Print of a vintage steamboat in front of rugged terrain.
Ives' steamboat, the Explorer

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.

Artwork of the Grand Canyon's steep, dark cliffs with the river rapids below.
Artwork from the Ives expedition was very dark, depicting the canyon as a terrifying place.

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:
"The extent and magnitude of the system of canyons is astounding. The plateau is cut into shreds by these gigantic chasms, and resembles a vast ruin. Belts of country miles in width have been swept away, leaving only isolated mountains standing in the gap. Fissures so profound that the eye cannot penetrate their depths are separated by walls whose thickness one can almost span, and slender spires that seem to be tottering upon their bases shoot up thousands of feet from the vaults below."

But he could not envision that the scenery alone would bring millions to view the wonder of the canyon. He also writes:

"The region is, of course, altogether valueless. It can be approached only from the south, and after entering it there is nothing to do but leave. Ours has been the first, and will doubtless be the last, party of whites to visit this profitless locality. It seems intended by nature that the Colorado river, along the greater portion of its lonely and majestic way, shall be forever unvisited and undisturbed."

Portrait of John Wesley Powell, including head and shoulders
John Wesley Powell, Age 35, 1869

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.

He studied reports from Ives’ expedition, gathered support and supplies from the Smithsonian Institution, railroads, educational institutions, and convinced Congress to authorize the use of rations and supplies from army posts.

He designed his own boats and gathered a makeshift crew of ex-trappers, mountain men, and Civil War veterans like himself. The expedition launched four boats from Green River, Wyoming in May 24, 1869.

Illustration of a few boats lost and struggling in the canyon river's rapids
Disaster Falls

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.

After three summer months spent exploring the upper canyons of the Colorado River, the expedition passed the Paria River on August 4, hungry, with only musty apples, spoiled bacon, wet flour, and coffee remaining, and both physically and mentally tired, as they entered the last and greatest of the canyons. The scientific expedition had turned into a fight for their very survival.

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.

Boat in the Colorado river with a higher chair attached.
Powell's boat had a chair attached so he could see further ahead and spot the rapids.

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: July 17, 2019

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