Floating Through a Billion Years of Mormon History

Well, a billion years of geological history and a couple hundred years of Mormon history. That’s what I saw last month on a rafting trip down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. But not everyone sees the same thing.

Building a canyon one rock slide at a time.

Building a canyon one rock slide at a time.

It takes a long time to make a canyon. That seems perfectly obvious when you see fresh rock on the canyon wall uncovered by recent rock falls (recent means within the last hundred years or so), with the fallen debris adding to the talus slopes that have accumulated between the various rock strata. It’s easy to run the clock backwards and see that process forming the physical geography of the canyon slopes over hundreds of thousands of years, along with slow, steady erosion by the coarsing river below. As you float down the river, you are actually traveling back in geological time. The rock exposed by the action of the river gets older by hundreds of millions of years as one moves deeper into the canyon.

Not everyone sees the Grand Canyon as millions of years old, of course. Andy the diplomatic river guide was always careful to add “according to geologists” when dating a layer of rock at 200 or 300 million years old. In fact, there are guided rafting trips that actually cater to conservative Christians, with commentary explaining how it all happened in 6000 years. You can take the Canyon Ministries and Answers in Genesis trip (“see Grand Canyon from a creationist perspective”) or the Creation, Evolution & Science Ministries trip (the website quotes Psalm 46:8, “Come, behold the works of the Lord, what desolations he hath made in the earth.”).

According to geologists ...

According to geologists …

While the 19th-century Scottish geologist Charles Lyell never saw the Grand Canyon, he did see similarly exposed rock formations in Scotland, giving rise to his idea of uniformitarianism and what we now call deep time: slow but persistent geologic processes working over millions of years giving rise to Earth’s physical landscape. Charles Darwin read Lyell’s Principles of Geology while on his five-year mission to explore new worlds on the HMS Beagle. Deep time was the necessary context for his thinking about slow but persistent biological processes that shaped life on earth. So in some ways the Grand Canyon is conceptual ground zero for modern geology and evolution. Rocks and canyons, isolated species at the bottom of a mile-deep canyon, geology and evolution, beauty or desolation, echoes of Lyell and Darwin, a billion years of history: you see it all as you float down the river.

And then there is the Mormon history tied to the canyon, probably as annoying to the Creationist rafters as the hundred-million-year-old rocks. Our trip started at Lee’s Ferry, a conveniently isolated locale where John D. Lee, the only man eventually convicted of a crime in connection with Mountain Meadows, passed his last few years with his wives. In Marble Canyon one finds Badger Creek and Soap Creek with associated rapids where they empty into the Colorado. Mormon scout Jacob Hamblin named them for an unlucky badger shot at the first canyon and boiled into soap (oops, there is alkali in the water) at the second.

Deep time in a deep canyon.

Deep time in a deep canyon.

Farther down the river at Separation Canyon, three men from John Wesley Powell’s first expedition in 1869 climbed out rather than continue down the raging river. They were killed by local Shivwits Indians, according to most accounts. In his book Under the Banner of Heaven, Jon Krakauer endorsed the unlikely theory that local Mormons killed the three men, which interjects a Mormon angle into what was a sad affair all around. The following year Powell visited the Shivwits with Jacob Hamblin. Here is Wallace Stegner’s account of that meeting, from Beyond the Hundredth Meridian.

The Shivwits admitted freely enough that they had killed Powell’s three men. But they had not understood who they were. The three had arrived worn out and hungry. After them came a runner from another band saying these three must be the prospectors who had molested and then shot a squaw. The more the Shivwits talked over the story the white men had told of coming down the big water, the plainer it appeared that the three men were liars. Eventually warriors followed the strangers and shot them with arrows as they lay asleep.

Actual friendly Mormons, not fictional murderous ones, greeted Powell and his remaining five men on August 30, 1869, as they exited the canyon. Stegner again: “Just after the noon stop they saw four men pulling a seine in the river. They were a Mormon named Asa and his two sons and an Indian, and they were there on instructions from Church headquarters in Salt Lake City to watch the river for wreckage or bodies from the Powell Expedition, reported lost weeks ago in the depths of the Colorado canyons.” Powell went to St. George, awaiting news of the three who climbed out, then to Salt Lake City where he met Brigham Young for the first but not last time.

For those who have visited, what did you see in the Grand Canyon? And what piece of Mormon history did you stumble across in this stark and arid country?

7 comments for “Floating Through a Billion Years of Mormon History

  1. Mormons and the Grand Canyon? Add the legendary Seth Tanner, or “Hastiin Shush,” to the list. His name is connected to a variety of landforms in the area, and you can still see his copper mines in the canyon.

  2. I have been through the canyon 4 times, three of those as a swamper for my brother (an experienced boatman with 200+ trips) and loved every minute of every trip. There is nothing like descending through the different layers of rock to really make one’s time on earth feel insignificant!

    Apart from the ferry (which was a vital part of the Honeymoon Trail) most of the Mormon attention in the area was focused on the Kaibab and the Arizona Strip. Back in the day the climate was much wetter than at present and the Church and others ran big cattle and sheep operations all over the area. Overgrazing and a climate shift drove the big operations out by 1930 or so.

    By the way, did your trip end at the Bar 10 ranch in Whitmore Canyon? If so, you may have met some of my mother’s family.

  3. What level of difficulty is this river? Have not been down the grand canyon (just seen it from the top on the north side). Have been down the Zambizi which is a level 5, with the geological history but not the mormon bit.

  4. John, yes we coptered out at Whitmore Wash to the airstrip at Bar 10, then flew back to the put-in point at Marble Canyon. That’s where our car was parked. Those who flew in rather than driving in went to Las Vegas or St. George. The ranch is quite an operation.

    Geoff, the Grand Canyon has its own rating scale for rapids, but I am told the big ones are as big as anything in North America. Our rafts were pretty big, which makes big rapids more doable. In a small raft it is a wilder ride with a greater chance of flipping so they follow easier lines.

  5. As far as difficulty goes (which is different than the size of waves, although wave size is a factor) this website classifies it as a IV or V (out of VI). http://www.westernriver.com/riverscale/

    That doesn’t mean it has bigger rapids than, say, the popular Snake River rapids (Lunch Counter, etc., which is rated III). It just means it’s more difficult to run (and therefore more dangerous). Of course, the time of year you run it is going to make a big difference on the difficulty and size of waves. For most rivers out west, spring and early summer are when you’ll see more water running through, and often bigger waves. Late summer and the waves (typically) aren’t nearly as big. And yes, raft size also makes a huge impact on how exciting it is.

  6. Never realized there were significant Mormon connections to the Grand Canyon. This is great stuff.

  7. A good book for youth on Powell in the canyon, including the Mormon connections mentioned above, is The Wild Colorado: The True Adventures of Fred Dellenbaugh, Age 17, on the Second Powell Expedition into the Grand Canyon. My son at 11 got a lot out of it, and my description of the book can be found here. Not much geology, but there are sketches and photos from the expedition. One sentence from it that I loved: “The least seaworthy of the boats, the Nellie Powell, would be left behind at Lonely Dell for Lee to use as a ferry.”

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