New Mexico: Gila Cliff Dwellings Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

These five caves were inhabited by the Mogollon people until the thirteenth century.

Site Office

Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument

Route 11, Box 100

Silver City, NM 88061

ph.: (505) 536-9461, 536-9344

Web site:

Southwestern New Mexico has long been known not only for its beautiful scenery but also for the many archaeological sites that have preserved the rich cultural heritage of pre-Columbian America. The Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument, situated in the isolated canyon of the West Fork of the Gila River inside the 3.3-million-acre Gila National Forest, is one of these sites. The word “Gila” possibly derives from an Apache word meaning “mountain.”

Early History

The people who inhabited these dwellings and whose culture flourished in the area between 300 b.c.e. and 1300 c.e. have become known as the Mogollon, a name taken from the mountain range on the modern border between Arizona and New Mexico, which cuts through the Gila National Forest. This range in turn was named for Don Juan Ignacio Flores Mogollón, who in the early eighteenth century was governor of the Spanish colony of Nueva Mejico (New Mexico), which then extended to the California coast.

Archaeologists have concluded that the Mogollon culture was closely linked with the Mesoamerican civilizations of Mexico and Central America. These civilizations were the first in the Americas to develop skilled farming and organize highly developed societies. Starting around 3500 b.c.e., their knowledge was transferred into the desert region to their north, where the Cochise people, believed to have been present since approximately 6000 b.c.e., had mostly likely been forced to abandon hunting after exhausting the limited supply of game. The Cochise initially lived among the cliffs and caves of the mountains but later built underground pit houses. It was from the Cochise that the Mogollon were to develop, along with the Hohokam, who farmed along the Gila River between 100 b.c.e. and 1500 c.e., and the Anasazi, who settled in the Four Corners region (Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico) between 100 b.c.e. and 1300 c.e.

The rugged mountain villages of the Mogollon were usually located near streams. Using tools made of wood and stone, they cultivated corn, beans, squash, tobacco, and cotton. Their pit houses were built of log frames, set into holes ten to sixteen feet long and two to five feet deep, roofed with reeds, saplings, and mud, and linked to the surface by ramp-like passages. The largest of these houses, now known as kivas from a Hopi word meaning “old house,” were mostly used for ceremonies or meetings, or, as has recently been suggested, for steam baths, from all of which women were probably excluded. There were also food storage pits lined with stones to protect against rodents. As the making of pottery jars became widespread, these storage houses became rarer.

The earliest Mogollon pottery, from around 300 b.c.e., was made from coiled and polished clay that turned brown and red when fired. It seems that it was not until between 600 and 900 c.e. that intricate colors and designs were introduced. The most famous of this later type are the black-on-white pots made by the Mimbres, a subculture of the Mogollon, around 900 c.e. Clothmaking was also an important part of the culture; blankets were made from yarn taken from animal fur and cotton.

The Mogollan, Hohokam, and Anasazi Cultures

The overlap among the Mogollon, Hohokam, and Anasazi cultures has made it difficult to define their distinctive characteristics and their evolution. It is true that they shared agricultural practices, pit houses, and coiled pottery. However, the differences among them can be shown clearly in the development of architecture. In this respect the Anasazi culture seems to have had considerable influence on the other two. The Anasazi began to build above ground after 750 c.e., developing a new style of building using masonry to construct houses several stories high, now known as pueblos (from the Spanish word for “village”). Rather than doors or windows these houses had entrance-holes in their roofs, making the houses secure against attack. Ladders were used to connect each floor. Around 1000 c.e., however, the Anasazi switched to building pueblos inside the cliffs, perhaps because they wanted to protect themselves against raids from other villages.

There is considerable archaeological evidence to suggest that both types of Anasazi dwellings influenced Mogollon architecture once the Mogollon, too, began constructing houses above ground after 1100. According to the tree-ring dating of the roof beams found inside them, the Gila Cliff Dwellings were built around 1280. They consist of five caves, containing a total of forty-two rooms. Earthen roofs were built inside the caves, as well as stone walls that can still be seen today in the larger caves. The T-shaped doors of the dwellings are a strong indication of Anasazi influence.

The Mogollon appear to have used these dwellings for only about twenty years, abandoning them around 1300. It has been suggested that an influx of the Anasazi into the area may have forced many of the Mogollon to move northward, toward the land now occupied both by the Zuñi (descendants of the Mogollon), and by the Hopi (descendants of the Anasazi). During the thirteenth century, the Hohokam and the Anasazi also abandoned their cliff dwellings. One theory suggests that severe droughts starting around 1200 and affecting the whole Southwest region may have forced all three peoples to go farther afield to find better sources of food, perhaps even to return to hunting. A second theory postulates that the Mogollon had to fight for their territory against the Gila and Mimbrenos Apache groups who settled in the Silver Creek area near the Gila Cliffs.

