How the Canyon Became Grand : A Short History

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  • Edition: Reprint
  • Format: Paperback
  • Copyright: 1999-07-01
  • Publisher: Penguin Group USA

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Dismissed by the first Spanish explorers as a wasteland, the Grand Canyon lay virtually unnoticed for three centuries until nineteenth- century America rediscovered it and seized it as a national emblem. This extraordinary work of intellectual and environmental history tells two tales of the Canyon: the discovery and exploration of the physical Canyon and the invention and evolution of the cultural Canyon--how we learned to endow it with mythic significance. Acclaimed historian Stephen Pyne examines the major shifts in Western attitudes toward nature, and recounts the achievements of explorers, geologists, artists, and writers, from John Wesley Powell to Wallace Stegner, and how they transformed the Canyon into a fixture of national identity. This groundbreaking book takes us on a completely original journey through the Canyon toward a new understanding of its niche in the American psyche, a journey that mirrors the making of the nation itself.

Table of Contents

Overlook: The View from Dutton Point
Two New Worldsp. 1
Canyon, Found and Lostp. 3
Second Age, Second Chancep. 12
Convergencep. 22
Rim and Riverp. 37
Lonely and Majestic Way: Big Canonp. 38
Into the Great Unknown: Grand Canyonp. 55
Against the Currents: Return to Big Canonp. 62
A Great Innovation: Grand Ensemblep. 68
Leave It as It Is: One of the Great Sightsp. 101
Canyon and Cosmosp. 115
Modernism Moves On: The Populist Canyonp. 117
Down the River and Back from the Brink: The Environmentalist Canyonp. 139
Afterword: A Review from Point Sublimep. 159
The Grand Canyon: A Graphical Profilep. 163
Notesp. 177
Sources and Further Readingsp. 183
Indexp. 189
Table of Contents provided by Blackwell. All Rights Reserved.


Chapter One



I have heard rumors of visitors who were disappointed. The same people will be disappointed at the Day of Judgment. In fact, the Grand Canyon is a sort of landscape Day of Judgment. It is not a show place, a beauty spot, but a revelation. --J. B. PRIESTLEY

From the top they could make out, apart from the canyon, some small boulders which seemed to be as high as a man. Those who went down and who reached them swore that they were taller than the great tower of Seville. --PEDRO DE CASTENADA, WITH THE CORONADO EXPEDITION

The gorges of the Colorado Plateau are remarkably elusive. Even so pronounced a landform as the Grand Canyon--prominent on satellite photos hundreds of miles aloft--is virtually invisible until one stands on the rim. It is possible to pass within a score of miles, or sometimes of meters, from that rim and never see the gorge, and more than one traveler has done just that. There is no measured transition: the plateau instantly ends; the canyon instantly begins. The rim is an edge, a weld between incommensurate landscapes. The river is more a barrier than a conduit. The Canyon suddenly is.

No impression of the place is more constantly invoked than the abruptness of its vision, a perspective almost wholly formed upon first view. The grand-manner tourist hotels erected along its rims exploited this fact, gave not a hint of the Canyon to motorists or train travelers until, as they passed through the foyer the full spectacle burst upon them. A common query at the national park is the disarmingly perceptive, Where is the Grand Canyon? Few people have stumbled on to the Canyon; they had to set out with deliberation to find it. And to search it out, they needed an adequate reason.

The contrast with other landscapes is profound. Unlike a mountain's flank, the Canyon rim is defined with a geologic razor, and within its borders the Canyon is completely contained. A mountain may be seen from afar, its nature appreciated long before it is climbed, and for Western civilization the cultivation of mountain scenery had centuries behind it. So also rivers could be assessed from their tributaries, and traversed by them, one current feeding with measured flow into the other. So in other commanding landscapes known to Western civilization one feature led by gradation to another. But nothing led to the Canyon. It came as a phenomenon, an idea, and an aesthetic almost wholly without precedent. The Canyon suddenly was.

There was no evolved aesthetic or science for canyons as there was for mountains and waterfalls and other monuments of nature. For a defile on the scale of the Grand Canyon there was almost no prior preparation. The vision came--all of it, in all of its complexity and stunning uniqueness--as an instantaneous revelation. For those sixteenth-century Europeans who first encountered it, for whom the Renaissance was still aglow, the Grand Canyon was as unexpected an intellectual as it was a geographic enigma. They arrived more or less by accident.

But while the place remained, the civilization moved on. Those who came three hundred years later followed a scientific revolution in natural history, a Romantic revolution in art and consciousness, and a wave of democratic political revolutions. For them the Canyon called, and the abruptness of Canyon scenery became a tenet of its appreciation, part of an aesthetic canon of Canyon mannerisms, and the abruptness of its rims, an illustration of the erosive mechanics that had sculpted the region. That transformation in appreciation came, when it finally appeared, with a suddenness and completeness that seem peculiarly appropriate.


