People and the Grand Canyon

Human History

Hiker on the Esplanade

Hiker on the Esplanade

The Grand Canyon has always had a powerful effect on humans, as evidenced by the reverence with which it is regarded by both ancient and modern people. Through art ranging from split twig figurines woven from a single piece of willow wood, to paintings and photography, humans have attempted to express the feelings evoked by the Grand Canyon.



Supai Charlie, 1901 -H. G. Peabody (public domain)

There is evidence that native peoples lived in the Grand Canyon region for more than 12,000 years. Ruins and artifacts show that people lived in and utilized the resources of the Grand Canyon until about 800 years ago. Then, the population of the canyon crashed abruptly and dwellings were abandoned. At present, the only people living within the Grand Canyon are the Havasupai, but tribes living on the plateaus above, including the Hualapai, Mohave, southern Paiutes, Navajo, and Hopi, have also long made use of the canyon's resources.


The Spanish

Route of the Coronado Expedition

Spanish conquistadors led by the explorer Cardenas were the first party of Europeans to see the Grand Canyon. Detached from the main body of the Coronado Expedition, the Cardenas party reached the South Rim somewhere between Lipan Point and Moran Point in 1540. Although their Hopi guides almost certainly knew of routes to the river, they weren't telling, and the Spanish searched in vain for ten days before giving up. Still, just reaching the Grand Canyon across the dry and dangerous deserts was a major accomplishment less than 50 years after Columbus first reached the New World.

More than two hundred years would pass before the next Spanish party saw the Grand Canyon. Traveling alone, Father Garces approached the canyon from the lower Colorado River in 1776. He befriended the local Indians who clearly gave him good advice, because he was guided to the village of Supai and then made his way along the South Rim in the area of Grandview Point.



During the 1820's, a fur trapper, James Pattie, and his party made their way from Black Canyon on the Colorado River, along the North Rim, and on to the Zuni villages in New Mexico. Pattie published his adventures as a Personal Narrative, which was part fact and part fiction. Other fur trappers undoubtedly visited the Grand Canyon to trap beaver on its streams, but if so they left no record.



Ruins of the cookshack at the Last Chance Mine on Horseshoe Mesa

After the Mexican-American War of 1848, the United States acquired the southwestern portion of North America north of the Gila River and energetically started to explore the hostile deserts of the region. A flood of gold seekers and emigrants sought routes to the California gold fields in 1849, and soon a wagon road was established across the Coconino Plateau south of the Grand Canyon. But the course of the Colorado River, and the Grand Canyon itself, was still a mystery.

Lt. Joseph Ives

In 1857, Army Lieutenant Joseph Ives was sent up the lower Colorado River in a steamboat to find the head of navigation. After wrecking on a rock in Black Canyon below the present site of Hoover Dam, Lieutenant Ives continued overland. He descended Peach Springs Wash to the Colorado River and visited Supai. Members of his party included John Newberry, the first geologist to study the Grand Canyon, and Bavarian artist and cartographer Baron Friedrich von Egloffstein, who produced the first detailed maps of a portion of the Grand Canyon. But the Grand Canyon still didn't even have a name, usually being referred to as the "big canyon." And all of these early visitors regarded the Grand Canyon with horror, as a useless place with a completely inaccessible river.

Powell's River Expeditions

During 1869-71, Major John Wesley Powell, a geologist and one-armed American Civil War veteran, led two expeditions down the Green and Colorado River systems. He also explored the plateaus surrounding the canyon and studied the local Indian tribes. He literally put the canyon on the map, naming it "The Grand Canyon of the Colorado." He published several professional papers on the canyon as well as a popular account of his journeys. His and the accounts of other members of his parties helped to popularize the Grand Canyon.

Stanton's River Expedition

Robert Brewster Stanton led an expedition through the Grand Canyon in 1889-90 to survey it for a river-level railroad. Several accidents, including the loss of the company president by drowning early on the first attempt to run the river (for some reason Stanton did not include life jackets on the trip), and difficulties getting financing, doomed the proposed railroad. But Stanton did have one effect- he wrote a book about his adventures in the Grand Canyon that popularized river running.


Attracted by the large expanses of rock open to exploration, prospectors and miners began to explore the canyon. In the 1880's, William Wallace Bass came to the Grand Canyon from the east coast for his health, and the dry air worked it's magic. He raised a family at Bass Camp on the South Rim to the west of the present village, built the Bass Trail, the first trail across the canyon, and developed copper mines on both sides of the river. At about the same time, Pete Berry developed the Tanner and Grandview trails in the eastern Grand Canyon. Berry's Last Chance Mine on Horseshoe Mesa was one of the few Grand Canyon mines to show a profit, if only for a short time. John Hance built trails down Red and Hance canyons to reach asbestos deposits on the north side of the river. Fibers from his mines were used in fireproof theater curtains as far away as Europe.



