Tontao National Monument protects masonry ruins nearly 700 years old. These shallow caves overlook the Tonto Basin in southeastern Arizona. This area was home to the prehistoric Salado people, named in the early 20th century after the life-giving Rio Salado, or Salt River.
The Salado lived in the Tonto Basin for about 300 years. Sometime between 1,400 and 1,450 they left. No one knows why, though the Salado were not the only ones to depart their homelands in the southern mountains of the Southwest around this time. The cliff dwellings, less than 150 years old, were abandoned to the sun and wind.
Archeological study continues to reveal aspects of the Salado culture. Even so, we have only a vague notion of who the Salado were. They left no written record of the existence, no chronology of events that shaped their society. The most vivid signs of life are in their pottery, in remnants of fabric, in smoke stains from their cook fires, and in handprints on pueblo walls—all reminders that humans once led rich and productive lives here by the Salt River.
Distance and rugged terrain isolated the cliff dwellings from the modern world until the mid-1870s, when ranchers and soldiers came to the Tonto Basin. In 1906 construction began on Roosevelt Dam, bringing increased attention to the ruins. The following year, in 1907, recognizing the need to protect the sites from vandals and pothunters, President Theodore Roosevelt set the area aside as a national monument.