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Amateurs Bring History to Grand Canyon Symposium

Red Wolf
Red Wolf

Grand Canyon enthusiasts celebrated Arizona’s centennial recently with a History Symposium at the South Rim.  And some of the most interesting research came from amateur historians in love with the Canyon.

Dennis Foster teaches applied macro-economics at Northern Arizona University.  That’s his day job.  He spends his free time studying Grand Canyon and its history. For the past 15 years Foster has been investigating the 1882 – 83 Charles Walcott expedition.   

“I had hiked to a place called Asbestos Canyon," Foster recounted, "and there’s a very narrow shute that leads down off the tapeats down into Asbestos Canyon and its very exciting but also very scary. I read that same account in Walcott’s report from 1883 …  and I thought that’s exactly the same route I was on! And it just blew my mind that he had hiked in that same spot a hundred years earlier.”

And that inspired Foster to go on his own expedition.  He traveled to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington to learn more about Walcott. Then he duplicated the geologist’s trip into the Canyon.       

“Well, I got a hold of his personal journal," he said, "and I was able to transcribe it some years ago and work out based on his really scanty  accounting of what was going on where he had actually travelled and how long he had spent in various canyons on the eastern part of the Grand Canyon.”

Others at the History Symposium told stories of larger than life characters like John Wesley Powell and Teddy Roosevelt.  Susan Verkamp grew up at the Grand Canyon and works as a health educator.  Her research pays tribute to a lesser known pioneer, her aunt Peggy Verkamp. 

“She wrote the first comprehensive history of GCNP as her master’s thesis," said Verkamp, "and I think her biggest accomplishment was navigating helping to establish a high school here which is the only high school located in a national park.”

Tom Myers is a physican. He also writes books, including the best-selling Over the Edge, Death in Grand Canyon.  He’s fascinated with the place calling it "the greatest natural landscape on earth, just so fascinating and you know it’s the only one on the planet I mean it’s the grandest canyon desert on this earth and its right in our own backyard. “

Myers has recently been researching the stories of people who have hiked the length of Grand Canyon.  There have only been 14.   Among them, an eccentric who called himself Red Wolf, who went into the Canyon one hundred years ago.  

“He went in and out of the Canyon with these dogs," Myers said,  "He would have these dogs with him that he would load little saddle bag packs on and stuff, he wore buckskins, moccasins and thick glasses.”

And Myers says Red Wolf bragged he coined Arizona’s state motto.  Red Wolf said he had written a letter to some of the individuals that were trying to come up with a state motto and , said Myers "one of the options,  I guess a pretty popular one was The Baby State, because it was going to be the newest infant state in the union."

So as Myers tells the tale, "he made a plea that it should be called grand canyon state so he wrote this letter and gave himself credit  or at least he took credit that it was he who gave Arizona the motto the Grand Canyon State.”

Historians – amateurs and academics alike – have 5 years to pull together their research for the next Grand Canyon History Symposium in 2017.  In the meantime, the Grand Canyon Historical Society is planning to publish a book with this year’s Symposium presentations.  

For Arizona Public Radio, I’m John Stark