Oral History

by Kristin A. Kuckelman

Castle Rock Pueblo is one of very few prehistoric sites about which an oral history has been published. This oral history, or legend, adds a unique dimension to our knowledge of Castle Rock. It was recorded in 1874 and 1875 during a government-sponsored exploring expedition known as the Hayden Survey (Jackson and Holmes 1981*1). The official report of this survey, published in 1876, created a sensation, for it was the first publication to describe Mesa Verde cliff dwellings (Switzer 1979*1:12; Wetherill 1977*1:98)—although the larger, more spectacular cliff dwellings would not be discovered by the cattle-rancher Wetherill brothers until the mid-1880s (Wetherill 1977*1:20, 108).

The 1874 Hayden Survey party was accompanied by journalist Ernest Ingersoll, who published stories about the expedition's discoveries in newspapers back east. A well-known local figure named John Moss volunteered to guide the explorers around the area and led the party down McElmo Canyon. The party stopped at Castle Rock, where the site was photographed, sketched, and described (Figure 1, Figure 2, Figure 3, Figure 4; see also Jackson 1981*1:379–380, Plates II, V). While there, John Moss told the party a legend about the site. Moss had served as the first Indian agent for the Hopi from 1864 to 1868 (Dockstader 1979*1:525; Ward 1921*1) and spoke the Hopi language. He is said to have heard the legend while visiting one of the Moqui (Hopi) pueblos (Brown 1965*1:263). Ernest Ingersoll published the story in the New York Tribune on November 3, 1874, as follows (from Jackson 1981*1:380):

Formerly, the aborigines inhabited all this country we had been over as far west [sic] as the headwaters of the San Juan, as far north as the Rio Dolores, west some distance into Utah, and south and southwest throughout Arizona and on down into Mexico. They had lived there from time immemorial—since the earth was a small island, which augmented as its inhabitants multiplied. They cultivated the valley, fashioned whatever utensils and tools they needed very neatly and handsomely out of clay and wood and stone, not knowing any of the useful metals; built their homes and kept their flocks and herds in the fertile river-bottoms, and worshiped the sun. They were an eminently peaceful and prosperous people, living by agriculture rather than by the chase. About a thousand years ago, however, they were visited by savage strangers from the North, whom they treated hospitably. Soon these visits became more frequent and annoying. Then their troublesome neighbors—ancestors of the present Utes—began to forage upon them, and, at last, to massacre them and devastate their farms; so, to save their lives at least, they built houses high upon the cliffs, where they could store food and hide away till the raiders left. But one summer the invaders did not go back to their mountains as the people expected, but brought their families with them and settled down. So, driven from their homes and lands, starving in their little niches on the high cliffs, they could only steal away during the night, and wander across the cheerless uplands. To one who has traveled these steppes, such a flight seems terrible, and the mind hesitates to picture the suffering of the sad fugitives.

At the cristone [a volcanic dike, according to Ingersoll] they halted, and probably found friends, for the rocks and caves are full of the nests of these human wrens and swallows. Here they collected, erected stone fortifications and watch-towers, dug reservoirs in the rocks to hold a supply of water, which in all cases is precarious in this latitude, and once more stood at bay. Their foes came, and for one long month fought and were beaten back, and returned day after day to the attack as merciless and inevitable as the tide. Meanwhile, the families of the defenders were evacuating and moving south, and bravely did their protectors shield them till they were all safely a hundred miles away. The besiegers were beaten back and went away. But the narrative tells us that the hollows of the rocks were filled to the brim with the mingled blood of conquerors and conquered, and red veins of it ran down into the cañon. It was such a victory as they could not afford to gain again, and they were glad, when the long fight was over, to follow their wives and little ones to the south. There, in the deserts of Arizona, on well-nigh unapproachable isolated bluffs, they built new towns, and their few descendants, the Moquis [Hopi], live in them to this day, preserving more carefully and purely the history and veneration of their forefathers than their skill or wisdom. It was from one of their old men that this traditional sketch was obtained.

The Hayden Survey party called the site "Battle Rock" (see, Figure 4, label on photograph; see also Holmes 1875*1:6; Jackson 1875*1:July 30 entry, 1981*1:Plate V). By 1893, however, that name had somehow been transferred to a large promontory 0.8 km (0.5 mi) to the southwest (Smith 1988*1:35). That larger landform is called Battle Rock to this day.

Although the legend Moss told is obviously laced with portions of other oral traditions, there is evidence to indicate that some parts of the legend resulted from direct, handed-down knowledge of the culture history of the Mesa Verde region and of ancient events that occurred there. When the survey party recorded Castle Rock, non-Puebloan settlers knew little about the age of the ruins in the region or about the identity of the people who had built these villages and cliff dwellings. Two popular ideas among settlers in the 1880s were that the villages either had been built by the Aztecs (Hall 1895*1:171; Wetherill 1977*1:95) or were the ancient villages of the Moqui (Hopi) or the Zuni (Wetherill 1977*1:95). Although William Holmes of the Hayden Survey correctly concluded that these settlements had been built by the ancestors of the modern Pueblo Indians of New Mexico and Arizona, he thought that the cliff dwellings had been abandoned relatively recently (Holmes 1981*1:408), certainly after the Spanish conquest of the 1600s. He apparently believed that the ruins were no more than 150 years old.

The true construction dates of ancient Pueblo villages were not known until 1929, when the tree-ring dating sequence was anchored to the modern calendar (Haury 1962*2:13–14). Then it became known that the Mesa Verde cliff dwellings and most of the ruins recorded during the Hayden Survey were actually constructed in the A.D. 1200s. After tree-ring dating was established, archaeologists began unraveling the entire settlement sequence of the Puebloan occupation of the region. The Hopi legend portrayed farmers scattered across the landscape 1,000 years ago, until they were forced to defend themselves against raiders by building their homes in cliffs and on the butte at Castle Rock. This portrayal is much more accurate, according to our present state of knowledge, than what the non-Puebloan settlers thought in the 1800s. In addition, although no one could have known in 1874 what Crow Canyon's later excavations would reveal, data collected in the 1990s indicate that the last event to occur at the village was an attack in which many people died. The excavations could not confirm the identity of the attackers, however (see The Final Days of Castle Rock Pueblo).

Thus, the age of the ruins, the culture history of the region, and the archaeological evidence suggest that the Castle Rock legend was based on information passed down from generation to generation, beginning with survivors or relatives of the victims of a violent event that occurred in the Mesa Verde region in the late 1200s, when migrations from the region were under way. The legend may be the best evidence to date of the tribal identity of some of the original inhabitants of the Mesa Verde region.

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