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The History of the Grand Canyon

The Grand Canyon isn’t the oldest or even the largest National Park in America, but it is one of the most recognizable. Visitors come from around the world to marvel at the mile-deep canyon divided by the Colorado River in Arizona. But this mystical land holds an impressive story of ancient peoples, prospectors, and even the history of Earth itself.

A brief geology lesson

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To appreciate just how old the Grand Canyon actually is, you need to take a trip back in time to when the continents as we know them were still developing and shifting over 2 billion years ago. Fast-forward to between 30 and 70 million years ago, when tectonic movement began the process of creating the Colorado Plateau where the Grand Canyon resides. Then, a mere 5 to 6 million years ago, the Colorado River, with the power of water erosion, began to push through the land, creating the canyon. To this day, the river continues to erode the canyon, slowly widening the crevice. During all this time, tectonic action continued, which resulted in the uplift and rock formations that you see today.

The earliest inhabitants

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Speaking in terms of billions and millions of years can be hard for most people to grasp. But 12,000 years ago is a lot easier to conceptualize. And this is around the time that the region’s earliest human inhabitants began to settle into the Grand Canyon. Various artifacts from prehistoric humans have been found in caves throughout the land and have been dated between 1,000 and 2,000 B.C.

Native Americans rightfully claim the Grand Canyon as their home. While many people assume that only one distinct ethnic Native American group lived here, there are actually more than 10 tribes with a direct connection to the lands. In fact, the Havasupai Reservation includes lands within the Grand Canyon and their Supai Village is located at the base of the canyon. This tiny village of 208 inhabitants is so remote that you can’t access it by car, and their mail is delivered by a pack mule. Travelers can visit and hike within the Havasupai lands. However, they must request a reservation in advance.

Explorers and the push westward

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If you have even the slightest understanding of conquistadors and manifest destiny, it shouldn’t be surprising that European explorers and eventually American prospectors set their sights on this Southwestern location. The earliest known exploration was by Spanish conquistadors in the 1540s, guided by the Hopis. The Spanish eventually abandoned their plans for the American Southwest, and no further major exploration occurred from any other European nation.

Three centuries later, Americans would begin to look westward. The land was initially scouted in 1857 by First Lieutenant Joseph Christmas Ives of the U.S. Army Corps to determine its suitability for a trade route along the Colorado River. His trip took him down the river by boat and eventually on foot. Ives is known as the first European American to traverse the river inside the Grand Canyon. However, it was so difficult to reach the Colorado River within the canyon that the trade route idea was tabled, and no one would attempt it again until 1869 by geologist John Wesley Powell. Their trip was equally as dangerous, took over three months to complete, and it essentially became a fight for survival.

Explorers gave way to prospectors and entrepreneurs in the late 1890s. The majestic canyons contained rich copper deposits that attracted miners. The Orphan Mine, the oldest mine in the region, was established in 1893 by Daniel Hogan. The mine changed hands over the years. But by the time it shuttered in 1987, the mine produced over 4 million pounds of uranium oxide, over 6 million pounds of copper, over 100,000 pounds of silver and just over 3,000 pounds of vanadium oxide. When he initially opened the Orphan Mine, Daniel Hogan also built a booming tourism business alongside it and paved the way for the Grand Canyon’s tourism that you see today.

U.S. presidents and a national monument

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President Teddy Roosevelt usually gets all the attention when we talk about national parks, but President Benjamin Harrison was the first president to bestow protected status to the Grand Canyon. In 1893, he proclaimed it as a forest reserve. Eight years later, there was a tourism boom after the completion of the Sante Fe Railroad. The line connected Flagstaff to Grand Canyon Village along the canyon’s south rim.

In 1903, Roosevelt visited the Grand Canyon and fell in love with it. He expanded on Harrison’s directive by defining additional portions of the canyon as federal game reserves. Eventually, the canyon became a National Monument. But it wasn’t until 1919 that the Grand Canyon became a National Park under President Woodrow Wilson, who also created the National Park Service.

Since its inception as a tourist attraction, the Grand Canyon remains a popular draw. Today, roughly 5 million people from around the world visit this natural wonder every year. And now you also know a little bit about the history of this majestic land and will gain even more respect for it.

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