Grand Canyon – The Discovery

EVERY one in the southwest knows that the first white people to come into the Plateau Country were the Spaniards. They came up from Mexico, led by Coronado, and are sometimes referred to as the “conquistadores.” They were on conquest bent, and toiled across the southern wastes with a determination and an energy quite unparalleled. It was a desperate country through which to lead an expeditionary force. There was a dearth of food, forage, and, above all, of water. It was the desert —an arida zona, or, literally translated, an arid zone. Their name for the whole region has come down to us in contracted form, and is now the name of the State—Ari(da)zona.

The first of the Spanish contingent to arrive was the famous Franciscan brother Fray Marcos de Niza, who was accompanied by Stephen, a negro guide. They came up from Culiacan in 1539, and the priest at least was less interested in the quest of gold than the quest of souls. The negro guide went ahead of the padre, and arrived at Cibola (now identified with Zuni), where he was taken prisoner by the inhabitants. In attempting to escape he was killed. The padre saw Cibola only from a high distant hill, and when he returned to Mexico reported it as larger than the city of Mexico. Also the report was made that “on the portals of the principal houses there are many de-signs of turquoise stones, of which they have a great abundance; and the people in these cities are very well clothed.”

It was the account given by Fray Marcos on his return that started the next year the celebrated expedition of Coronado and his ensign Tovar. They were gold-seekers and on conquest bent, with little love for the Indian, though they carried the cross. But they were not lacking in courage. Every one who has followed the trail of the “conquistadores” has his profound admiration for their fortitude and endurance. Tovar and a detachment arrived at Cibola, and were met by the Indians there with presents of skins, corn-meal, nuts, birds, turquoises, cotton cloth. It was at Cibola that they heard of a large river lying “twenty days’ journey” to the northwest, and when they returned to the main expedition, Cardenas and twelve men were detailed to ascertain the truth of the report. It was thus that Cardenas came to discover the Canyon.

Casteneda, in his Narrative of the Coronado expedition, tells the story of Cardenas:

“After they had gone twenty days they came to the banks of the river, which seemed to be more than three or four leagues above the stream which flowed between them. This country was elevated and full of low, twisted pines, very cold and lying open to the north, so that this being the warm season, no one could live there on account of the cold. They spent three days on this bank looking for a passage down to the river, which looked from above as though the water was six feet across, al-though the Indians said it was half a league wide. It was impossible to descend, for after these three days, Captain Melgosa and one Juan Galeras and another companion, who were the three lightest and most agile men, made an attempt to go down at the least difficult place, and went down until those who were above were unable to keep sight of them. They returned about four o’clock in the afternoon, not having succeeded in reaching the bottom on account of the great difficulties which they found, because what seemed to be easy from above was not so, but instead very hard and difficult. They said that they had been down about a third of the way, and that the river seemed very large from the place which they reached, and that from what they saw they thought the Indians had given the width correctly. Those who stayed above had estimated that some huge rocks on the sides of the cliffs seemed about as tall as a man, but those who went down swore that when they reached these rocks they were bigger than the great tower of Seville. They did not go farther up the river because they could not get water. Before this they had had to go a league or two inland every day, late in the evening, in order to find water, and the guides said that if they should go four days farther it would not be possible to go on because there was no water within three or four days.. This was the Tizon (Firebrand) River, much nearer its source than where Melchior Diaz and his company crossed it.

This description fits the Grand Canyon, but it would also apply to the Marble Canyon, or perhaps to the Canyon of the Little Colorado. It is not possible to say just where the Cardenas party came out, but it is very likely that the Indians took them to the Grand Canyon, and to a spectacular part of it, such as Comanche Point or thereabouts. If the present Zuni in New Mexico is the “Cibola” of the Spaniards, then it is difficult to explain the “twenty days’ journey” to the Canyon. It could have been reached from Zuni in one-quarter of that time. But it is easier to imagine some error in the Narrative, or in its transmission, than to suppose the Cardenas party did not reach the Canyon. The Narrative calls the river the Tizon, which was the name given by Diaz to the Colorado below the Needles.

Before Diaz the dower river had been navigated by Alarcon, but he went no higher up than the Needles. The Canyon part was as impossible for boats then as now, and Alarcon never saw it. After Diaz there is a long silence. Perhaps the very existence of the Canyon had been forgotten when Fray Garces, who had a mission below Tucson, at San Xavier del Bac, came up into the province of Tusayan, carrying the cross to the Indians. This was in 1776, and during that summer Garces visited the Havasupais in Cataract (Havasupai) Can-yon, probably going down there by the still-existent and somewhat perilous Wallapai Trail. After some days he came out and evidently travelled along the Rim of the Grand Canyon as far as the Little Colorado, which he crossed, and passed on to the Indian village of Oraibi. That village would not receive him, and he returned to the Canyon, and thus to his mission at San Xavier del Bac.