No one knows what significance the Canyon held for the peoples who came and went and for periods of decades or centuries lived around the region over the ten thousand inhabited years before Europeans arrived. Paleo hunters pursued bighorn sheep and deer and left split-twig figurines in caves. In later times foragers and farmers constructed stone dwellings along the rims and built runoff terraces on Walhalla Plateau and grew beans, squash, and maize around even inner Canyon springs and the Nankoweap and Chuar deltas and laid out trails from rim to river.

What the place meant cognitively is unknown, or how each of the handful or hundreds of peoples who saw it refracted the scene through the prism of their aesthetic sensibilities or repositioned it within their own moral geographies. Its magnitude alone demanded explanation and probably attracted some mythic significance commensurate with its physical dimensions and utilization. Probably each people believed the space theirs, and themselves chosen. The Hopi located the sipapu , the orifice through which they emerged from the earth, near the junction of the Little Colorado with the Canyon. For the Havasupai, who farmed in the well-watered Havasu Canyon, a tributary to the Colorado, and hunted and foraged on the plateau's rim, the greater Canyon was the border to where they lived.

But what other peoples believed about the site they kept to themselves. Every society, after all, has its own sacred places. The Canyon became transnationally grand only after far-voyaging Europeans peered into it and then only after a much-metamorphosed European culture created a metaphoric matrix by which to interpret it.

Renaissance Europe encountered two new worlds, one of learning, another of geographic discovery. They were not always or necessarily fused. Scholars who constructed gorgeous mappae mundi with Jerusalem squarely in the center of the world had little in common with pilots who kept rutters and consulted empirically drawn portolan charts. That is why the Canyon was discovered quickly after the Great Voyages and why it was immediately forgotten.

The Canyon was, in fact, among the earliest of North America's natural wonders to be visited. Spanish conquistadors came to the South Rim in 1540, earlier by 138 years to Father Hennepin's sighting of Niagara Falls, by 167 years to John Colter's encounter with the Yellowstone, by almost 300 years to Joseph Reddeford Walker's discovery of Yosemite Valley. The Colorado River was identified and mapped long before the St. Lawrence, the Columbia, the Hudson, or even the Mississippi. Yet the Canyon was among the last of these wonders to be assimilated, much less celebrated. As far as Spain and the rest of Europe were concerned, the discovered Canyon quickly became a lost Canyon. While the sails of European expansion had swiftly reached the Colorado River, the Renaissance died on the voyages upstream and the overland entradas across its chromatic rocks.

The reason was in good measure due to the peculiar character of exploration in the sixteenth century. Beginning with the African coasting inspired by Henry the Navigator in the fifteenth century and concluding roughly with a revival of circumnavigations during the eighteenth century, well symbolized by the voyages of Captain James Cook, Europe had launched a great age of discovery, but one that was predominantly maritime. Leaving its inland seas, the Mediterranean and the Baltic, voyagers from Europe had sailed across the global ocean. The era's greatest discovery was the unity of the world sea; its grand gesture, a circumnavigation of that expanse; its outstanding achievement, a mappa mundi of the world's shorelines. Hammered for centuries from the Eurasian landmass, peninsular Europe had turned to the sea, and by stitching together, with the threads of its long-voyaging expeditions, previously segregated maritime regions, it produced a common quilt of the world ocean, the beginning of a truly global imperium. Newly discovered islands assisted that enterprise, but continents as often as not impeded it and provoked an endless search for straits, portages, or other passages around, over, or through them. For the Great Voyages the ship was the means, and the sea the end.

Europe's experiments in conquest, colonization, and commerce clung like ship's barnacles to the littoral of the world ocean or sought out offshore islands surrounded by sea moats. Everywhere outposts were founded on the coasts, and even the conquests of Mexico and Peru were preceded by the establishment of port cities, Veracruz and Lima. For the most part, penetration inland came by following major rivers that connected ports to the interior, or by crossing inland seas like the Great Lakes, or in a few exceptional instances by traversing overland.

Among the latter, however, were several entradas of epic proportion, and two of the greatest, those of Hernando de Soto and Francisco Vasquez de Coronado, set out in 1539 and 1540 respectively. Each had as its goal fabulous city-states, new Tenochitlans and Cuzcos, reputedly located somewhere in the interior, in Quivira. De Soto approached from Florida, Coronado from Mexico. Yet even the Coronado Expedition, at least in its conception, dared not abandon a maritime lifeline. While the main party probed northward into the American Southwest, another party under Melchior Diaz sought to rendezvous with ships commanded by Hernando de Alarcon moving up the Sea of Cortes to its rumored confluence with a great river. That rendezvous failed, but in an effort to reestablish such a waterway and during a time when "no other commissions pressed upon him," Pedro Alvarez de Tovar dispatched a party under Garcia Lopez de Cardenas to investigate the rumor of a great river to the west of their winter camp at Zuni. Such a river might be the same as that Alarcon was probing. It was worth investigating.

