Written by Andy Laurenzi
Casa Grande Ruins National Monument (CGRNM) in Coolidge, Arizona, is among the state’s best-known cultural landmarks because of its striking “Great House,” one of the largest-known prehistoric structures in the United States. Established as the first archaeological reserve by President Benjamin Harrison in 1892, CGRNM is not only the largest protected Hohokam site, but also the sole National Park unit that preserves and interprets Hohokam culture. The area enclosed within the park’s current boundary also preserves some of the once-extensive village associated with the impressive adobe structure.
As the Center for Desert Archaeology’s Field Representative, I am working with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, City of Coolidge, Town of Florence, Friends of Casa Grande Ruins National Monument, Pinal County Historical Society, and others in support of a National Park Service (NPS) proposal to expand the boundaries of this unique monument. In fact, our local partnership recommends an even more expansive vision that would preserve a significant portion of this vanishing cultural landscape.
Between A.D. 300 and 1450, people known to archaeologists as the Hohokam lived and farmed in the river valleys of southern Arizona. Over time, they built and maintained irrigation canal systems to support agricultural production. At least two dozen systems that watered tens of thousands of acres have been documented in the Phoenix area alone, along the lower Salt River and the middle Gila River. Villages containing about 200 to 400 people—sometimes as many as 1,000—stood every two to three miles along the canal systems.
These strings of neighboring villages formed irrigation communities. The settlement at CGRNM was one of five large villages along the Casa Grande Canal, which ran along the south side of the Gila River. Adamsville Ruin, about five miles upstream, is another large village in that community. A shorter canal, the Escalante Canal, ran north of the Gila River. This northern irrigation community included the sites of Escalante Ruin and Poston Butte Ruin.
In keeping with its mission to preserve, interpret, and educate the public about CGRNM, the NPS is proposing to bring more of the original village, part of the Casa Grande Canal, and a significant portion of the Adamsville Ruin within its boundaries—and thus within NPS’s ability to protect those resources. Possible additions include an interpretive trail between CGRNM and Adamsville Ruin, which would give visitors a better sense of the Hohokam landscape and ease of interaction between neighboring villages in an irrigation community.
We strongly support the NPS proposal. At the same time, we have identified an additional opportunity to expand the CGRNM and enrich preservation of a fundamental Hohokam landscape. Our Citizens’ Proposal incorporates the entire Escalante irrigation community north of the Gila River.
Why? The pace of development in metropolitan Phoenix and Tucson has expanded our understanding of the Hohokam through mitigation archaeology, but ancient sites and landscapes are ultimately being obliterated. Despite the current economic crisis and water issues, population in the Phoenix area is projected to double, so much of what remains will be lost. Although communities preserve portions of some Hohokam sites as archaeological parks, these represent a mere fragment of the region’s prehistoric cultural landscape. Some of the best-preserved Hohokam landscapes are on tribal lands, but broader public access is constrained.
A CGRNM expansion that includes the northern area identified by local partners is, therefore, a singular opportunity to preserve a significant portion of this cultural landscape for future public understanding of our shared past. It will provide a window on the Hohokam world for future generations.
Expansion of CGRNM requires an Act of Congress, and Congresswoman Ann Kirkpatrick would take the lead on this legislation. We are currently working with the City of Coolidge, Town of Florence and the Gila River Indian Community to promote governing body resolutions in support of the legislative proposal. Congresswoman Kirkpatrick’s office recently contacted us to let us know that she is encouraged by the broad base of local support, and actively considering sponsoring legislation to expand the monument.
Andy Laurenzi is a field representative at the Center for Desert Archaeology. If you are interested in helping to promote these preservation efforts, please contact him at (520) 882-6946 or alaurezi[at]cdarc[dot]org (replace the words in brackets with the customary symbols). Header illustration by Robert Ciaccio.