There are probably as many versions of Tortilla Flat’s history as there are people to tell the tales. You may have heard a few of them yourself.
In a sincere effort to present a factual history, many previous owners were spoken with, and many stories were verified with historians and other authorities.
During our research, it often happened that uncovering one tidbit would uncover another, which would in turn uncover others.
Undoubtedly, there is still a lot of information out there yet to be discovered. We don’t pretend to have the whole story, but, of what we have, we feel we have a pretty good grasp on the real story. We have compiled our story into the new museum in a chronological account from as far back as we could dig stuff up!
For you history buffs, here's a bunch of history that we believe may or may not be true.
In the beginning …Tortilla Flat was a small grassy valley in the Superstition Mountains, with a babbling creek running through it. Nature placed the Flat between mountain passes that came to be used by the early Native Americans on their way to and from the central Arizona mountains and the Salt River Valley. The trail their journeys created became known as the Yavapai, or Tonto Trail.
Cabeza de Vaca was a Spanish explorer in America in the early 1500’s. In 1528, during an expedition to Florida, he was shipwrecked on a Texas island, and enslaved by Native Americans. He escaped and made his way into the Southwest and eventually into Mexico by 1536. His wanderings brought him into contact with the Pueblos, and his later reports in Mexico gave rise to the legends of the Seven Cities of Cibola, – or the Cities of Gold. These legends were the catalyst for bringing Spanish explorers and prospectors into the Arizona territory.
As part of the Coronado expedition into Arizona, Marcos de Niza traveled westward along the Gila River as far as what is now the Phoenix metropolitan area. He may have been the first Spaniard to see the Superstition Mountains.
What has all this to do with Tortilla Flat, you ask? Because of its location, Tortilla Flat, even presently, is affected by the search for gold in the Superstitions. Each Spanish expedition inspired others looking for the vast wealth in gold.
In the late 1600’s through the Mid- 1700’s, Jesuits priests were located throughout the Southwest. Allegedly, the Jesuits had amassed a fortune in gold and didn’t want to share it with the King of Spain, who, in turn, convinced of treachery, ordered the deportation of all Jesuits in 1767.
Before their departure, they supposedly hid their treasure in various places throughout the Southwest and according to legend, the Superstition Mountain region was one of these places.
In the Old West
In 1821, Mexico gained independence from Spain. An influx of Mexican prospectors poured into the Superstition Mountain region. Don Miguel Peralta was a wealthy landowner and miner from northern Mexico. Reportedly, his expeditions recovered immense quantities of gold from the Superstitions in 1847 and 1848. All but one member of the expedition was killed in a battle with the Apaches at a site commemorated as Massacre Grounds, located at the west end of the mountains.
Along with all the prospectors came settlers, which created the need for military outposts for protection against increasing hostilities with the Apaches. Military personnel, prospectors, cattle ranchers, and, of course, the Natives, used the Yavapai Trail as a route going into the Tonto Basin area. Because of its location, the availability of water, and grass for horses, it’s safe to assume Tortilla Flat was a good place to camp along the trail.
Even so, historians say the Yavapai Trail was a difficult trail to traverse. There was other trails that were easier going. This was largely because of the Herculean task to cross Fish Creek Mountain and Fish Creek Canyon.
Legends that there was a small settlement of prospectors and/or Native Americans located at Tortilla Flat in the 1880s, while colorful and fun to believe, seem to be just that – legends.
Historians agree that if such a settlement existed, it would appear on the old trail maps of the area, which were typically very detailed. The maps show no such settlement. Also, legal records, such as those of the U.S. Forest Service, give no mention of a settlement prior to 1904.
There was no road to Tortilla Flat prior to 1904, until construction crews built one to Roosevelt Dam. No road — no stage stop.
Though no one seems to know exactly what year Mr. Cline named Tortilla Flat (see written history), the figures indicate the flat could have been named as early as 1867. Whether it was or not, (and, it seems unlikely because of Mr. Cline’s young age at the time) someone else doing the same computations would have also realized the possibility, which may have led to legends that Tortilla Flat, as a permanent settlement, was established in 1867. Another legend says 1886. Both dates probably fall within the time period Mr. Cline drove cattle.
Going by available records Tortilla Flat got its start because of road construction to Roosevelt Dam (1904).
Once established as a freight camp, there seems to have been some number of people living there on their own. Forest Service records show the Tonto National Forest being established in 1905 as kind of a “package deal” with Salt River Project. The Forest Service was needed to manage the land and protect watershed for the dams. The freight camp at Tortilla Flat, as well as the other camps along the road to the dam, were therefore, on U.S. Forest Service land. Those folks who decided to take the wheel, and become caretakers of Tortilla Flat kept up the lease on the land up till and including today.
This has been a brief skimming of the history of Tortilla Flat. Visit our museum for an expanded journey through time!