With Indian guides from Tuzan to lead them, the Cardenas party advanced to the Canyon's rim, probably near present-day Desert View. The site was cold and arid, covered with low-growing pinon and juniper. Proper perspective was impossible. The canyon looked like an outsize arroyo, the river little more than a fathom wide, boulders within the gorge no larger than a man. For three days, cold and thirsty, they probed for a way down. At last three members led by Captain Pablos de Melgosa attempted to scramble down at a place that "seemed less difficult." They returned that afternoon, having failed to reach the bottom, exclaiming that the Indians had been right, that the canyon was immense, that the river was broader than the Tagus and the perceived boulders taller "than the great tower of Seville." Of the chromatic view they said nothing. The river they could see but not reach. They had no means.

With the wind biting, water scarce, and descent difficult, the Spaniards withdrew in disappointment. Intent on the discovery of civilizations, and with them gold to plunder and souls to convert, or on geographic discoveries that would lead to such conquests, the Spanish conquistador had little to say of the Grand Canyon. Only two chroniclers mention the foray; even Cardenas says nothing in his Relacion . Canyon geography proved to be little more than a false lead in the geopolitics of conquest, and an account of its exploration not much more than an aside in the narrative of an epic but politically futile trek. The Colorado River soon appeared on European maps by mid-century. It dominates North America on the Gastaldi map of 1546. But there is no indication of a great arroyo along the river's inland channel.

This indifference betrays something more than the steely soul of a conquistador. Coming three years before Copernicus published De revolutionibus , the symbolic prolegomenon to the scientific revolution, only twenty years after Magellan's fleet first circumnavigated the globe, and nearly thirty years before Mercator synthesized the known geography of the terra nova orbis with his famous projection, the Spanish had little context for the revelation of the Canyon. There were no scientists among the entourage, nor any artists; priests or personal secretaries doubled as chroniclers. Not for three hundred years would science even acquire its modern name. Granada, the last Moorish stronghold in Spain, had fallen to Spanish arms only in 1492, the year Columbus made landfall in the New World. Like Russia slowly sloughing off the Mongol yoke, Spain, in driving out the Moorish overlords, found itself curiously skewed to Western culture, an amalgam of Europe and North Africa as Russia was of Europe and Central Asia.

Where Spain had once led Europe's revival of learning, it now began to lag. The thirteenth century had experienced a renaissance of scholarship, culminating in the theological synthesis of Thomas Aquinas, that had derived in no small way from the recovery and translation of ancient texts. In this restoration Spain had been both center and conduit. It had prompted a reconciliation of Christianity with ancient learning. But the greater Renaissance that flourished in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries passed over Spain without reaching, as it did elsewhere, the scientific revolution of the seventeenth.

Spain came hesitatingly to the experimental empiricism, the mechanical philosophy, and the secularism that increasingly informed Western thought. Renaissance yielded to a revival of religious orthodoxy, not modern science. By the time of Coronado's expedition Spain had become a stronghold of the Counter-Reformation; its scholars continued to meditate on the old texts and dismiss many of the new. Probably no European country was prepared to appreciate a phenomenon like the Canyon, but Spain was intellectually among the least receptive. While, in much of Europe, the Book of Nature joined Scripture as a testimony to the Creator, Spain proscribed it. That book proposed a different philosophy and demanded a different dialectic from that used to translate Arab-transmitted texts from antiquity. There were no Grand Canyons in the Aristotelian classics or the prophetic books of Holy Scripture.

Ironically, although Spain was perhaps the most advanced nation of Europe in its ability to mount expeditions and establish colonies, it was among the most retarded in its capacity to absorb its discoveries within the context of the new ideas and new sensibility that raged across the rest of Europe. Its interest in natural history focused largely on the question of native populations, a topic of supreme political, economic, and theological significance. Spanish rationalism was directed, in a dauntless rearguard action, toward the preservation of scholasticism. Five years after Captain Cardenas halted on the Canyon rim, the Council of Trent began its counterattack against both Renaissance humanism and the practice of the new natural philosophy; eight years after Captain Melgosa clambered over the South Rim, there was born the greatest of Spanish philosophers, Francisco Suarez, a man whose twenty-six volumes consolidated Spanish metaphysics and theology on a thoroughly Thomistic basis.

In 1540 Spain demonstrated its imperial talents by expeditions of conquest, like those of Coronado and de Soto; by reforms in colonial administration, like the new Law of the Indies; and by the founding of the Jesuit order by a former soldier, Ignatius of Loyola. That the Cardenas party could only liken Canyon features to those of Seville, the point of departure for Spain's overseas imperium, suggested both the power and the limitations of Spanish discovery. Its conquistadors were knights-errant, not savants. Yet Spain hardly stood alone. Decades were to pass before other nations began to penetrate the New World, and centuries were to unfold before European civilization could cope with what its explorers found.

