Grand Canyon History

The Canyon Gets Started

Sixty-five million years ago, following extended periods of volcanism, sedimentation and erosion, the Grand Canyon region was compressed and the Colorado Plateau was uplifted thereby giving life to the Colorado River. Ultimately, as the uplift of the Colorado Plateau continued, the debris-laden river gained force and the Grand Canyon's chasm was eroded and deepened. The Colorado River encompasses a distance of 1,450 miles from its origins in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado to its drainage in the Gulf of California, sustaining multiple states in the western region of the U.S. 277 miles of the Colorado River actually pass through the Grand Canyon stretching across northern Arizona.

Indian Ancestors

The Colorado River and the Grand Canyon region have been home to many cultures, including a hunting-gathering culture that first appeared around the Canyon's general vicinity from approximately 2000 – 1000 B.C. Traces of this culture have been found that include stone spear points and split-twig figurines of animals. Fifteen hundred years later, in 500 A.D., another hunting-gathering group migrated into the region, the ancestral pueblo people, or the Anasazi. This industrious group grew crops, built masonry villages, created artistic crafts and cultivated over two thousand sites in the area. A regional drought finally forced the pueblo people to migrate to the eastern half of the Grand Canyon.

Over time, the Cohonina (700 – 1150 A.D.), the Cerbats (1300 A.D.), the Sinagua, the Dineh (1600 A.D.) and the Paiutes moved into different portions of the Grand Canyon region, establishing communities and utilizing its resources through hunting and farming. Indian descendants of these early cultures still inhabit areas of the Grand Canyon today, including tribes such as the Hualapai, Havasupai, the Navajo, the Hopi and the Paiute Tribes.

Exploration by Land

Under the direction of Francisco Vazquez de Coronado, Spaniards explored the Grand Canyon in 1540 looking for gold and the legendary Seven Cities of Cibola. After descending one third of the way to the Colorado River, they abandoned their search and left the region. American mountain men became acquainted with the region in the late 1820's but left little in terms of written records and descriptions of the area. In the 1850's, Brigham Young, the Mormon leader, sent Jacob Hamblin to find crossing sites in the Grand Canyon region. In his explorations, Hamblin discovered both Lees Ferry and Pierce Ferry, the only two viable crossing points near the Canyon. Lees Ferry obtained its name from John D. Lee, who began ferry operations in 1871 and Pierce Ferry was named after Harrison Pierce who operated the ferry after 1876.

In 1857, Lt. Joseph Ives was authorized by the U.S. War Department to travel upstream along the Colorado River from the Gulf of California. His steamboat journey lasted 350 miles until his boat struck a rock 20 miles in Black Canyon, approximately 30 miles from the present day Las Vegas. Ives and his men left the steamboat and hiked eastward into the depths of the Grand Canyon traversing rough terrain to the Diamond Creek. Ives and his company then traveled by land eastward along the South Rim to the confluence of the Little and Main Colorado Rivers.

Exploration by River

In 1869, Major John Wesley Powell conducted his famous exploration of the Colorado River by boat, gathering scientific information about the Grand Canyon. Powell, a veteran of the American Civil War who had lost his right arm at the Battle of Shiloh and a Professor of Geology, coined the phrase “Grand Canyon” during the course of the expedition. Funded in part by the Smithsonian Institute, the exploration was considered a great success. Unfortunately, three members of Powell's team were believed to have been killed by Paiute Indians after they left the rest of the team to climb out of the Canyon near Separation Rapid. Powell and the remaining party continued with the expedition and emerged one day later from the Canyon near Grand Wash. Major Powell later served as the 2nd Director of the U.S. Geological Survey, from 1881 to 1894, where he began a national hydrological reconnaissance program that ultimately led to the construction of the Hoover Dam, Glen Canyon Dam and other Colorado River dams, a testament to Powell's vision for reclamation. Lake Powell, the vast recreational water reserve adjacent to the Glen Canyon Dam, was been named in honor of John W. Powell.

In 1889, another exploration of the Colorado River was conducted by Frank Brown and Robert Stanton. Funded by the Colorado Canyon and Pacific Railroad Company, the purpose of the trip was to survey the potential for a railroad link between California and Colorado, to be established along the Colorado River. The first leg of the journey was a disaster in that Brown and two others were drowned in Grand Canyon rapids. Stanton outfitted the remaining group with life jackets and sturdier boats and continued with the expedition one year later, ultimately making his way to the Gulf of California. Needless to say, the trip confirmed the difficulty of establishing railroad service via the Colorado. The 1869 and 1889 expeditions influenced many other explorations to follow and in 1923, the U.S. Geological Survey conducted a comprehensive study that produced the first accurate topographic map of the Grand Canyon.


Miners, traders and trail builders lived and prospected around portions of the Canyon from the 1870's onward. Copper and silver mines were established near Lava Canyon and Havasu Falls, and a gold sluicing operation was conducted near Lee's Ferry. Operations were established that catered to tourists, hunters and surveyors. Rust's Camp, named after David Rust a Grand Canyon guide, was established in 1903 and later became known as Phantom Ranch, still in operation today. In 1916, the Cameron Trading Post was established as a stop-over for Canyon visitors, its location being en-route to the Grand Canyon Palisades and the confluence of the Little and Main Colorado Rivers.

Eighty-six years later, the Trading Post has expanded from its original structure, and hosts a Hotel and Navajo showroom for arts and crafts, attesting to the constant stream of visitors that have traveled to the Grand Canyon on a faithful basis. The addition of railroad service to the Canyon in 1903 and the invention of the automobile greatly facilitated the increase of tourism to this natural wonder of the world.

Federal Protection

As the Grand Canyon gradually gained in popularity, the U.S. Federal government moved to protect it from adverse impact. President Benjamin Harrison declared it a National Forest Reserve in 1893 and President Theodore Roosevelt established it as a National Game Reserve in 1906, and as a National Monument in 1908. On February 26, 1919, President Woodrow Wilson declared the Grand Canyon a National Park, and in 1975, a consolidation of Marble Canyon National Monument, Grand Canyon National Park, a section of the North Kaibab National Forest and Grand Canyon National Monument created the now-existent Park covering over 1,900 square miles.