Joseph Christmas Ives + Grand Canyon National Park

Contributed by Will Rice

It’s Christmas Eve. The tree is decorated. The cookies are too. My semester is over, and that means that I can dedicate myself once more to the spreading of public lands cheer. Given that it is Christmas, I figure there is no better way to remind us all of the eternal gift that our parks provide than by telling the story of Joseph Christmas Ives. So cozy up next to the fireplace and take in the tale of Mr. Ives and his incredible ignorance.


Joseph Christmas Ives was born on Christmas Day, 1829. An enterprising youth, he took to engineering, eventually gaining degrees from Bowdain College in Maine and West Point. At the tender age of 28, Joesph was given the task of exploring up the Colorado River from its mouth at the Gulf of California. For the task, he designed and built is own steamboat, The Explorer, and assembled a crack team of scientists to study the resources of the mighty Colorado. His expedition moved swiftly upriver until their ship crashed as they approached Black Canyon, in modern Lake Mead National Recreation Area. From there, they continued via skiff for thirty miles and eventually on foot—ultimately reaching the edge of the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River. Thus, Ives is thought to be the first European American to stand at the bottom of the Grand Canyon.

The Explorer (courtesy of the National Park Service)

While this is all well and good, I promised you a story of ignorance and ignorance you shall get.

Ives returned east and wrote up his findings in a Report upon the Colorado River of the West. And while he lauded the scale and geology of the region, his report was not highly complementary of the canyon country. In fact, his description of the Grand Canyon is perhaps most markedly negative:

Another reconnaissance has since been made on foot from the lagoons westward…An excellent view was had of the Big cañon…Our reconnoitering parties have now been out in all directions, and everywhere have been headed off by impassable obstacles. The positions of the main water-courses have been determined with considerable accuracy. The region last explored is, of course, altogether valueless. It can be approached only from the south, and after entering it there is nothing to do but leave. Ours has been the first, and will doubtless be the last, party of whites to visit this profitless locality. It seems intended by nature that the Colorado river, along the greater portion of its lonely and majestic way, shall be forever unvisited and undisturbed…The deer, the antelope, the birds, even the smaller reptiles, all of which frequent the adjacent territory have deserted this uninhabitable district. 

Ives was, of course, wrong. In 2018 alone, Grand Canyon National Park hosted 6.38 million visits. A 2017 study found that the canyon brings $938 million dollars to the region annually. The total value of the canyon is immeasurable. It is lauded as one of the Seven Wonders of the World and has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

For Joseph Christmas Ives, the story of ignorance doesn’t end there either. Despite his Yankee roots, he would eventually defect from the army to join the Confederacy during the Civil War and fight to continue the enslavement of African Americans. He would die shortly thereafter.

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