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Shoofly Village Ruins... a brief overview (revised -3rd edition)

abstract indian vase

The mystery of the vanishing tribes of the desert southwest

(3rd edition - June 2007) by A.O. Kime
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Located five miles northeast of Payson, Arizona near the Mogollon Rim is the Shoofly Village Ruins believed to have been occupied between A.D. 1000-1250. At an elevation of 5,240 feet, Shoofly Village once had a total of 79 structures of which the rock outlines, once the base of the walls, are still visible. At the center of this site was where a larger structure once existed believed to have been a building with 26 rooms averaging 37.4 square meters each, and part of this structure was perhaps two stories high. In clusters around the core area were 39 smaller structures and 14 more were scattered about the general area and at least one of these structures had a curved wall. The entire compound of approximately 3.75 acres (1.5 hectares) is enclosed by a small rock 'fence'.

Located atop the northern edge of Houston Mesa, the immediate area is comprised of grassland and sparsely populated with Juniper and Chaparral. The average annual rainfall for the area is about 20 inches. Shoofly Village Ruins is easily accessible... a mere 100 yards off Houston Mesa road (all paved). The site is not manned by Forest Service personnel but has a large parking area to accommodate any type of fifth wheel or travel-trailer.

This site was first recorded in 1930 by archaeologist John Hughes but full scale excavations did not occur until 1984. These excavations were conducted by Dr. Charles Redman from Arizona State University as a field school program over a four year period. More excavations are being considered.

picture of indian ruins remaining rock wall The people who once occupied the Shoofly Village appeared to have been similar to those who once occupied the Flagstaff, Arizona area and also the Sinagua (*fabled tribe) from the Upper Verde Valley but with notable differences. It is believed the Shoofly residents possibly had, or once had, Hohokam (*fabled tribe) ties. As both farmers and hunters, they grew corn, beans, squash, possibly cotton and successfully hunted deer, elk, rabbits, rodents, birds and migratory fowl (ducks and geese). It is also believed they may have raised turkeys (wild turkeys are indigenous to the area). Their brown clay pottery were mostly jar-shaped vessels but were not decorated with designs. The decorated pottery found was believed to have come from the Little Colorado and Flagstaff areas. The arrowheads located were very small, less than an inch long (likely arrowhead hunters over the years found the bigger ones).

Small figurines, stone pendants and quartz crystals were also found but few 'trade items' (products not locally crafted) were discovered. Of these trade items were the above mentioned decorated pottery and obsidian fragments traced to Government mountain (Williams, Arizona), Post Mountain (Superior, Arizona) and to Mule Creek/Gwynn Canyon in west-central New Mexico.

Prehistory of the Payson area

Archaeologists have divided the occupation of the greater Payson area (basin) into four periods. The pre-ceramic period (10,000 B.C. to A.D. 700) is an era about which little is known except for evidence that big-game hunters (Clovis) once slew bison and mammoths throughout many parts of the southwest. Since a large arrowhead (Clovis point) was found south of Payson in 1977 suggests these hunts also occurred locally. The Hohokam occupation (2nd period) is fairly well documented and occurred from A.D. 800-1000 and characterized by their 'house-in-a-pit' sites. Third was from A.D. 1000-1150 when more dramatic changes took place typified by small villages such as Shoofly Village. One might even want to include the Risser Ranch Ruins and Deer Jaw Ruins located in the general area.

The fourth period, A.D. 1150-1250 (or perhaps up to 1300) is typified by larger villages but a period being further defined. Towards the end of this fourth period, it is believed the sites were in the process of being abandoned and were completely vacant by A.D. 1350. From that point on, for almost 250 years, the consensus is that the entire area was unpopulated until nearly A.D. 1600. However disagreement on this exists, some archaeologists believe the Yavapai may have occupied the area after this abandonment but before the Apaches arrived at the end of the 16th century. Purportedly some evidence exists (unspecified) suggesting the Yavapai were in the Globe-Miami area (90 miles south) when the Spanish arrived. The previous inhabitants of the Globe-Miami area were the Salado Indians (*fabled tribe) and they too moved away but it is unclear whether they did so voluntarily or were forced out by the Yavapai.

Source: the above information was gleaned from a flyer by the Shoofly Chapter of the Arizona Archaeological Society but re-stated.

The strange disappearances of the indians of the southwest

While the drought between 900 and 1260 AD is commonly thought the reason for the exodus of the indian villagers from the desert southwest, the reasoning is curious because they only began 'disappearing' towards the very end of this period and afterwards. Having had already endured this drought some 350 years, it is highly unlikely drought was the reason. Further, some villages, such as the Shoofly Village, were built during this period... hardly something a people would do if the situation was bad.

Perhaps this rumor began with the following journal entry made by Lieutenant A. W. Whipple during his 1853-54 survey for a railroad route to California. Take note he's referring to the Verde Valley where Montezuma Castle is located, about 80 miles northwest of Shoofly Village.