After Graces there is another lapse of almost fifty years, during which there is little or no reliable report about the Canyon. The next discovery of it was probably by American trappers, who were naturally less interested in the Canyon than in the River and what it would produce. They were after pelts, and the River supplied them with beaver. This commercial phase of discovery brought about the exploration of the canyons on the upper River, but probably not the Grand Canyon proper.

In 1824 General Ashley (a former Governor of Missouri) went into the fur trade with Andrew Henry, and established a camp in Green River Valley. Their expeditions by boat led them down the Colorado. Powell in 1869 found Ashley’s name and date (1825) on a rock in Red Canyon. But the Ashley expedition ended in disappointment, if not in actual disaster, and was abandoned long before the Grand Canyon was reached. It is doubtful if any of the trappers—and there were many following or preceding Ashley–ever got as far as the Marble Canyon. There were too many rapids to run, too much danger and starvation on the way. They were not prepared for such a perilous expedition, and one by one gave up as provisions began to run short. In any event, they added Iittle to Canyon history. Others of their kind—notably the Patties, father and son—had come up the Colorado from below, travelling probably along the edge of the Grand Canyon, but, again, adding little to the record. They were trappers, adventurers, who came and passed on, carrying the tale of the Canyon marvel with them.

The expedition that followed after the trappers was governmental. Lieutenant Ives was sent by the War Department to explore the River above Yuma and find out whether it was a feasible way for carrying military supplies to the posts in New Mexico and Utah. He went up the stream in a steamboat, the Explorer, accompanied by twenty-four men and two artists—the latter making pictures of the route travelled. Ives went as far as Black Canyon, whither one Johnson had preceded him, and there his Explorer struck a rock. The boat was sent back to Fort Yuma, and Ives took a pack-train and went on to the Grand Canyon. He visited the Havasupais in Cataract Canyon, going down the Wallapai Trail, as Fray Garces before him. Then he passed over to the San Francisco Mountains, crossed the Little Colorado, and visited the Mokis, again probably following the Games trail. He wrote a report of his trip that makes interesting reading. It contains many pen pictures, for the Lieutenant was much impressed with the Canyon grandeur, and yet he thought it so remote and lonely that it would be “forever unvisited and undisturbed.” Wherein he apparently failed to reckon with the American tourist.

In 1859 Captain Macomb was sent to examine the junction of the Green and Grand Rivers. Doctor Newberry, who had been with Ives, accompanied Macomb. Nothing of importance relating to the Grand Canyon portion of the stream came out of it. At the end of the Civil War miners found their way into the lower Canyon, but neither did any report of value come from them. Dellenbaugh tells the tale of these various expeditions as leading up to the real exploration of the River, which was undertaken by Major Powell in 1869. Dellenbaugh’s story is more than interesting because he accompanied Powell on his second expedition in 1871-1872, and he speaks with knowledge and authority.

Powell’s’ expeditions were those of an explorer-scientist. It would be difficult to say which was the greater in him, the spirit of the adventurer or the curiosity of the geologist. Apparently the tales told of Canyon dangers spurred him on. The Indians had given out stories of canoe parties that went down the Colorado and were overwhelmed by the waters, of underground passages where the great stream disappeared for hundreds of miles, and of high enclosing walls that only the eagles could surmount. They warned Powell against entering the gorge. It was contempt of the gods. But nothing stopped him. From Green River City in Wyoming he drove through in boats for a thou-sand miles to the mouth of the River Virgin, beyond the Grand Canyon. On his second expedition in 1871 he went as far as Kanab Canyon. These were the first scientific explorations of the canyons by way of the River. The account should be read in the original and not in a paraphrase.

After Powell’s day a number of expeditions were fitted out from time to time with the avowed intention of “going through the Canyon.” The feat had been heralded as “dangerous,” “difficult,” “impossible,” and that advertisement naturally drew the attention of some who were disposed to run risks in accepting dares. In 1889 Frank M. Brown, surveying for a railway along the River, led a party as far as the Marble Canyon, where he lost his life in running a rapid. Robert Stanton, who had been with Brown, got through to the Gulf of California the next year. In 1897 a trapper named Gilloway went through as far as the Needles. Since then several expeditions, notably one of the Kolb brothers, who made moving pictures of their voyage, have been undertaken with more or less success. At the present time the Canyon region is fairly well known both topographically and geologically. The trip by boat is still dangerous, and adventurous people no doubt will continue to make it, but so far as science or exploration is concerned the risk is neither necessary nor worth while.

