The Grand Canyon was discovered in 1540 by El Tovar, one of the captains of Cardenas, in charge of one of the expeditions of the Spanish explorer, Diaz, who was hunting for seven fabled cities of vast wealth. “They reached the banks of a river which seemed to be more than three or four leagues above the stream that flowed between them.” It was seen in 1776 by a Spanish priest who sought a crossing and found one at a point far above the canyon; this still bears the name Vado de los Padres.
By 184o it was probably known to the trappers who overran the country. In 185o Lieutenant Whipple, surveying for a Pacific route, explored the Black Canyon and ascended the Grand Canyon to Diamond Creek.
In 1857 Lieutenant Ives, sent by the War Department to test the navigability of the Colorado, ascended as far as the Virgin River in a steamboat which he had shipped in pieces from Philadelphia. From there he entered the Grand Canyon afoot, climbed to the rim, and, making a detour, encountered the river again higher up. In 1867 James White was picked up below the Virgin River lashed to floating logs. He said that his hunting-party near the head of the Colorado River, attacked by Indians, had escaped upon a raft. This presently broke up in the rapids and his companions were lost. He lashed himself to the wreckage and was washed through the Grand Canyon.
About this time Major John Wesley Powell, a school-teacher who had lost an arm in the Civil War, determined to explore the great canyons of the Green and Colorado Rivers. Besides the immense benefit to science, the expedition promised a great adventure. Many lives had been lost in these canyons and wonderful were the tales told concerning them. Indians reported that huge cataracts were hidden in their depths and that in one place the river swept through an underground passage.
Nevertheless, with the financial backing of the State institutions of Illinois and the Chicago Academy of Science, Powell got together a party of ten men with four open boats, provisions for ten months, and all necessary scientific instruments. He started above the canyons of the Green River on May 24, 1869.
There are many canyons on the Green and Colorado Rivers. They vary in length from eight to a hundred and fifty miles, with walls successively rising from thirteen hundred to thirty-five hundred feet in height. The climax of all, the Grand Canyon, is two hundred and seventeen miles long, with walls six thousand feet in height.
On August 17, when Powell and his adventurers reached the Grand Canyon, their rations had been reduced by upsets and other accidents to enough musty flour for ten days, plenty of coffee, and a few dried apples. The bacon had spoiled. Most of the scientific instruments were in the bottom of the river. One boat was destroyed. The men were wet to the skin and unable to make a fire. In this plight they entered the Grand Canyon, somewhere in whose depths a great cataract had been reported.
The story of the passage is too long to tell here. Chilled, hungry, and worn, they struggled through it. Often they were obliged to let their boats down steep rapids by ropes, and clamber after them along the slippery precipices. Often there was nothing to do but to climb into their boats and run down long foaming slants around the corners of which death, perhaps, awaited. Many times they were upset and barely escaped with their lives. With no wraps or clothing that were not soaked with water, there were nights when they could not sleep for the cold.
So the days passed and the food lessened to a few handfuls of wet flour. The dangers increased; some falls were twenty feet in height. Finally three of the men determined to desert; they believed they could climb the walls and that their chances would be better with the Indians than with the canyon. Powell endeavored to dissuade them, but they were firm. He offered to divide his flour with them, but this they refused.
These men, two Howlands, brothers, and William Dunn, climbed the canyon walls and were killed by Indians. Two or three days later Powell and the rest of his party emerged below the Grand Canyon, where they found food and safety.
Taught by the experience of this great adventure, Powell made a second trip two years later which was a scientific achievement. Later on he became Director of the United States Geological Survey.
Since then, the passage of the Grand Canyon has been made several times. R. B. Stanton made it in 1889 in the course of a survey for a proposed railroad through the canyon; one of the leaders of the party was drowned.
The history of the Grand Canyon has been industriously collected. It remains for others to gather the legends. It is enough here to quote from Powell the Indian story of its origin.
“Long ago,” he writes, “there was a great and wise chief who mourned the death of his wife, and would not be comforted until Tavwoats, one of the Indian gods, came to him and told him his wife was in a happier land, and offered to take him there that he might see for himself, if, upon his return, he would cease to mourn. The great chief promised. Then Tavwoats made a trail through the mountains that intervene between that beautiful land, the balmy region of the great West, and this, the desert home of thepoor Numa. This trail was the canyon gorge of the Colorado. Through it he led him; and when they had returned the deity exacted from the chief a promise that he would tell no one of the trail. Then he rolled a river into the gorge, a mad, raging stream, that should engulf any that might attempt to enter thereby.”