Exactly when the Grand Canyon started to form is a topic of some debate among scientists. Traditional, conservative estimates place its origins within the last five to six million years, while uranium-lead dating suggests that the canyon might be more than 17 million years old.
Two major geologic events helped shape the canyon. As the Colorado Plateau was pushed upward due to mountain formation, the grade of the Colorado River became steeper. The river eroded the rock to form the canyon, which proceeded at an accelerated rate due to the uplift.
Today, amazing bands of the North American substrata can be seen on the canyon wall. The exposed rock reveals more than two billion years of the Earth’s geologic history.
Human habitation of the Grand Canyon region dates back 12,000 years, when a culture known as the Ancestral Puebloans were active in the area. Known for their construction of adobe structures (“pueblo” is the Spanish word for “village”), the Ancestral Puebloans were the first to inhabit the canyon, where the ruins of ancient granaries that they built still exist today.
It is thought that today’s Pueblos are descended from the Ancestral Puebloans, a belief commonly upheld by members of that tribe. The Ancestral Pubeloans are sometimes called “Anasazi” by archeologists, a name that is derived from a Navajo word for “Ancient Ones” or “Ancient Enemy.” Understandably, that term is disliked by the Pueblos.
Other native peoples have inhabited the canyon as well. Among them are the Cohonina, a pottery-producing agricultural culture that were ancestors of the modern-day Havasupai and Hualapai. The latter groups are heavily involved in tourism in and around the Grand Canyon.
Spanish and American Exploration
The first record of a European visiting the Grand Canyon was in 1540, when the conquistador García López de Cárdenas was led to the rim by Hopi guides. His party failed to reach the canyon floor, turning back due to lack of drinking water. It would be more than two centuries before another group of Spaniards, this time soldiers and priests in search of a route between Santa Fe and California, would explore the canyon’s north rim.
Mormon pioneers and missionaries to the region established good relations with the native population in the 1800s. This relationship would be crucial to further American exploration of the area, ensuring safe passage for later expeditions that sought to explore the Colorado River. Westward expansion led to conflict between capitalists and pioneers regarding the use of the land. The latter group had forged settlement in the country, while the former saw its industrial potential.
Becoming A National Park
In the decades following the Mexican-American War, tensions in the region galvanized along the lines of those who wished to preserve the region and those who would exploit it. This friction was egged on by the era’s progressive political zeitgeist, which railed against unchecked capitalism. Progressivism favored a scientific and democratic government response to profit motive, which included the protection of America’s natural resources. While some forward-thinkers took the long view of conservation, other area residents were equally mistrustful of both corporations and federal meddling in their affairs.
Ultimately, conservationism would win out, but granting the park full protection would be a long struggle. One vital move came in 1903, when President Theodore Roosevelt, who was known for his prowess as an outdoorsman and stance as a conservationist, visited the Grand Canyon. He would establish a level of protection for the park as a game reserve in 1906, and add adjacent national forest lands to create the Grand Canyon National Monument in 1908. The latter move was unpopular with landowners and mining interests, and both groups would oppose the establishment of a national park for more than a decade. The Grand Canyon finally became a national park in 1919.
Civilian Conservation Corps
If the first President Roosevelt was a champion of protecting the Grand Canyon, then the second was a key figure in improving its facilities. The Grand Canyon benefited greatly from the projects of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps, which worked in the park from 1933 – 1942. The corps built structures, improved trails and landscaped the south rim’s Grand Canyon Village.