Casa Grande Ruins

Casa Grande Ruins: A Day-Trip Destination from Phoenix

Casa Grande, named by a Spaniard who first recorded this ruin, translates into “Big House”. Not original, is it? But he was a missionary, not a poet, after all.

The ruins are “big” indeed, standing four-story high in the middle of the surrounding flat desert. Part of a larger archaeological site, this house the most outstanding building, the largest one known made the Ancestral People of the Sonoran Desert.

Casa Grande Ruins
Casa Grande Ruins

Only an hour drive from Phoenix, Arizona, visiting this intriguing site makes a good day-trip destination for us, city dwellers. Over the years, we visited it often, but after the first few times, the short trip lost its charm. Now, we don’t go often, unless we have out-of-town visitors. For them, we make an effort. We want to impress them by showing them that people lived in this inhospitable environment long before air-conditioning and electricity.

Winter and early spring are the best times for this trip. So on a clear winter day, when we found nothing else to do, we revisited Casa Grande, one of the better-known National Parks of Arizona.

I wouldn’t call the drive scenic, though for those not accustomed to the desert landscape it’s still interesting. I remember the first time I drove there, the large cotton fields seemed an attraction – or at least offered an interesting scenery. I’ve never seen cotton fields before. Although they lost their appeal over the years, I can still appreciate the open spaces surrounding us on a desert drive.

The Casa Grande Ruins and the People Who Inhabited Them

The ruins make up for the lack of interest in their surroundings. Though I’m used to the sight now, the first time I saw them I was in awe. I remember wondering how in the world could these people build the Big House to last the centuries, and how did they live in this hostile land?

Our visit to the ruins and the indoor museum answered our question. We learned that they planted corn, beans, and squash referred to as “the three sisters”. That’s because you can live off of these three crops, getting the nutrients you need from them, even when you have no other food available.

Can Grande - Indoor Exhibit
Can Grande – Indoor Exhibit, reconstructing a room of the ancients

But they didn’t rely on the three sisters alone. The desert is full of nutrient-rich food if you know how to get to it. They harvested the fruit of the Saguaro cactus, using long poles to reach it. They ate it raw and dried it for later, they made wine and syrup from it. To make clothing, they used the cotton they planted.

Casa Grande was an ancient farming village. Which means that they needed water for their crops. Though the Gila River runs in the vicinity, it is not close enough, and they could not rely on rain in the desert. But they were ingenious, and figured out how to bring the river close to the village: They built canals to bring its water to their fields.

The village was only one of many along the river. Working together, the settlements formed irrigation communities. They helped each other water their fields, by building a network of canals.

About a thousand years ago we would’ve seen dozens of interconnected villages with wide, irrigated fields. The people living in them were great engineers, building these canals with nothing more than sticks. In fact, those who lived farther, in Pueblo Grande, in today’s Phoenix, are nicknamed the “canal makers”, known as some of the best engineers of the ancient world. Some canals they built a thousand years ago are the base for those that we still use today.

How Did Casa Grande Become a National Monument

I walked through the site, trying to imagine an ancient village, bursting with life. It’s not much left of it, except the Big House in the center. Standing in front of this ancient structure, I think of the Spaniards who first saw it. Long abandoned by the time they came upon it, it was a mystery to them.

Casa Grande Ruins National Monument
Casa Grande Ruins National Monument

Eusebio Francisco Kino, a Jesuit missionary, explorer, and mapmaker, found the ruins with his men in 1694 and named it Casa Grande. But after him, few people came to see the ruins. This changed around 1879, when the railroad reached the nearby town. Tourists started visiting Casa Grande. They had no respect for the ruins, scratched their names on the walls, took artifacts and even pieces of the wall as souvenirs. About ten years of these unregulated visits hurt the ruins enough that in 1889 Congress voted to protect the site. They cleared it and tried to preserve it. To do that, in 1891 they used metal rods to brace some walls. As it was standing, Casa Grande was still visited, but it needed protection. A few years later, in 1892, Casa Grande became the first archaeological preserve in the nation.

Exploring the Site

The building is nothing like the Ancient Maya pyramids I’ve climbed so many times. But I can still appreciate this site. I live in this desert, I know how hard it had to be for ancient people to build something, let alone make it strong enough to survive the destructive desert sun for centuries. I know, because I can’t leave anything outside in the sun for longer periods of time, it all gets destroyed, no matter the material it’s made of.

Years ago, I took a tour of the building. It makes me feel old saying this since no tours entered the building for years. We walked into the few remaining rooms and learned about the way Casa Grande was built.

Casa Grande - Inside the Ruins
Casa Grande – The Inside of the Ruins – Since no one enters, it’s only home to birds now.

The material the ancients used for it is caliche, a tough desert soil, containing clay, sand, and limestone. They mixed the caliche with water in shallow pits and made a very strong, cement-like material. Then they shaped this material by hand to build the wall. The rangers said it took about 3,000 tons to build this great house.

As painstaking as it was, the walls were just the beginning. They needed wood to anchor them and make the ceilings. If you’ve ever been in the area, you know that other than cactus ribs, you can’t find trees close by. They had to carry them from far or float them on the Gila River. They built more structures this way, but none as tall as the Big House.

Though no one is sure what the ancients used this building for, archaeologists realized that its walls face the four cardinal points. In the upper west wall, a circular hole aligns with the setting sun during the summer solstice. Other openings around the higher walls align with the sun and the moon at other times of the year. So they are guessing it was an observatory where the ancients studied the positions of the sun and moon. This was important for them to time the planting and harvesting their crops.

Who Were the People Who Lived Here?

The oral history of the O’Odham people confirms that Casa Grande was a ceremonial center. Siwan Wa’a Ki, the name they use for it, was “a place to pray and sing songs to the Huhugam spirits”.

For the longest time, we called the people who built this ancient village and others in the area Hohokam. Turns out, the name is wrong, and stems from a misunderstanding. The Spanish missionaries, who first found the ruins, asked nearby natives about who built this great house. They must have asked the O’Odham people, who answered huhugam, a word that in their language means “ancestors”. The Spaniards misunderstood and labeled the ancients Hohokam.

No matter what we call them, we still don’t know why they abandoned the site. What happened to these people, where did they go, why did they abandon the homes they worked so hard to build?

It all comes back to the language barrier. If the Spaniards would have understood the answer when they first asked, at least part of these questions would have been answered.

The Huhugam were the ancestors of the O’Odham people who live in the area today. No one disappeared, they simply evolved. Besides them, other tribes who still live in the surrounding desert are also the descendants of the Ancestral Pueblo People.

More Structures

I walked by remnants of other buildings, much smaller than the Great House. Over time, they eroded, now only low walls stick up from the ground. One other house is big enough to explore, though it only has a few rooms. I remember my kids used to play in this compound when they were younger. A few rooms remain of this building that you can walk through.

Casa Grande Ruins - A Smaller Structure
Casa Grande Ruins – A Smaller Structure

On the way out, we always stop to look at the ball court, across the parking lot. Not as spectacular as the ball courts in Mesoamerica, it is still a sign of these ancients playing the game here, thousands of miles from where it originated.

Though we know that the village was much larger and included a lot more structures, not much else is visible here. In the middle of this harsh desert environment, the once-thriving village disappeared. Or so it seems.

In fact, they only moved away from their old communities. They migrated over time, but not too far from their origins. Their descendants still live in the area, and follow the same principles they learned from their ancestors.

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