The apparatus for valorizing such phenomena did not exist. Even had there been scientists with Cardenas, there was hardly yet a cosmology suitable for interpreting a landscape as peculiar as the Canyon. The earth was believed to have commenced a few thousand years before, its great natural features shaped by the Noachian Flood. The invention of mathematical perspective was barely a century old. Cartographic projections, even those based on such methods, concentrated on the coastlines and oceans, not on the interiors. Had there been artists, they would have possessed few techniques on their palettes by which to convey the Canyon's immensity, awesomeness, and complex matrix of color and structure. Perspective had entered Spanish art only a handful of years before Coronado began his march; the conventions of modern landscape as formulated by Claude Lorrain were still a century in the future. Not for another 250 years would the calculation of longitude become more or less routine, would natural historians coin the word geology , would an educated elite begin to attach the word sublime to distinctive landscapes. With regard to learning sixteenth-century Spain was no worse off--was probably more advanced--than its European or Islamic rivals.

The celebration of natural monuments in and of themselves was alien to them all. Great arroyos held no value, not political, not economic, not intellectual, not aesthetic. None had any means by which to triangulate such a spectacle into a vision even remotely resembling the modern one. The Grand Canyon as a landscape fact attracted less attention than did geographic fables like Quivira, the Strait of Anian, or the Rio Buenaventura. It was, after all, the fabulous but well-traveled yarns of Fray Marcos de Niza that had set the Coronado entrada into motion. That Spanish adventurers and missionaries made it to the Canyon rim is one of the marvels of Western history; that they failed to appreciate what they saw, one of its lesser mysteries. The Spanish mind was prepared to understand, and Spanish political economy prepared to assimilate, the discovery of Golden Cibolas, not Grand Canyons.

For 256 years after Cardenas no subsequent expedition ventured to the Canyon's brink, and then the encounter was accidental to the search for heathen souls. To Spain, the Canyon remained a barrier, one of many along a daunting river that refused to behave as a new Guadalquivir or Plata. The Grand Canyon was an impenetrable tangle of canones , mesas, and rapids, uninhabited, inaccessible, peripheral, not a presence so much as an absence, a place to be avoided. And so it was.

Still, the New Worlds of discovered geography did not remain independent from the new worlds of learning. Each complemented (and challenged) the other, and together they questioned the inherited worldview. The doubling in size of the known globe, like the multiplication of ancient texts and critics, helped shatter the authority of antiquity and antiquated methodology. The breakdown of Ptolemaic astronomy, symbolized by the sixteenth-century Copernican revolution, had its parallel in the disintegration of Ptolemaic geography under the blows of successive voyages. The intellectual challenge to inherited cosmology involved both data and theory. Telescopes and explorers discredited the presumed completeness of the synthesis recovered from the ancients; mathematics, its theoretical organization; and the new metaphysics of natural philosophy, its epistemology. Astronomers discovered new moons unknown to the Almagest . Adventurers unveiled immense new lands, populated with civilizations wholly unsuspected by the Geographia . Humanist scholars found in newly recovered texts from antiquity other geographies, unlike that of Ptolomeaus and the Alexandrian school. Not only were new data added, but over the centuries old errors were expunged.

The expanding imperium was intellectual as much as geopolitical, and exploration served both purposes. The Great Voyages became a model for empirical inquiry, a dramatic and intensely practical manifestation of a novum organon in which the tested reality of nature would substitute for the revelations of inherited texts. Captains and their pilots to the New World had little to learn from Herodotus, Lucretius, or Pliny the Elder. Their lives depended on understanding, as best they could, the shoals and currents and tides they actually encountered. So would modern scholarship. Francis Bacon captured that spirit nicely when he used as a frontispiece to his Great Instauration a picture of ships sailing beyond the Pillars of Hercules. In leaving the Mediterranean for America, European civilization was also venturing beyond antiquity's dominion of understanding.

Yet the two often ran in parallel, like a stream beside hills, the main currents of thought draining from and trimming the heights of land. The rush of the Renaissance passed. Overseas colonies claimed islands and clung to coasts, like seal rookeries. Exploration devolved into trade; piracy and poaching brought more rewards than sponsored discovery. Even the scientific revolution stalled. Having gathered momentum and inspiration over the seventeenth century from mathematics and experimentation, it reached a dazzling crescendo with Isaac Newton's synthesis of natural philosophy. That example of exalted reason radiated throughout European culture. The light of the new learning flooded into dark corners of superstition and ignorance; the Greater Enlightenment acquired its master metaphor. Then, after this wild burst of genius, exhaustion set in, an era of intellectual housekeeping. Scholars sought to illuminate inherited lore in the light of reason. They preferred to consolidate and codify existing knowledge and practices rather than seek out bold new philosophies. Metaphysical speculators and naive travelers became an object of ridicule, as in Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels ; squabbles over existing trade routes replaced the daring discovery of new ones; the importation and invention of new worlds gave way to dictionaries, and of imagined worlds to practical knowledge. Enlightenment scholars pored over windy texts and hypothetical maps through the sharpened vision that practical inventions like bifocals made possible.

