The year 1919 marked two momentous occasions in the history of Grand Canyon: the birth of the national park on February 26, and the death of ‘Captain’ John Hance a little more than a month prior. The timing of these events was, in a way, fitting. For if the national park marked a new age of management and stewardship of the canyon, Hance had been the greatest living symbol of the previous era—wild, untamed, and filled with incredible stories.
Many of the details of the life of John Hance are unknown, for the man wrapped himself in a cloak of mystique and glamour. It is believed he was born around 1840 in Tennessee, and he likely fought in the Civil War as a Confederate (Though he was never a captain). Arriving at Grand Canyon as its first permanent European-American settler in (possibly) 1883, Hance improved an old Havasupai trail into the canyon and tried to mine for gold, silver, and asbestos. Very quickly, however, Hance found a more lucrative calling: guiding and providing lodging to visitors coming to the canyon to see if the stories of western explorers like Major John Wesley Powell were true.
As time passed and tourism grew, Hance became a legendary human fixture of the canyon. Visitors making their way down the treacherous Old Hance Trail would be entertained by stories of how the old frontiersman had dug the canyon himself or how his horse Darby could cross the canyon from rim to rim by galloping atop banks of fog. As Hance himself would once say, “I've got to tell stories to these people for their money; and if I don't tell it to them, who will? I can make these tenderfeet believe that a frog eats boiled eggs, and I'm going to do it; and I'm going to make 'em believe he carries it a mile to find a rock to crack it on."
As the twentieth century approached, the South Rim of Grand Canyon saw increasing commercial development, with stagecoaches and railroads being built to take visitors traveling from across America and the world directly to the rim. With his popularity increasing, Hance continued to lead visitors down into the canyon and constructed a brand-new trail when rockslides and washouts finally made the Old Hance Trail impassable. His legend became such that some began to say “To see the canyon only and not to see Captain John Hance, is to miss half the show,” and the prestige of the old guide was such that when President Theodore Roosevelt came to Grand Canyon in 1903, it was John Hance who led him down the trail.
All the while, however, large commercial entities were moving in to the South Rim, supplanting Hance and other early pioneers and forcing them to give up their one-man operations. Hance continued to be a Grand Canyon fixture, however, providing his services as a guide and storyteller to visitors for the Fred Harvey company. Later, he also served as the first postmaster for Grand Canyon and opened the first post office on the South Rim.
No life can last forever, no matter how large, and Captain John Hance passed into history on January 8, 1919, at the alleged age of 84. His death was mourned by many, but his legacy is alive and well in the canyon.
Veteran hikers can even still attempt New Hance Trail, and experience the same terrors and thrills that Hance subjected his visitors to over a century ago. For more information see the trail information sheet, and seek advice at the Backcountry Information Center.
Captain John Hance (Portrayed by Ron Brown) tells the story of how he dug Grand Canyon. [Video description: In a cemetery at night, and sitting in a chair, an elderly man with a long beard is wearing a suit coat, vest, and pork pie hat. The entire video is a close-up talking head.]