Scott Thybony's Canyon Commentary: Circling The Canyon

Jun 4, 2021

A collection of early Mormon documents now archived at Brigham Young University tell the story of the first recorded group of explorers to ride completely around the Grand Canyon, circumnavigating the great gorge. The documents belonged to the group’s leader, John Steele, and reveal details about the 1862 expedition. In his latest Canyon Commentary, Scott Thybony shares some of Steele’s epic adventures.

A hand-drawn map by John Steele from his1862 expedition around the Grand Canyon
Credit LDS Church Archives

Inside a home in southern Utah sits an old sheet iron trunk with an address painted on the front.  It reads:

Steele. Toquerville

Utah Territory U.S.

America

The top lies open.  Stored inside are journals, military orders and correspondence, books and maps, a Paiute vocabulary, and early descriptions of the Grand Canyon region.  An archivist described it as the largest intact collection of early Mormon documents to turn up since 1935.  The trunk had belonged to John Steele, a frontier judge, militia leader, and herbal doctor who set broken bones and dabbled in astrology.

As I go through the contents, Steele’s great-great grandson brings out a tin box with a faded label reading, “Hopi mesquite bread, 1854.”  Gary Callister opens the top to reveal a yellow lump of what looks like dried dough.  “Go ahead and smell it,” he says.  To my surprise it still holds the faint, sweet smell of mesquite pods.

In 1862 John Steele undertook a winter expedition led by Jacob Hamblin to the distant Hopi Indian villages.  Two dozen Mormons left St. George in mid-November on a journey that would end up circling the Grand Canyon.  Church president Brigham Young warned them, “Keep your guns as handy as your Bibles.”

The exploring party reached the Colorado River at the western end of the canyon now under Lake Mead.  Crossing to the far side, the Mormons kept south of the main gorge and entered a waterless region.  One night they were forced to stay awake and melt snow for themselves and 52 thirsty animals.  They rode for days within sight of the San Francisco Peaks, often having to break trail through the snow cover.  At the Little Colorado River some of the men threw their hats in the air to celebrate, while others openly cried.  A few flopped down and drank until they got sick.

After a month on horseback they came within sight of Oraibi and heard lookouts shout warnings of their approach.  Several hundred Hopi appeared on the mesatop ready to defend their village.  After realizing they had mistaken the Mormons for a Navajo war party, they welcomed them with piki bread and gourds of water.  Later the Hopi invited their guests to participate in a ceremony to ensure moisture.  The Mormons were given a prayer stick which they placed at a shrine near the village and sprinkled with prayer corn.  “This was done,” wrote Steele, “to incorporate our faith with theirs, in order that the snow might come down to water their land.”

Explorer John Steele at his home in Toquerville, circa 1900
Credit National Park Service

The exploring party began their return journey in a heavy snowstorm.  This time they headed for a crossing of the Colorado on the opposite end of Grand Canyon.  Approaching the ford they encountered nearly impassable cliffs.  ”We are now in the worst kind of a broken country,” Steele wrote.  “One miss step would plunge the horse and pack, at many points, into an abiss of 500 feet.”

Once across the river, now under Lake Powell, they struggled up the high-angled slickrock on the far side.  Food had run desperately low, forcing the men to subsist on quarter rations.  A scout managed to shoot a turkey vulture, and after making buzzard stew licked the bowl clean.  They continued across the Kaibab Plateau, trudging through deep snow and cutting a trail up the steep slopes with their butcher knives.  “We were so weak,” Steele recounted, “that we could scarcely stick to our saddles.”

Worn out and close to starvation, the expedition members reached the Mormon settlements 51 days after departing.  “My horse staggers as he walks,” reported John Steele who covered the last eight miles on foot.  Suffering from cold and thirst, they became the first recorded party to ride completely around the Grand Canyon.