Then the pace quickened again. By the mid-eighteenth century political rivalries and intellectual curiosity revived. Together empire and enlightenment began to stun geographic exploration out of its institutional fibrillation.


The motivations spanned European culture. There was a renewal of extraterritorial expansion for which geopolitical rivalries were both cause and consequence. Russia commenced its imperial traverse of Eurasia; Britain and France inaugurated a new hundred years' war, this time sparring from India to Canada to the Antilles; the Netherlands poached Portuguese trade routes and even settlements from Brazil to the East Indies. Circumnavigation became the rage, and every nation aspiring to civilized status sponsored prolonged voyages of discovery. Every thrust brought European powers into conflict with one another as much as with indigenes. Coastal colonies in the Americas, Africa, and Australasia, drafting tens of millions of European emigres, swept inland in a fantastic surge. By the early twentieth century Europe enjoyed political and economic hegemony over most of the planet. And from empire, exploration was never far removed.

Nor was learning. The Enlightenment spread first by applying new methods and perspectives to the existing canon. Scholars reworked inherited texts with the zeal of Renaissance humanists, this time not merely to translate but to rationalize. John Dryden rewrote Shakespeare to prune away fanciful language and excess. Alexander Pope translated Homer into heroic couplets. Everywhere savants sought to codify according to more modern criteria. Linnaeus proposed a Systema naturae by which to organize the flora and later the fauna of the world. Samuel Johnson assembled the first English dictionary. Denis Diderot oversaw the modern Encyclopedie , and Montesquieu, an annotated digest of the law. The age honored "practical" knowledge much as it sought a "plain" style.

Everywhere architects of Enlightenment tried to discover, or where they deemed necessary sought to impose, a reformed order based on their perception of Reason. But if the texts of the old authorities lay like broken idols, the concept of authority itself endured. The Enlightenment substituted and secularized; Nature replaced Scripture as a source of general authority; natural philosophy succeeded theology as the exemplar of knowledge. Newton's universe was as absolute in its structure as Aquinas's, though it removed dialectical logic for experimentation and allegory for mathematics. A full-blown relativity had to wait for modernism. The break with religion, however, at least helped quiet the era's politics. Europeans no longer slaughtered one another over minute differences between Newtonian and Leibnitzian calculus or among various models of gravity as they had over the mysteries of transsubstantiation and the practices of full- or partial-immersion baptism.

More important, the Enlightenment's momentum carried it beyond the status of a secular Renaissance. Its agenda had proposed a diffusion of learning--empirical, secular, mathematical, experimental where possible--that promised to penetrate every field of inquiry. It was inevitable that a period of consolidation and reconstruction should follow. But experimental science, unlike text-based scholasticism, could not long pause, nor long thrive with endless glosses; it needed more data, novel experiences, new worlds; and modern science (call it Newtonian after its greatest symbol) fueled the Enlightenment's engines. Natural science rested long enough to regroup, then it pushed on. It no more halted at putative frontiers than had Europe's adventurers. Its practitioners sought out new fields for study as eagerly as Clives and La Salles had new lands for claims and conquest. One dynamic, in fact, fed the other. Inevitably the imperial ambitions of Enlightenment learning fused with the imperial fervor of European expansion to yield both a new kind of explorer and a new era of exploration.

What William Goetzmann has termed the Second Great Age of Discovery, a revival of exploration that gathered force in the mid-eighteenth century, had many tributaries. As trade followed the flag, so did learning. The need to validate Newtonian mechanics, that exemplar of Enlightenment scholarship, could best be addressed by paired expeditions to the poles and equator, the famed surveys of Pierre-Louis Moreau de Maupertuis to Lapland and Charles-Marie de la Condamine to the Andes in the 1730s. The need to calibrate the Newtonian solar system, specifically to measure the distance between the earth and the sun, inspired a muchvaster enterprise in which in 1761 and again, on a larger scale, in 1769, astronomers surveyed the transit of Venus at sites around the world, from Philadelphia to Tomsk, from St. Helena to Tahiti. Meanwhile, Enlightenment science moved briskly from natural philosophy to natural history. By mid-century Carl von Linne had pioneered the natural history excursion, field-testing it on a series of traverses throughout Sweden and then, by means of his "apostles," twelve students he dispatched on foreign expeditions, throughout most of the European imperium, there to undertake an inventory of each region's biota.