"The river banks were covered with ruins of stone houses and regular fortifications; . . . From his (Leroux's) description, the style of the building seems to be similar to chichiticales, or red house, above the Pimas, rather than like the Indian towns of New Mexico. In other respects, however, Leroux says that they reminded him of the great pueblos of the Moquinos. The large stones of which those structures were built, were often transported from a great distance. At another place he saw a well-built town and fortification about eight or ten miles from the nearest water. He believes that, since they were built, the conformation of the country has been changed, so as to convert springs and a fertile soil into a dry and barren waste. . . . This conforms to the Indian traditions of the Montezuma era, attributing to the high mesas an arable soil; and also partially accounts for the desertion of some of the more recent pueblos of New Mexico." (he was referring to Antoine Leroux, an experienced guide for the survey party)

However, Leroux made no mention of drought in his own diary, ending his entry by saying only:

" —Near camp are the ruins of another Indian village. Those ruins show that this country was once under cultivation; who were its inhabitants, and what became of them, is hard to tell. . . . The district passed over is mostly covered with old ruins.”

While this prolonged drought has been scientifically determined as fact, it is perhaps typical strangers would look upon deserts as being an aberration. Similarly, Leroux or Whipple couldn't have known what the countryside looked like 600 years earlier in which to compare. While seasoned desert dwellers are seldom discouraged by droughts since droughts always end, being commonplace in the desert southwest anyway, or any desert, only at the point of starvation would one finally leave. Except, it doesn't take three centuries to starve.

Instead, the evidence suggests the overriding reason for the exodus was due to warring raiders... although in ruling out all other possible causes, a plague was the hardest to dismiss. Infectious diseases could have been devastating at times although it seems doubtful moving away would be seen as the remedy.

From recorded history we know indian tribes frequently waged war with each other and often had a violent nature. While tribal warfare can occur in many ways, most likely it was the area villages versus marauding bands of murderous thieves from another tribe pillaging one village after another. Considering they had already endured 2-3 centuries of drought, only marauding raiders would cause villagers to pack up and leave... provided, of course, they weren't all killed.

While these invasions probably varied from several times a year to once in a generation, even the latter would be a discouraging prospect for the villagers. Once a village was located and became known, it would become a habitual target. Aside from having a fortified position for defensive purposes, the best safety measure under anarchy is anonymity and to go unnoticed is to be remotely located. So, to distance themselves from danger was the most likely reason for the exodus.

Of course, drought could still factor in... by making the territory less valuable to defend. In hearing of the Aztec's abandonment of Montezuma Castle and their move to Mexico, the other disappearing tribes such as the Shoofly Village residents may have followed suit. Yet, an extra 100 miles from danger is also a remedy, then another, then another... which might explain at least some of the abandoned sites. Tribes sometimes even merged with one another... as did the Yavapai and Apache tribes and the Sobaipuri who, in fleeing the Apaches, are thought to have sought refuge with the Papago (Tohono O'odham) and later merged. So, if not Mexico, the Shoofly villagers may have ended up joining some other tribe.

The most likely marauders were the Yavapai who resided just north of the area (Verde Valley). While the Apaches lived somewhere further north, believed to have originated in Canada but drifting southward... that doesn't necessarily preclude them from conducting raids into this territory even though the consensus is that the Apaches didn't arrive in Arizona until around A.D. 1600. However, the Apaches are better known for their terrorizing after A.D. 1600. For any worthwhile booty or even adventure, the distance these raiders were willing to go depended on their leaders at the time. Anything handmade, anything at all, would be considered booty and likely footwear was highly prized.

Of course, violence wasn't limited to the southwest... the fortified castles all over Europe are testimony to the perils of anarchy. While fortified positions were rare in Arizona, Montezuma Castle offers proof the same conditions existed here as in Europe. Fortified positions were rare in Arizona because of being so sparsely populated compared to Europe and other heavily populated areas. For awhile at least, an anonymous existence in Arizona was not hard to come by. It was a time when relocating made more sense than building a fortress... although apparently not an opinion shared by the Aztecs at first.

Located atop a mesa instead of creek-side for the closeness to fresh water, the location of the Shoofly Village seems to substantiate violence was ever-present. Along a creek or spring would be where marauding bands would likely look for victims, being the most logical place to reside or construct a village. That was the case in southeastern Arizona where virtually every ancient site discovered was next to the San Pedro River. However, the Sobaipuri weren't forced out by the Apaches until sometime after Father Kino was there during 1694-1702.

Atop Houston Mesa, about three miles east of the East Verde River and three miles west of Mayfield Springs, is not an practical location unless to also shield its existence. It may have been practical in the sense it was still within walking distance to water, but not being an easy six-mile round trip in either direction suggests security concerns. The logic for locating themselves atop a mesa was not just for keeping their distance from a creek, but in knowing traveling groups tend not traverse the land by climbing over each hill and mountain they encounter, rather they go around if possible and stick to the passes and lowlands. Since they went so far as to disguise their presence, their leaders likely imposed fire restrictions. They were probably also cautious about excessive smoke and noise.

However, there is evidence of a hand-dug well but it's highly questionable whether it adequately served the village, if at all. It would be extremely rare for a hand-dug well to strike water atop any mesa in Arizona. This may only represent a later attempt to dig for water, but unsuccessful. However, if they dug the well before constructing the village, then we'd know it was successful. Of course, a well can go dry too... which would explain some abandonment.

Yet, giving up and moving away doesn't spell failure... greener pastures would say it was a smart move, making Shoofly Village but a stepping stone. These were very dangerous and violent times otherwise these villages would have survived... after all, they had already survived centuries of drought.

Note: (*Fabled tribes) - the Sinagua, Hohokam and Salado peoples referred to above are given names, archaeologists don't know what they called themselves (similarly the Anasazi and Mogollon).

A.O. Kime

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A.O. Kime is the author of two books plus 70+ articles on ancient history,
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