The conquistadores, the padres, the trappers, the explorers, the geologists, having had their day and said their accustomed say, who should come upon the scene but the artist and the writer, with their whilom auditor and follower, the tourist. Its uselessness in commerce or agriculture having been for the moment demonstrated, the Canyon has been hailed as a thing of beauty, and both the brush and the pen have been called into service to picture it. The first of the brushmen, Eggloffstein and Mollhausen, were with Ives, and their truth of representation has been called into question. They were obsessed with the Dusseldorf way of presenting a picture pattern, and rather conventionalized or Germanized the Canyon. After them came W. H. Holmes, who did the wonderfully accurate and de-tailed plates that accompany Dutton’s report. The Holmes pictures are admirable illustrations and deserve great praise for their topographical truth. They are in a class with Audubon’s Birds of America and possess the same excellences of characterization.

Holmes had been preceded in topographical and spectacular landscape by F. E. Church, who as early as 1853 went to South America and sketched the Andes, afterward becoming famous for such pictures as the “Heart of the Andes.” After Church came Albert Bierstadt, who in 1858 made his first sketching-tour in the Rocky Mountains, accompanying General Lander’s overland expedition to establish a wagon-trail to the Pacific. Bierstadt later on painted the Yellowstone, the Yosemite, and other Western scenes, achieving a great reputation thereby. Thomas Moran was also brought under the spell of Western landscape as early as 1871, when he accompanied a government expedition to the Yellowstone region. In 1874 he began painting the Grand Canyon of the Colorado, and since then he has done many famous pictures of “the great chasm,” as it was formerly called.

Moran’s name is associated with the Grand Canyon, as Bierstadt’s with the Yosemite, and Church’s with the Andes. They all painted the panoramic and the spectacular, and they all attained a truth of scale and perspective more or less monumental and impressive. Moran was perhaps the best painter of the three; but even in his work there is the feeling of the merely “mappy” and the topographic that rather crowds out the esthetic and the pictorial. In all of these pictures or “views” the form becomes too dominant for anything like sensuous seeing. In fact, the panoramic is a genre of its own—something exceptionally obdurate in art.

Scores of painters have had a try at the Canyon since Moran first blazed the road, but, as a whole, they have not greatly improved upon him. Only of recent years have they taken up the problem in an interpretative way. The modern tendency in dealing with it is to follow up suggestion rather than realization. Impressionism, in its rightful meaning of giving the realistic or objective impression of the fact, is possibly the better method of procedure, It is doubtful if sentiment or emotion, or a too subjective treatment of any kind, can avail much with such colossal forms and colors as the Canyon presents. The purely decorative treatment fares no better. You cannot turn the Canyon into a tone of color, or arrange it as a merely graceful pat-tern of form, without distorting truth and falling into insipidity, Indeed, there are many difficulties in the way of the individual who would put the Canyon on canvas. More than one painter has come to grief over it.

Just so with the poets. The bookman fares no better than the brushman. Many a poet has come away from the Canyon with a fine frenzy in his eye and a thick feeling in his throat, but by the time he has his emotion down on paper it has proved merely a disjointed rhapsody. You cannot absorb the Canyon mentally and body it forth in verse as you do the New England mill-pond or the poppies in Flanders fields. The mass of form and color, the bewildering display of light, are baffling. For all the verseful eulogies and rhythmic odes, the beauty of the depth remains unrevealed, its splendor not half told. The Canyon still lacks a poet.

Even the people who write prose, and are not popularly supposed to be bothered with fine frenzies, have their troubles in describing the Canyon. They have not enough adjectives to go around or to reach up and over. Language fails them. The tourist who comes out to the Rim for the first time and exclaims “Good God !” comes as near description as the more elaborately wordy if by his exclamation he means not only his own surprise but the greatness and goodness of God. One can, of course, particularize, and grow wearisome in doing so, without reaching expression. Every writer dreads falling into that slough. And, in any event, in the final analysis he must realize that, with the Can-yon for a theme, he has not reached up high enough. His difficulties are those of the early explorers. The Canyon is practically impossible.

The great chasm cannot be successfully exploited commercially or artistically. It cannot be ploughed or plotted or poetized or painted. It is too big for us to do more than creep along the Rim and wonder over it. Perhaps that is not cause for lamentation. Some things should be beyond us—aspired to but never attained. The great goddess Nature, standing here in her majestic splendor, may be seen, admired, and loved. What more would we? Why should we wish to jostle her familiarly or even so much as touch the hem of her golden garmenting? Wrapped in her purple mists and under her blue immensity of sky, she should rest forever aloof and inviolate. The mystery that surrounds her should remain a mystery.

As for our wonder, it is a natural inheritance. We opened our eyes upon the world with awe and we close them at the last groping our way in starry spaces. May it never cease ! With definite knowledge one abandons interest. The world becomes commonplace.