The earliest documented Spanish activity in southern Arizona is the 1539 expedition headed by Fray Marcos de Niza, in search of the fabled Seven Cities of Cibola. Their stay in Arizona was brief and transitory, as they quickly passed into New Mexico and into the history of that region. Francisco Vásquez de Coronado's expedition in 1540, also likely passed through the southeastern portion of Arizona, although the exact route is still a matter of considerable controversy.
Antonio de Espejo was a Spanish naturalist and explorer who conducted an expedition into New Mexico and Arizona. The Espejo Expedition of 1582-1583 consisted of twelve soldiers, Espejo, friars, servants and 115 horses and mules. Their travels took them from Texas into New Mexico and among the numerous pueblos along the Upper Rio Grande. The party followed the Jemez River northwest where they visited Acoma, which is one of North America's oldest inhabited communities. Acoma is built on a rock rising nearly 350 feed above the plateau. Its cisterns catch rain to serve the large population and cultivate gardens located on a nearby river. The Acoma presented Espejo with their snake and flute ceremonies, which he described as "many juggling feats, some very clever, with live snakes." While in Acoma, Espejo learned of Coronado's campaign there, and the Indians also told him that a lake of gold existed further west in Arizona.
Following that lead, Espejo visited the Hopi region of Arizona, which other Indians warned them not to visit because the Spaniards might be killed. Espejo successfully convinced them that they posed no threat and was welcomed with hundreds of woven cotton mantas, or blankets. Again, Indians told Espejo about the fabled lake of gold found further west. Although Espejo never found the lake of gold, he did extract silver ore from several regional locations that produced high-grade silver.
Two different records provide information about Espejo's trek to the mines: the journal of Diego Perez de Luxan, the chronicler of the expedition, and the account of Espejo himself who wrote shortly after his return from New Mexico. Although there has been debate about the location of the mines and the route traveled, most scholars now believe that the party passed through the Verde Valley to reach mines in the vicinity of Jerome. Luxan's journal of this trip is considered to include an accurate description of the natural features of the Verde Valley and to support the theory of the presence of the expedition in the region. The following passage possibly references the Beaver Creek area: "This river is named El Rio de las Parras. We found a rancheria belonging to mountain people who fled from us as we could see by the tracks. We saw plants of natural flax similar to that of Spain and numerous prickly pears. We left this place on the seventh of the month and after marching six leagues we reached a cienaguilla which flows into small water ditch and we came to an abandoned pueblo." The cienaguilla and cienaguilla water ditch mentioned were probably Montezuma Well and the prehistoric irrigation canal flowing from its outlet. The abandoned pueblo could have been one of the large ruins beside the Well. The account of the expedition that Espejo wrote later also describes an area with striking resemblance to the Verde Valley and lends weight to the theory that the Espejo party traveled through the area.
Other references in the Espejo and Luxan accounts further substantiate the claim that the expedition journeyed through the Verde Valley. These accounts thus document the first European presence in the valley and their probable encounter with Montezuma Well and its prehistoric ruins.
Fur trappers and mountain men were the first European Americans known to enter the region. In the early 1800's, these men followed many of the rivers of the Southwest in search of fur and adventure. Although only limited records of their explorations exist, a few accounts suggest that groups traveled along the course of the Verde River and nearby Beaver Creek. In 1826 a party of trappers worked their way up the Salt River to its junction with the Verde River. At this point, the company divided. One group, followed James Ohio Pattie, trapped the Salt to its headwaters in the White Mountains. The other, led by Ewing Young, followed the Verde River to its source in the mountains southwest of the town of Williams. Young reportedly trapped along the Verde again in 1829, this time taking a party of forty men, including a teenager named Kit Carson, from Taos toward the Salt River, known at the time for its fine trapping grounds. They trapped the Salt to the mouth of the Verde River and from there "meandered that stream to its source." With such a large outfit, it seems possible that some of the men followed Beaver Creek up far enough to have seen Montezuma Castle. However, whether any of the trappers and adventurers who came to the Verde Valley in the early 1800's saw Montezuma Castle, Montezuma Well or the V Bar V petroglyphs remains unknown; they left no detailed records of their travels.
With the transfer of the Southwest to the United States after the Mexican-American War and the Gadsden Purchase, the federal government initiated explorations and surveys of its vast new domain. The publications from these expeditions included information about many previously undocumented prehistoric dwellings of the region. The earliest mention of the ruins of the Verde Valley was made in Lieutenant A.W. Whipple's "Report upon the Indian Tribes" which documents his 1853-1854 survey for a railroad route to the Pacific.