Human prehistory began here about 4000 years BC when hunter-gatherers roamed and settled in the Verde Valley and Prescott areas. Between 900 and 1350 AD, a more advanced civilization began building pueblos and cliff houses. Known as the Sinagua, they were proficient in farming, had an understanding of astronomy, and made baskets, pottery and jewelry. They established trade routes with the peoples of the Pacific coast, Mexico and Central America. Archaeological evidence in Sedona’s immediate environs is meager, but a few fine pots, some stone tools and baskets have been found nearby. The pueblo builders had moved on by 1400 AD, about the same time that the Yavapai and Apache peoples began to move into the area.
Evidence of human presence in the Sedona region begins around 4000 BC when hunter-gatherers roamed through the Verde Valley. As early as 300 BC the dry desert soils were being farmed by the Hohokam people, who developed systems of irrigation canals by 700 AD but then mysteriously abandoned the area, perhaps because of a regional volcanic eruption in 1066 AD.
Next to arrive were the agrarian Sinagua Indians, whose Spanish name means ‘without water,’ this being an indication of their ability to farm in the dry environment. Settling in the area from about 1000 to 1400 AD, they built pueblos and cliff dwellings, perhaps influenced by the architecturally more sophisticated Anasazi Indians, and made baskets, pottery and jewelry. They also established trading relationships with tribes from the Pacific coastal regions and northern Mexico, and exported the high-grade copper, which they mined west of Sedona.
Traces of the Sinagua may be found in the remains of their ruined pueblos scattered around the Sedona area. Sites such as Palatki, Honanki, and Wupatki had dozens of rooms in double story buildings and were decorated with intriguing pictographs and petroglyphs depicting clan affiliations, mythological beings and astronomical observations. Archaeologists theorize that the Sinagua may have conducted religious celebrations during particular periods determined by their celestial observations.
Early in the 15th century, the Sinagua disappeared from the area for reasons that remain a mystery and about this time the Yavapai and Apache Indians began to settle along the sides of Oak Creek canyon.
The first European exploration of the Verde Valley was in 1583, when Antonio de Espejo searched for gold. In 1598, Marcos Farfan de los Godas also came searching for gold. There is no evidence that either visited the greater Sedona area. They did try some prospecting in Jerome, but found only copper. The area was in the hands of Spain until Mexico gained its independence in 1821. With the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, the Arizona Territory became part of the United States.
Europeans first arrived in the region in 1583, when a group of Spanish explorers came in search of gold and silver. Following the end of the Civil War and the creation of the Territory of Arizona in 1863, homesteaders began to settle in the Verde Valley and along Oak Creek from the 1870’s. The early settlers were farmers and ranchers, and Oak Creek Canyon was well known for its apple and peach orchards.
The first Anglo settler in Sedona was John James Thompson in 1876. He had the advantage of finding an abandoned Yavapai garden, still bearing crops, hence the name “Indian Gardens” in Oak Creek Canyon. Three years later, the family of Abraham James arrived. James had been an acquaintance of Thompson in Utah and he married Thompson’s daughter, Margaret.
James Homestead on Oak Creek – 1879 (where Copper Cliffs is today)
A few more settlers came to the Oak Creek Canyon area in 1880, including Jesse “Bear” Howard, also known as Charles Smith Howard. Others who arrived in the 1880’s included Jack Robinson, John L.V. Thomas, William Dyer, Henry Schuerman, Adolph Willard, and John H. Lee. They settled along Oak Creek, one of the few streams in Arizona that runs all year.
These early settlers lived a precarious existence, hunting, fishing, and farming a few acres to keep food on the table. Improvements came slowly. By the end of the 1880s, Margaret Parlee “Maggie” James, Abraham’s widow, irrigated 20 acres; her son Dave, another 20; Jim Thompson irrigated 15 acres; Adolph Willard 25 acres; and Henry Schuerman about 72 acres.
The early pioneers took “pre-emption” homesteads, known as “squatters rights.” By 1889, enough people had settled in the area that the General Land Office dispatched surveyors to locate the township and range lines.
The first homestead in the Sedona area actually “proved up” was by Frank Owenby in 1901. Others included Elija Lay, Ambrosio Armijo, Manuel Chavez, and Jess Purtymun. The difficulty of establishing a homestead in the rugged and isolated region meant that some left before they could prove up. Others took their place. The new settlers continued the same economic pursuits, wrestling a living by diverting water from Oak Creek to irrigate small patches of land and water a few head of cattle. The homesteads were small, self-sustaining operations. By the end of the first decade, Lay irrigated 30 acres; Owenby, 25; Armijo, 30; Chavez, 10; and Purtymun, about eight.
By the turn of the century, about 15 homesteading families called the area home. In 1899, Theodore Carlton (Carl or “T.C.”) Schnebly, and his wife, Sedona Miller Schnebly, joined T.C.’s brother, Ellsworth (D.E.), in the Oak Creek Area. T. C. Schnebly was an enterprising young man, who had 80 acres and a general store and hotel in his home where Tlaquepaque and the Los Abrigados resort are now located. He saw the need for regular mail service in the little community and organized its first post office. He suggested the names “Oak Creek Crossing” and “Schnebly Station” to the Postmaster General in Washington, but both came back rejected. Ellsworth then suggested submitting Sedona’s name for the honor. On June 26, 1902, the Postmaster approved the name “Sedona.”
The first decade of the 20th Century saw more and more settlers arrive in the Sedona area to take up homesteads. Many were lured to the Verde Valley area by the growing mining economy of nearby Jerome. These early homesteaders earned a living by a wide variety of means. Some trapped during the winter and sold pelts to traders back East. The men would fish in Oak Creek and sell the fish in Jerome, traveling by night to keep their stock fresh.
The homesteading era in Sedona continued until the 1930s, although fewer settlers were arriving by the end of the period. The last land acquired by homesteading was a claim by Chauncey Leroy Piper in 1942 on land south of the present Chapel of the Holy Cross. Some of the original homesteads changed hands, as owners moved away and others arrived to take their place. Sons and daughters took up residence near the family homesteads, and carved out a patch of ground for their own. They were then further divided and subdivided. Today, the names and locations of several early homesteads are kept alive as the names of Sedona subdivisions.
Growth was slow at first because of the remoteness of the region. In 1902, when the Sedona post office was established, there were 55 residents. In that year the small town was named Sedona after Sedona Miller Schnebly (1877–1950), the wife of the city’s first postmaster, who was celebrated for her hospitality and industriousness. In the mid-1950s, the first telephone directory listed 155 names. Parts of the Sedona area weren’t electrified until the 1960s.
The first spurt of development came during the 1940’s and 50’s when Hollywood began filming western movies amidst the red rocks, such as the classics Billy the Kid, Apache and Broken Arrow. Many of Hollywood’s classic westerns were filmed in or near Sedona. The red rock buttes and desert landscape provided a striking setting for these films, most notably Broken Arrow (1950), starring James Stewart. Other famous actors who have appeared in movies filmed in Sedona include John Wayne, Barbara Stanwyck, Burt Lancaster, Robert Mitchum, James Stewart, Glenn Ford, Rock Hudson, Gene Autry, Joan Crawford, Henry Fonda, Ryan O’Neal, Elvis Presley and Robert De Niro.
In the 1960s and ’70s the beauty of the red rocks began attracting retirees, artists and an increasing number of tourists. Currently more than four million visitors pass through Sedona each year. While there is no evidence that the area of Sedona was a highly venerated sacred site in antiquity, it has since the late 1980’s become the most visited ‘new-age’ pilgrimage destination in the United States.