Political and intellectual purposes soon converged. Probably nothing so characterized the transition as Captain James Cook's first voyage, a circumnavigation in which he traveled to Tahiti to survey the transit of Venus; carried one of Linnaeus's apostles, Daniel Solander; discovered New Zealand and eastern Australia, the sites of subsequent British colonization; and introduced Joseph Banks, one of the age's great naturalists and a founder and patron of the African Society and president of the Royal Society. "Every blockhead does that," Banks replied contemptuously of the social elite that traveled Europe; "my Grand Tour shall be one round the whole globe." Even enlightened despots sponsored analogous expeditions much as they did academies of science, as a symbol and instrument of the modernizing state. So Catherine II had sent Peter Pallas and a corps of savants to the land of Sibir (1768-74). From those studies came theories of importance to the cosmology of the earth--to geology, then a science without a name. Cook repeated his circumnagivation twice more before dying, a martyr to Enlightenment learning, on the third.

But if Cook's circumnavigations effectively displayed the alliance of modern science with imperial ambitions, the final mapping of the world ocean's littoral, the extinction of the fabled Northwest Passage, and the abolition of a Terra Australis luxuriating in tropical splendor at the South Pole, the breakthrough came with the transfer of such methods to the continents. The Second Age would ride the wave of Europe's sweep over the earth's landmasses. Its grand gesture would be a traverse across a continent, a cross section of natural history. Its data, stories, and images would fill portfolios, stuff atlasses, line libraries with published personal narratives, stock the shelves of freshly endowed museums, and force the invention of new sciences like geology and of new genres of scholarship like anthropology. Moreover, much of what the First Age had discovered, the Second rediscovered. On the basis of his travels to South America, resulting in an encyclopedic survey of natural history, Alexander von Humboldt was popularly hailed as a "second Columbus."

That designation--applied to a foreign scientist, traversing the cores of Spain's New World empire--showed how far behind Spain had fallen as an intellectual power. Looking more imperious than imperial, Spain had for long decades stood outside the Enlightenment. Still equipped with the Inquisition and the Index, it remained wary of a secularizing rationalism, a transnational science, and an enthusiasm for overseas adventures that, it surmised, would likely come at its expense. Instead it closed its borders and fought the new learning with the same zeal it had the Reformation. And for so long as Spain remained beyond the reach of the Enlightenment, the Grand Canyon, nominally under the dominion of New Spain, would remain outside the Second Great Age of Discovery.

Eventually Spain, both peninsular and colonial, could no longer resist. Reform commenced with the ascendancy of Carlos III in 1759, effectively announcing a Spanish Enlightenment. The resulting reformation engulfed both empire and exploration. Northern New Spain, in particular, seemed threatened. For two centuries, valley by valley, tribe by tribe, the mission system had advanced northward, steadily bringing more land under the control of the crown. But in the eighteenth century the system faltered. By the 1760s, especially after a chastised France had been removed as an imperial contestant in 1763, New Spain undertook a general rehabilitation of its northern frontier. There were threats beyond the border from the British and the Russians, serious troubles within the provincias from the Apache, and vexing problems with the fabric of colonial administration itself. Provincial reformation proposed new routes of communication, projected a stronger cordon of presidios, mobilized the Royal Corps of Engineers, and substituted Franciscans for the Jesuits expelled in 1767.

It took longer, however, for field parties to gear up to Enlightenment standards. Pre-Bourbon Spain had tolerated the La Condamine expedition to Ecuador, though only after insisting that two reliable Spaniards accompany the corps to report on the suspected spies. It had also allowed one of the Linnaean apostles, Pehr Lofling, to visit Spain (1751) and accompany a foray to Venezuela (1754). With Carlos III, however, the crown endowed institutions of science--museums, botanical gardens, observatories--at which to train scholars to participate in the expeditions, particularly those within colonial possessions, that were becoming de rigueur for European powers. With the crown's sanction a Franco-Spanish team observed the transit of Venus from Baja California. A decade later the crown dispatched a botanical survey under Hipolito Ruiz and Jose Antonio Pavon to Peru and Chile, then granted permission to Jose Celestino Mutis to survey Nueva Granada (1783). The momentum provided by Carlos III even survived his death as Spain mounted two Cook-inspired enterprises: the Royal Scientific Expedition to New Spain (1785-1800) and the Alejandro Malaspina Expedition to the Pacific (1789-94). But these were in style as much as setting light-years away from the entradas that passed along the Colorado canyons.

The first missed altogether, or avoided, the great gorge. While Juan Bautista de Anza pioneered an overland route from Monterey to Alta California, erecting missions and presidios, two priests, Father Silvestre Velez de Escalante and Father Francisco Dominguez, accompanied by Captain Bernardo de Miera y Pacheco, a retired military engineer, trekked across much of the land that would become the Old Spanish Trail. The Escalante-Dominguez Expedition, it was hoped, would blaze an overland route between the Spanish settlements long established at Santa Fe with the new ones being developed in California. It was during this surge of Spanish interest in the region that the canyons of the Colorado River again entered the archives of Western civilization.

