How The Mountains Were Named



The Mazatzal Mountains (every "a" is pronounced "ah") hold many stories and mysteries for us in the Rim country, but none is so puzzling as the origin of that name. It is pure Nahuatl (long "a" again), the Aztec language of Mexico. It is one of a larger language group called Uto-Aztecan, a linguistic family that includes Hopi, Comanche, Shoshoni, Ute, Paiute, Mayan, Opata, Yaqui, Tarahumara, Papago and Pima, as well as other lesser-known people. However, their dialects are considerably different. There is no mistaking the word "Mazatzal" as being Hopi or Ute, for example. When one compares the written languages of these tribes the name of these mountains is purely Aztec. Scholars who know the Uto-Aztecan dialects are unanimous in suggesting the name comes from the northernmost tribe of Aztecs in Mexico called "Nahuatl." The reader will recognize the Aztec place name "Mazatlan" derived from the Nahuatl stem word "mazatl" meaning "deer." That is also used among Aztecs as a boy's name. Our mountain range was probably originally called Mazatzalan, a word, according to professor John Schwaller on the University of Minnesota, that means "between or among the deer."

Unfortunately, Ranger Fred Croxen repeated lore from a local rancher that it is an Apache word meaning "bleak and barren." That misinformation has been repeated again by no less a figure than our State Historian Marshall Trimble in his book "Roadside History."

I stood on the top of the fire watch tower on Mt. Ord the other day and could see "from here to eternity." The 103 foot tower added to that 7,128 foot Mazatzal peak enabled me to see as far as Mt. Graham at Safford, but more significantly I looked over the entire Mazatzal range into the Valley of the Sun. There was Bartlett Lake below on the other side, and Cave Creek. I came to a new appreciation of how very close our Tonto Basin is to Phoenix. The mystery of having a mountain range in our back yard carrying an Aztec name began to seem less puzzling.

Scholars tell us that the influence of Mexico and Central America on the American southwest was long and complicated. There seem to have been three major phases of influence coming from those advanced cultures. First the basic agriculture and ceramic techniques filtered this way to bolster the life of prehistoric tribes. Maize, squash, beans and the like found their way north.

A second wave of influence came between 500 and 1000 A.D. introducing the ball court, canal irrigation, complex ceramic decorations, shell trumpets, copper bells, amulet decorative items, elaborate carving on shell bracelets and probably cotton weavings.

The third phase, between A.D. 1000 and 1300, included architectural and religious features such as platform mounds, village compounds and a class structured society. Among those most directly influenced were the Hohokam who for centuries walked the trails of southern Arizona and the Gulf of California in a vast network of trade. The interchange even reached Chaco Canyon in New Mexico, where the procurement and production of turquoise was a major trade item. All of this encouraged the migration of families, merchants seeking resources, and military conquests among the ancient people.

Although professional archeologists and anthropologists are cautious in describing the extent of cultural and trade exchanges, pending yet more study, there can be no doubt there was considerable exchange between the Aztecs and the Hohokam. To what extent the Hohokam became middlemen for trade in the Rim country, or whether merchants of the Nahuatl people actually came this far, is a moot question. The point is that our Mazatzal Mountains certainly got their pure Nahuatl name from the Aztecs.

But how was that prehistoric naming process passed down to us?

My suggestion is that it came through the Pima Indians, who are in the Uto-Aztecan language family, and who were scouts for the American military during the Apache War. While their dialect is different, the Nahuatl word for the mountain, passed on to them from their Hohokam ancestors, remained in their vocabulary. The army troops heard their reference and continued to call the range by that name. This explains why the earliest pioneer references contain the name, though often mispronounced.

As early as 1864 the territorial Judge Joseph Pratt Allyn referred to "a great landmark of the Apache country, the Massessl Mountain." In 1868 the cartographer with Col. Thomas Devin spelled it correctly, but an 1871 military report by Col. George Sanford to Ft. McDowell used the spelling "Massasal." The next year, 1871, General Crook's aide-de-camp John G. Bourke came close to what became the colloquial mispronunciation when speaking of "the summits of the lofty Matitzal."

In 1874 the Prescott Miner spelled it "Massissel" and that same year the Army Navy Journal spelled it "Massissal." That gave it five published misspellings, but fortunately the official map of Arizona for 1880 got back to the correct spelling, Mazatzal. Of course it is possible the Anasazi, Hohokam, or even our unnamed local prehistoric residents spoke the Nahuatl language. While Spanish missionaries translated the Aztec hieroglyphics into a written language, no one did that for Arizona's ancient ones. But by now the reader's mouth is dry from pronouncing "that name."

Let's leave it for now; maybe for always.

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