Grand Canyon History

(From How the Canyon Became Grand by Stephen Pyne)

Garcia Lopez de Cardena (part of Francisco Coronado’s 1540 expedition to find fabulous new city states) was dispatched to investigate a rumor of a great river west of their camp at Zuni. They encountered the Canyon near present day Desert View.

Father Francisco Garces pushed up Colorado River to Rio Jabescu (which goes through Havasu Canyon, home of Havasupai Indians). From Havasu, he evidently first encountered the western Canyon. He then passed the eastern Canyon on a journey to the Hopi Villages in 1776. He wrote that he was "astonished at the roughness of this country, and the barrier which nature had fixed." He did call it the Rio Colorado, but was ignorant of the great bend of the river — the east-west flow across the Kaibab Plateau.

In the expedition of 1789-1794, Father Silvestre Velez de Escalante and Father Francisco Dominguea trekked across much of what would become the Old Spanish Trail. The E-D Expedition hoped to forge an overland route between old Spanish settlements at Santa Fe with new ones in California. They passed to the north of the Canyon, and found a ford (the crossing of the fathers).

From 1869 to 1882 the Canyon went from an obscure barrier to one sought out by scholars, artists, and tourists. In 1901, Teddy Roosevelt said it was one of the great sights every American should see.

Ives Expedition, (1857-58) Army Corp. of Topographic Engineers

The expedition was led by Lt. Joseph Ives, of. He recorded for the first time since Garces an encounter with the canyon. His major charge was to determine the limit of navigation on the Colorado River. The grander purpose was the exploration of science, art, and cartography. The paddleboat "Explorer" hit rocks at the entry to Black Canyon, which became the head of navigation. With native guides, they marched overland to the east, and descended Peach Springs Canyon to where Diamond Creek joins the Colorado. They then resurfaced, then reentered the Canyon at Cataract Canyon (Havasu). The party then followed existing trails to Fort Defiance, N.M. They thus made the first journey from rim to river. Their report stated that the river and landscape was useless for military transport.

John Strong Newberry, the chief scientist, produced the first geologic column of the Canyon strata on the trip to Diamond Creek. He was also the first to intuit the vastness of erosion — of which the Canyon is only a minor epilog. It was the "most splendid exposure of stratified rocks in the world." His first great insight: water did it all. His second: it only could have happened over extraordinary lengths of time.

Wheeler Expedition, 1857-58) Army Geographical Survey

Lt. George M. Wheeler, commanding, traveled from Lee’s Ferry to Grand Wash Cliffs. This was the least remembered expedition of the era, yet it produces the most solid work. Timothy O’Sullivan, a protégé of Mathew Brady, produced the first photographs of the Canyon. G.K Gilbert was the chief scientist (who had two year’s apprenticeship under Newberry), and produced the first solid scientific description of Grand Canyon erosion and geology. Gilbert was the man of science to Powell’s man of action, and was the first great practitioner of America’s greatest science — geology.


The triumvirate of Grand Canyon exploration was John Powell, G.K. Gilbert, and Clarence Dutton. Dutton appreciated, more than the others, the oddity of the place, and he did it from the rim, without the benefit of the narrative flow of the river. He created a new aesthetics, without historical antecedent. He was assigned to the Powell survey of 1875, and his professional relationship to Powell lasted 15 years. His masterwork was the "Tertiary History of the Grand Canon District," 1882.

First major Grand Canyon Artists

Thomas Moran: He substituted idealized landscape for the actual, and subordinated the topographic canyon to reigning culture, conventions, and painterly mannerisms

William Holmes: He bonded science and exactitude to art. He went to the Canyon in 1880 to assist Clarence Dutton. He provided panoramas for the Atlas to the Tertiary History.

Ferde Grofe: Produced the Canyon’s most endearing musical composition, "Grand Canyon Suite," (1921-1933).

Gunnar Widforce (Sweden): Toured the national parks from 1921-24, under the patronage of Steven Mather, director of the National Park Service. He produced 72 works, to great acclaim. He was most attracted to the Canyon, setting up permanent residence there, and for 20 years produced a series of watercolors that were some of the most vivid and scenically honest of all Grand Canyon art.

Other notable individuals:

Robert Stanton: Became obsessed with building a railroad through the inner gorge. His 1889090 trip down the Colorado established him as a pioneer among river runners. He became the foremost early historian of the Colorado, yet nothing practical ever came of his ideas.

Charles Wolcott: Joined the Geological Survey when it was formed in 1879, then joined Clarence Dutton for stratigraphic work on the High Plateaus, and helped Powell construct a horse trail into Nankoweep Basin. He stayed in the Canyon and worked out the stratigraphy of the Grand Canyon and Chuar groups. His administrative career would far surpass Powell’s. He published five papers on Canyon geology between 1880 and 1895. He was promoted to chief paleontologist for the Geographical Survey, then succeeded Gilbert as chief geologist. In 1895 he succeeded Powell and Survey director. Wolcott was instrumental in promoting the forest reserve program in 1893, under which the Canyon was first set aside as protected land, and was active in the drive to establish the National Park Service (1916), under which the Grand Canyon became a national park in 1919.

William Davis: Pioneered physiography, now known as geomorphology. Promoted the idea that landscapes were high-energy systems that decayed through the entropy of erosion into low-energy systems. You could know the age by recognizing the patterns in sculpted land forms. Thus the Grand Canyon was "properly described and a young valley."

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