The party passed to the north of the Grand Canyon proper, made no attempt to inspect it, found a ford across the river (the Crossing of the Fathers), and reported on the character of the tribes and of the lands through which they passed. Though they failed in their larger objective, they successfully traversed much of the Colorado Plateau and, thanks to Miera's cartographic talents, gave a reasonably complete (though far from geodetically accurate) representation of the hydrography of the Colorado River system. They had no reason to visit the Canyon--had in fact every reason to shun it--and became as peripheral to its historiography as the Canyon was to their agenda.

Father Francisco Tomas Garces, however, did see it. An old hand around the lands of Sonora, Garces detached himself from the Anza Expedition, and under the direction of Indian guides pushed up the Colorado River to the Rio Jabesua. This was the travertine-laden stream through Havasu Canyon, inhabited by the Havasupai Indians, a tribe linguistically related to the Yuman people who had served as guides.

From Havasu, Garces evidently first encountered the western Grand Canyon. Of the eastern Canyon to which Cardenas had ridden, he witnessed nothing until he passed near the rim on a journey to the Hopi villages in June 1776. The Canyon he referred to as the Puerto de Bucareli, a gap by which the river passed through the sierra, and he referred to the river as the Rio Colorado, sustaining the long-held Spanish belief that this river was continuous with that which empties into the Sea of Cortes. Because he brushed it only twice, and episodically, he missed completely or just misrepresented, as did Escalante and Dominguez, the great bend of the river--the central fact and mystery of its geography, the Colorado's east-west flow across the Kaibab Plateau--that had made the Canyon possible. But this lapse was of no consequence to the mission.

Of the setting, Garces remarked only that he was "astonished at the roughness of this country, and at the barrier which nature had fixed" and, showing an inability to fathom the size of the phenomenon, thought "to all appearances would not seem to be very great the difficulty of reaching" the river. Only the size of the side canyons persuaded him otherwise. Evidently he was ignorant of the Coronado relaciones . Returning from the Hopi pueblos, Garces again alluded to the gorge, this time as a "prison of cliffs and canyons." Probably his native guides steered him clear; his own cultural compass also pointed him elsewhere. He retired to missionary labors along the lower Colorado. Five years later he died during the Yuman uprising.

Though Garces visited the Canyon, it is obvious that it was not the object of his journeys. He traveled as part of a larger Spanish ambition to better integrate its frontier. Garces, in particular, came to inspect the indigenous tribes along the Rio Colorado, the most far-flung of which were the Havasupai, and when there were no longer any people, he left the river. He visited Havasu Canyon to size up its inhabitants and their agriculture; he cruised the rim of the Canyon only because it was, from Havasu, the most direct route to the well-known Hopi (Moqui) villages. The Canyon was an aside to his real purpose, and even then not one that especially interested him. Like Cardenas, he saw nothing special about it except its superior ruggedness. Had the Havasupai not been present, he would not have made the trek at all. Hurrying directly to Moqui, he would have had no inkling that anything like the Canyon existed, even a league away, on the horizon.

The Canyon remained invisible. Between them the two expeditions had all but circumnavigated the Canyon, and while they continue to elicit admiration for the endurance and determination of their individual participants, they remain collectively irrelevant to the larger agenda of Enlightenment exploration. Even as their diaries, maps, and relaciones traveled to the authorities, their collective reconnaissance must have seemed like a heroic anachronism. But that was true, overall, for the Spanish Enlightenment itself. Spain's contributions to the Second Age of Discovery ended with explorer notes lost, unedited, and unpublished and its monumental expeditions in disarray. Once more geographic data were not broadcast as the common knowledge of transnational science, but hoarded, like other New World treasures, by the Spanish state. The Spanish Enlightenment imploded. What Carlos IV failed to resanction, the Napoleonic Wars terminated. Spain had dispatched Malaspina too late to the Cook-surveyed North Pacific and had failed to mount a natural history survey to places that might have rewarded the venture. It is as though a reinvigorated stream had veered out into a closed basin and dried into a salt playa.

The Canyon accounts more resemble the Jesuit Relations than the encyclopedic tomes characteristic of the new scholarship in natural history. Even as Escalante, Dominguez, and Garces sent off their diaries and Miera his report and remarkable map, Peter Pallas was publishing the results of his expedition to Sibir and Captain James Cook's crew was returning, as melancholy heroes, from the last of the great voyager's circumnavigations. Pallas and Cook were the harbingers of a new style of discovery; Escalante, Dominguez, and Garces resuscitated the old pattern of the entrada and the errant padre, the almost picaresque travels of the quixotic missionary guided from village to village by native Sancho Panzas.

