the ground surface, rendering the walls at this level softer than elsewhere, and as this portion is more exposed to the flying sand which the wind sweeps over the ground it is here that erosion attains its maximum. The wall is gradually cut away at and just above the ground surface until finally the base becomes too small to support it and it falls en Then and not till then surface erosion becomes an important factor and the profile of the ma.s.s becomes finally rounded.

But it will be readily seen that a slight difference of texture, or thickness, or exposure, or some trifling difference too minute for observation, might easily add many decades to the apparent age of a mound. The walls once fallen, however, the rounding or smoothing of the mounds would probably proceed at an equal rate throughout the group, and study of the profile gives a fairly good estimate as to the comparative age of the mounds. On this basis the most ancient mounds are those specified above, while the most recent are those in the immediate vicinity of the Casa Grande ruin. This estimate accords well with the limited historical data and with the Pima traditions, which recount that the Casa Grande ruin was the last inhabited village in this vicinity.

[Ill.u.s.tration: Fig. 328.–Map of large mound.]

Probably intermediate in time between the Casa Grande ruin and the rounded mounds described above should be placed the large structure occupying the northern-central part of the map. This mound is deserving of more than a pa.s.sing notice. It consists of two mounds, each four or five times the size of the Casa Grande ruin, resting on a flat-topped pedestal or terrace about 5 feet above the general level. The summits of these mounds, which are nearly flat, are some 13 feet above this level.

The sides of the mounds slope very sharply, and have suffered somewhat from erosion, being cut by deep gullies, as shown in figure 328, which is an enlargement from the map. It has been stated that these structures were mounds, pure and simple, used for sacrifice or worship, resembling somewhat the well-known pyramid of Cholula; but there is no doubt that they are the remains of house-structures, for a careful examination of the surface on the slopes, reveals the ends of regular walls. The height is not exceptional, the mound on the east being less than 3 feet lower, while the one on the southeast lacks less than 4 feet of its height. The characteristic feature, however, and one difficult to explain, except on the hypothesis stated, is the sharp slope of the sides. It will be noticed that the raised base or terrace on which the mounds are located is not perfectly flat, but on the contrary has a raised rim. This rim seems quite inconsistent with the theory which has been advanced that the terrace was built up solidly as a terrace or base, as in that case it would seem natural that the slope from the base of the mounds to the edge of the terrace would be continuous.

There is an abundance of room between the crest of the rim and the base of the terrace for a row of single rooms, inclosing a court within which the main structures stood, or such a court may have been covered, wholly or partly with cl.u.s.ters of rooms, single storied outside, but rising in the center, in two main cl.u.s.ters, three or more stories high. Such an agglomeration of rooms might under certain conditions produce the result seen here, although a circ.u.mscribing heavy wall, occupying the position of the crest of the rim and inclosing two main cl.u.s.ters each rising three or more stories, might also produce this result. The difficulty with the latter hypothesis is, however, that under it we should expect to find a greater depression between the base of the mounds and the edge of the terrace. The most reasonable hypothesis, therefore, is that the s.p.a.ce between the base of the mounds and the edge of the terrace was occupied by rooms of one story. This would also help to explain the steepness of the slopes of the mounds themselves. The walls of the structures they represent, being protected by the adjacent low walls of the one-story rooms, would not suffer appreciably by undermining at the ground level, and if the central room or rooms of each cl.u.s.ter were higher than the surrounding rooms, as is the case in the Casa Grande ruin, the exterior walls, being usually heavier than the inner walls, would be the last to succ.u.mb, the cl.u.s.ters would be filled up by the disintegration of the inner walls, and not until the s.p.a.ces between the low one-story walls surrounding the central cl.u.s.ter were nearly filled up would the p.r.o.nounced disintegration of the outer walls of the structures commence. At that period the walls were probably covered and protected by debris dropping from above, and possibly the profile of the mounds was already established, being only slightly modified by surface erosion since.


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