Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Did the Cardenas Party Leave a Rock Inscription in Grand Canyon in 1540?

An inscription on the Esplanade Platform near the Bass Trail stirs debate (photo © Wayne Ranney, 1991)

A geologist in Colorado has proposed that a mysterious rock inscription found in the Grand Canyon may record the exact place where people of European descent first descended into the Grand Canyon. Traditionally, historians have proposed that the "first descent" should be located somewhere between Desert View and Moran Point, in the far eastern part of the canyon. Their reasoning stems from journal references to a place with "low twisted pines and open to the north", and the fact that their Hopi guides would not have walked any farther than necessary from the journey's origin on the Hopi Mesas. Additionally, journal entries state: Captain Melgosa and one Juan Galeras and another companion ... spent three days on this bank looking for a passage down to the river [and] made an attempt to go down at the least difficult place... They returned … not having succeeded in reaching the bottom ... They said they had been down about a third of the way and that the river seemed very large from the place which they reached. [emphasis added] 

Using these very subtle landscape clues (ones that allow geologists to see a bit more into the mystery than perhaps a historian can), geologist Ray Kenny of Ft. Lewis College in Durango, Colorado thinks he may have found where the "first descent" may be. He thinks it could actually be located farther west in the vicinity of the South Bass Trail, where low twisted pines are also located. There, a cryptic rock inscription about a third of the way down on the Esplanade platform can be found, that reads simply, "Monte Video" (perhaps roughly translated as, "I see the mountain"). The calligraphy used is reminiscent of early Spanish script and it appears to be of rather old age. One wonders, if not a Spaniard who wrote this, who then? William Wallace Bass? Not likely. I think Kenny may be on to something. You can read about the hypothesis in its entirety here

I visited this remote site in April, 1991 while serving as a guide on a Museum of Northern Arizona Ventures trip. I was led there by historian Jim Babbitt who was my co-leader at the time. Memory recalls that Babbitt had been long perplexed by this odd inscription and its cryptic message. I too became curious about the inscription but never gave it much thought until the NPS article above was brought to my attention. Kenny's hypothesis seems reasonable to me. The calligraphy is certainly from an antiquated time. And known Spanish incursions into the canyon were quite rare until we stole - er acquired - the land from Spanish domination. But more important is the notion that the "first descent" party would necessarily travel the shortest distance possible to reach the river (which was the primary objective for the trip west from Hopi in the first place - to resupply the Coronado Expedition via the Sea of Cortez by ship). This is Euro-centric thinking at its finest - "get me there in the shortest, quickest way." 

While it's still possible that they could have first approached the canyon from a point farther east, it's also likely that with "three days exploring this bank," they could have wandered farther west to the South Bass area. (As Kenny points out, it's likely that the Hopi would not want the perceived intruders to know about their routes into the canyon in the Desert View area). Also, "a third of the way down" would take them to the Esplanade level in the Bass area of the canyon and the Desert View to Moran Point area is one of the least likely places in all of Grand Canyon to attempt a trip down off the rim. Lastly, the Hopi used a well maintained trail from their mesas to the canyon home of the Havasupai, and the South Bass area is not that far from this route. 

A landscape perspective has not previously been utilized in attempting to solve the mystery of where the "first descent" party saw the canyon. And so the Grand Canyon again leaves us with a wonderfully appetizing mystery. Let's see where this one leads us! (All photos this posting © Wayne Ranney, April, 1991)

View to the north from near the South Bass Trailhead. Fossil Mountain on the left with Mt. Huethawali on the Esplanade Platform to its right. The terrace north of Mt. Huethawali is where the inscription is located. View of the Esplanade Platform from near the inscription site. The Esplanade has formed a broad terrace in western Grand Canyon where the Hermit Shale has retreated off of the harder sandstone below. Looking at the inscription near Mystic Spring. It's tantalizing the think that members of the Coronado Expedition in 1540 left this inscription.


  1. Great analysis, Wayne. Your recollections and reflections about your 1991 visit really add much more perspective to the article that spurred your blog post on this topic. You raise several well taken points that simply can't be ignored. After reading Kenny's piece and then your perspectives, I'd vote for the Spanish being in the vicinity of the inscription. Thank you for sharing your insights.

  2. Cool stuff Wayne...thx for posting!

  3. I was in this area in the 8o's. I seem to remember two names chiseled into the sandstone also. Time to break out the old slides.


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