Thus at a time when Pallas and the Linnaean apostles were promulgating a new mode of exploration, whose data virtually demanded a new science; when Georg Forster was publishing his Voyage Round the World , which helped established a new genre of literary travelogue and was to inflame the young Alexander von Humboldt; when William Bartram was completing his celebrated travels to the southeastern United States, the account of which was to inspire a generation of literary Romantics from Chateaubriand to Rousseau; when Britain's cultured elite considered a grand tour a necessary vehicle for eduction; when, in brief, new forms of art and science were evolving to describe nature's wonders, the Spanish explorers to the Grand Canyon are remarkable for their conservatism, their silence, their stubborn incuriosity about anything outside their prescribed agenda.

Their European and American counterparts were beginning to see even old scenes with new eyes. It is impossible to imagine Cook or Pallas, Linnaeus, Joseph Banks, or Daniel Solander before the scientific revolutions of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, or Forster and Bartram before the sensibilities of the later Enlightenment, yet it is easy so to imagine Escalante, Dominguez, and Garces. There was no sense that what they saw required a new genre of literature or new ideas of physical science, or that the landscape they traversed represented a new metaphysic or aesthetic, or that, God willing, it was even worth a second look. Even that crowning achievement of Spanish exploration in the borderlands, Miera's map, shone because of its extensiveness, a triumph of practical empiricism, not because it was a new kind of map or a new way of looking at landscapes. It is as though Enlightenment physicians still read Galen or Newtonian physicists analyzed the solar system with the geometry of Eratosthenes.

As expeditions these sorties are almost completely interchangeable with Spanish surveys of a century (or two) before. As contributors to the history of ideas they are revealing in that they show a trend toward secularization and empiricism, but they neither derive from nor contribute to the revolution in scholarship exfoliating around them. Like the Spain that sponsored them, the motive behind the expeditions was conservative, defensive, and so was their interpretation. On the eve of the American Revolution, Spain sought to strengthen its colonial borders, and at the outset of an intellectual revolution, Spanish rationalism likewise strove to rebuild its frontiers, finding novelty somehow intrinsically threatening.

So in this latest round of reconnaissance, the Spanish carefully recorded oases of native tribes that they encountered, but not the natural splendors they saw. Certainly there was nothing in Garces's account to give the impression that the Puerto de Bucareli was at all unique, much less that it required special language or new ideas, though far lesser scenes were beginning to inflame the imagination of European intellectuals. Even Thomas Jefferson was waxing wondrous about so prosaic a phenomenon as Virginia's Natural Bridge, and moody Britons on their grand tours swooned over fallen ruins and painters romanticized rustic Italy and literati hungry for the old and the exotic invented Highland epics like the saga of Ossian. Instead Spanish interest in the Colorado River, like Garces himself, retired to its more accessible and populous lower stretches and there died.

When Alexander von Humboldt drew up his compendium of borderlands geography from Spanish (Mexican) sources in 1811, the Canyon appeared only as the Puerto de Bucareli, located at the junction of the Rio Colorado and the Rio Jaquesila (Little Colorado). The Colorado River was presented as running north and south, without the defining bend it makes through the Kaibab Plateau to form the Grand Canyon, thus eliminating the complex interaction of river and plateau that is the region's essence. Similarly, where Miera's map had been almost cluttered with ethnographic notes, Humboldt's meticulous compilation was sparse, employing the latest in cartographic technique and voiding the primary source of Spanish interest in the area, the Havasupai. Ironically it was Humboldt, a German geographer writing in French from Spanish sources, and Humboldt's Map of the Kingdom of New Spain , a part of his Political Essay on the Kingdom of New Spain , that finally introduced the region to the intellectual culture of Europe. The map became in turn the principal conduit for formal American knowledge about the region prior to the Mexican War.

The glamour of Spanish exploration came later, after European Romantics had transformed Spain into a tableau of the picturesque, and after similarly inclined historians like William Prescott had done for Old Mexico what Francis Parkman had done for New France. It was only later, after the Canyon had been publicized and its marvels extolled, that the Spanish contribution was recognized. Paradoxically it was not the Spanish accounts that helped make the Grand Canyon into an important emblem for Western civilization, but the Canyon, when once valorized, that gave meaning to the search for a cultural genealogy, that conveyed a value to Spanish travels not apparent at the time.

The encounter of Cardenas with the Canyon in particular has become invested with a scholarship and significance out of all proportion to what seemed important to the entrada's participants. Only two of the numerous relaciones bother to mention the episode at all, and only one of those expended more than two sentences in what the twentieth century has come to regard as a defining moment. Of all the events of that curious quest, its casual contact with the Canyon has become perhaps the most celebrated. For that Cardenas and Coronado can thank the uninviting gorge they dismissed in their forlorn search for Quivira.


Copyright 1998 Stephen J. Pyne. All rights reserved.

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