Joseph Christmas Ives: 1857-58
Grand Canyon was the last largely unexplored area of the West in 1857. Often called "The Great Unknown" it was literally a blank space on maps. It was known that the Colorado River made a significant portion of its journey through this area, so the federal government funded an expedition to explore the river and determine its usefulness as a trade route.
Army First Lieutenant Joseph Christmas Ives of the U.S. Army Corps of Topographical Engineers took on the adventure. He navigated up river using a fifty-foot long sternwheel steamboat, the Explorer. His plan was to steam up the Colorado River from the known into the unknown.
He crashed just below Black Canyon, not yet in Grand Canyon itself, but continued upriver for another thirty miles in a skiff. Continuing on foot, his overland journey took him down into the canyon at Diamond Creek, today part of the Hualapai Indian Reservation. He is thus credited as the first European American known to reach the river within Grand Canyon.
In his Report upon the Colorado River of the West; Explored in 1857 and 1858 (Washington: GPO, 1861), Ives admires the canyon’s scenery:
But he could not envision that the scenery alone would bring millions to view the wonder of the canyon. He also writes:
John Wesley Powell: 1869 and 1872
It wasn’t until 1869 that another explorer would take on the Colorado River through Grand Canyon. John Wesley Powell was a geologist whose studies of rocks in Colorado and Wyoming sparked his interest in exploring the unknown canyon of the Colorado River.
Starting off with ease, the river quickly gained momentum and began to bare its teeth. One boat and all its supplies were lost at Lodore Canyon in a rapid Powell named Disaster Falls.
In his published account of the river expedition, The Exploration of the Colorado River of the West and its Tributaries (Washington: GPO, 1875), Powell referred to Grand Canyon as “our granite prison” and described an almost unbroken series of rapids that the expedition ran, lined, or portaged, praying all the while for an end to the ordeal. On August 28, the canyon ended and the river became relatively quiet once again.
So many of Powell’s notes had been lost, however, that with full federal funding, Powell gathered another crew, this time of amateur scientists and educated men, and began a second expedition on May 22, 1871 from Green River, Wyoming, entering the Grand Canyon at Lee’s Ferry on August 17, 1872 after wintering in Kanab, Utah.
Find out more about the Powell Expedition with these books available at the Grand Canyon Association's Online Bookstore:
Last updated: March 14, 2018