We park beside an old corral. Near the corral, stands a ramada with a thatched roof made of ocotillo sticks. These ocotillo ramadas are a definitive cultural trait of the O‘odham, descendants of the Hohokam. The wooden gates of the corral are adorned with a skinned javelina hide, skull still smiling inside. The dead javelina is draped across the wooden post closest to the gate. I hesitate, not sure if this gruesome omen is a warning to keep intruders away. As soon as we drop out of sight of the road there is a sweat lodge. We are approaching an ancient place which still holds spiritual value for the Native American neighbors who live near by.
Fortaleza is typical of Hohokam settlements in this region. The name Fortaleza translates from the Spanish as “hilltop fortress” which describes this site perfectly. The village is perched atop the mountain. Two sides of the butte are sheer and impenetrable. Two sides of the butte funnel up steep narrow canyons and reach the top at the same place. There is a large stone wall which runs the entire width of the mesa. Nearly all of the cities from this period of the Hohokam culture were large hilltop structures. Some archeologists believe Fortaleza was built to protect trade routes for the valuable resources this arid landscape had to offer, obsidian, seashells, and especially salt. Fortaleza may have been built mainly to protect the salt trade. Other archeologists are skeptical, noting there are no signs of warfare at any of these hilltop sites. They state that the lack of water may have made them indefensible for very long. These archeologists believe the hilltop fortresses may have been palaces for the elite.
J. Cameron Greenleaf was part of an excavation in the 1960s (reconstructing most of the rooms) and noted the similarities of Fortaleza with Hohokam sites in the Tucson area. Greenleaf believed that migrants from the Tucson area built Fortaleza, placing themselves high on the mesa top, perhaps to protect themselves from the Yuman peoples who were just then moving east ward from the Colorado River.
Our hike to the ruins is flat. We stroll through a field of dead desert willows and tamarisks, none of these trees more than skinny saplings. This arboreal cemetery is the remnants of a gigantic flood in 1993. The floodwaters backed up from the Painted Rocks Dam far and wide for miles. Painted Rocks Dam was intended to create a revenue generating recreational site for boaters and fisherman. Instead the water was found to be highly polluted. The 1993 flood unintentionally filled a vast area behind the dam which the desert willow and tamarisks quickly took advantage of, roots taking hold everywhere as the trees dreamed of establishing a forest. The vast shallow lake slowly dried up, leaving behind expansive mud flats and a sapling graveyard of young trees all the same age.
We cross the dry riverbed, bursting through a wall of tumbleweeds lining the riverbanks. It is sad to walk the dry sandy bed of a river which once ran to the sea. In 1697 Conquistador Juan Mateo Manje described the Gila River as a navigatable waterway. When archeologist J Cameron Greenleaf excavated Fortaleza they found among the trash pile, the vertebrate of squawfish. Squawfish can grow up to sixty pounds and any river which could support a fish that big had plenty of water. This area is filled with prehistoric canals and farms. George Webb in his book, A Pima Remembers writes of the Gila River he remembered from his youth, “The red wing blackbirds would sing in the trees and fly down to look for bugs along the ditches. Their song always means that there is water close by as they will not sing if there is not water splashing somewhere. The green of those Pima fields spread along the river for many miles in the old days when there was plenty of water. Now the river is an empty bed full of sand. Now you can stand in the same place and see the wind tearing pieces of bark off the cottonwood trees along the dry ditches. The dead trees stand like white bones. The red wing blackbirds have gone somewhere else.”
We scramble up the soft sand of the riverbank, bursting through another dry, brittle layer of tumbleweeds. We are directly beneath the volcanic butte which hosts Fortaleza. Even beneath a weak January sun, the black rock shimmers warmly. We search for a route up the cliffs as scattered rock writings appear. At the base of one extensive petroglyph panel we find a pair of hammer stones. Were these stones used to etch the petroglyph images into this boulder?
The route up the mesa is steep and winding. Whoever was living on top could have lobbed large heavy stones on those approaching from below. Near the top of the ravine, the first ruins appear, stone walls perched precariously on the precipice. There are three ruins, each of them a single room building, stone walls standing waist high. The buildings would be in perfect position to defend the mesa. Or is it simply prehistoric urban sprawl?
At the top of the mesa we see many stone buildings. Some small stone buildings stand alone and other times a cluster of eight or nine buildings link together in a daisy chain. There were maybe twenty buildings on the lower part of the mesa and then came the wall. I had heard about the wall but seeing it in person was something else. A stone wall runs across the mesa, dividing it in two, a lower and upper village. The stone wall runs about seven feet high and one hundred twenty paces. On the highest part of the mesa, beyond the wall, there are forty more rooms. Was this another aspect of defense or an example of class stratification, an elite group of priestly rulers who were somehow more special than everyone else, even others who lived atop the mesa? The view from the top was tremendous, gazing across the vast flat mud plain of the Gila River all the way to the horizon where jagged volcanic mountains erupt from the earth.
On the edge of the precipice there are a series of small grinding holes used to process mesquite beans. Standing at the very edge, we realize that one of the larger boulders is adorned with petroglyphs, rock art which can only be seen from the mesa summit. A little out from the butte the desert earth is scraped smooth and flat, creating a perfect circle. Someone has made a dance floor/ prayer ring with breaks in the circle, at each of the four directions. Someone is still performing ceremonies here. Is it the same people who built the sweat lodge and ocotillo ramada? Did the same person who made the dance circle also leave the javelina hide atop the corral fence post? My friend and I sit for a moment, soaking up the ambience of Fortaleza, pondering ancient places and rivers which used to run all the way to the sea.
Those who wish to hike must obtain permits from the San Lucy District Office of the Tohono O’odham Nation at (520) 683 – 6515