The Apache

The Apache arrived in the Southwest between 800 and 1000 c.e. from what is now western Canada. They soon adopted farming but did not make much cloth or pottery, tending instead to obtain these items through trade or pillage. Most of their bands lived in wickiups, dome-shape structures made of grass. For four hundred years after the departure of the Mogollon it was the Apache who controlled the area around the cliff dwellings. The Navajo, who arrived in southwestern New Mexico around 1050 c.e., may also have contributed to the mass migration of the cliff dwellers and desert farmers. In 1598 the Spanish explorer Juan de Oñate established the colony of Nueva Méjico (New Mexico). The Spanish inflicted great hardships on their new subjects, who rebelled against them in an uprising known as the Pueblo Revolt and drove them out of New Mexico in 1680, only to see them return in 1692.

The Apache were reluctant to accept the Spanish as their masters but did not join in the uprising. Instead they went on conducting raids on the Spanish settlements and hiding out in the nearby caves, including the Gila Cliff Dwellings. The Apache remained a constant irritant to the Spanish until 1821, when New Mexico came under the authority of a newly independent Mexico. This arrangement lasted only twenty-seven years, until the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which transferred the region and its inhabitants, the Zuñi, the Hopi, the Apache, and the Navajo, to the United States. These peoples’ understandable suspicion of this occupation by another foreign power turned to outright hostility with the influx of prospectors and miners seeking gold in the Mogollon Mountains during the late 1860’s.

From the 1860’s to the 1880’s chiefs such as Mangas Coloradas, Victorio of the Mimbrenos Apache, and the legendary Geronimo of the Chiricahua Apache led revolts against the Americans. It was during the uprisings of 1881-1886 that Geronimo and his warriors took refuge in the canyon of the Gila Cliff dwellings. Geronimo had grown up in the area and knew the mountains and canyons well. The Americans managed to quell the rebellions and forced many of the Indians of the Southwest onto the reservations that still exist today.

Archaeological Research

From the late 1870’s archaeologists began to excavate ruins in Arizona and New Mexico. The archaeologist Adolph F. Bandelier followed the Gila River south from Arizona until he came upon the ruins of the Mogollon dwellings in the Gila Cliffs in 1884. Bandelier concluded that the caves had been inhabited by a group connected in some way to the Hopi or Zuñi. In 1907 President Theodore Roosevelt signed a bill that designated the cliff dwellings as a National Monument. The half million acres surrounding the monument were designated as the Gila Wilderness Area by the federal government in 1924, the first such area of preserved wilderness in the United States.

It was not until the 1920’s and 1930’s that the inhabitants of the caves began to be seen as a distinct group. The term “Pueblo Indians,” which had come to be applied to the Hopi and Zuñi in reference to their traditional buildings, was extended to the earlier inhabitants of the region until the 1930’s, when certain archaeologists began to use clearer terminology for each culture. Research carried out by such institutions as the Museum of New Mexico and the Gila Pueblo in Arizona made enormous advances in the study of prehistoric Indians. The archaeologists at Gila Pueblo at this time established concretely the existence of two distinct cultures: the Hohokam, with the largest explored site at Snaketown, Arizona, and the Mogollon of Arizona and New Mexico.

Although the Gila Cliff Dwellings are not as spectacular as the Mesa Verde of Colorado, they are among the few remnants of the region’s past to have been preserved. The dwellings have generated insights into a sophisticated culture that flourished more than a thousand years ago, and they can still evoke admiration for a people who survived in an inhospitable terrain without any of the advanced technologies that help to sustain the inhabitants of New Mexico today.

For Further Information
  • Chilton, Lance, et al. New Mexico: A New Guide to the Colorful State. Albuqerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1984. Provides an informative general history.
  • Cordell, Linda S., and G. Gumerman, eds. Dynamics of Southwest Prehistory. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989. A collection of insightful essays that highlight the debate among archaeologists about the development of the early peoples of the Southwest.
  • Martin, Paul. Digging into History: A Brief Account of Fifteen Years of Archaeological Work in New Mexico. Reprint. Chicago: Natural History Museum, 1969. A detailed study of a Mogollon site at Reserve, New Mexico, not far from Gila Cliffs. Outlines the way of life of the Mogollon people.
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