Built in 1890, Bucky O'Neill Cabin is the oldest surviving structure on the South Rim

Built in 1890, Bucky O'Neill Cabin is the oldest surviving structure on the South Rim

Before long, increasing numbers of people were coming to the Grand Canyon to see it, not to exploit it. The miners quickly found that guiding these dudes was far more profitable than mining. The first rim hotel was soon built near Grandview Point, and Hance built rustic accommodations for his clients at the mouth of Red Canyon on the Colorado River. Bass guided tourists on his Bass Trail to the North Rim, crossing the river on a ferry at low water and on a tram cable at high water.


The Railroad

Grand Canyon Railway Station

Grand Canyon Railway Station

In 1901, the Santa Fe Railroad completed a spur track from Williams to the present Grand Canyon Village area on the South Rim, replacing the arduous all-day stage trip from Flagstaff with a short, comfortable train ride. Grand Canyon Village quickly developed as the new focal point of Grand Canyon tourism, replacing Bass Camp to the west and Grandview Hotel to the east. To accommodate the increasing flood of visitors, the railroad completed the El Tovar Hotel in 1912.


The National Monument

1906 map of Grand Canyon National Monument

At the close of the nineteenth century, men such as Join Muir, Gifford Pinchot, and Stephen Mather were pressing for protection of America's natural resources and beauty. Their efforts led President Harrison to set aside the first National Forest Reserves, including Grand Canyon Forest Reserve in 1893. President Theodore Roosevelt was one of the earlier visitors to the Grand Canyon, and his visit helped fuel his growing opinion that the United States needed to preserve places such as Grand Canyon as the common heritage of all the people. In 1908 President Roosevelt proclaimed Grand Canyon National Monument, taking advantage of a new law allowing the president to establish preserves to protect antiquities.


Creating the National Park

Original boundaries of Grand Canyon National Park in 1919

Stephen Mather was appointed to head of the newly-formed National Park Service in 1916. Shortly afterward, on February 26, 1919, Congress created Grand Canyon National Park and the new park was turned over to the Park Service. Preservation had firmly been established as the management philosophy for the Grand Canyon.


Tourist Camps Below the Rim

Hermit Camp in 1919

Meanwhile, the Santa Fe Railroad was facing difficulties in trying to expand tourism at the South Rim. The only trail to the river from the Grand Canyon Village area was the Bright Angel Trail which was built by a prospector along an old Indian route and operated as a private toll trail. To circumvent this roadblock, the railroad built a road along the rim to Hermits Rest and then built the Hermit Trail to the river. Hermit Camp, an elaborate tourist camp complete with tent cabins, running water, and an aerial tramway for resupply was built near Hermit Creek on the Tonto Platform. Hermit Camp served as the focus for trips into the canyon until 1930.


The Kaibab Trail and Phantom Ranch

Kaibab Trail suspension bridge soon after its completion in 1928. Today the bridge is known as the Black Bridge, to distinguish it from the nearby Silver Bridge, which was completed in 1966

The Park Service, frustrated by repeated failures to buy the Bright Angel Trail, finally built its own trail to the east of the village. Construction of both the South and North Kaibab trails required the extensive use of explosives, but when the new trans-canyon trail opened in 1928 it became the focus of tourism below the rim and resulted in the establishment of Phantom Ranch near the mouth of Bright Angel Creek.



Construction camp litter at Marble Canyon dam site -NPS

Unfortunately, the national park established in 1919 did not protect all of the Grand Canyon: Marble Canyon, geologically a part of Grand Canyon, and the western portion of the Grand Canyon, were not included. During the 1960's, plans to build two huge dams in the Grand Canyon prompted a national protest. Bridge Canyon Dam in the western Grand Canyon would have flooded part of the park, Marble Canyon Dam would have eliminated the whitewater river run, and the wild heart of the canyon would have been lost. Finally, in 1973, Congress passed a law expanding the park to include all of Marble Canyon and the Grand Canyon except the southwestern portion on the Hualapai and Havasupai Indian reservations. The new law also addressed a long-standing injustice done to the Havasupai Tribe by expanding their reservation to include traditional lands upstream of Supai Village and on the South Rim.

For more details on the administrative history of Grand Canyon National Park, see Polishing the Jewel: An Administrative History of Grand Canyon National Park