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Sepia toned image showing a desert landscape with canyon in background
Sheet IV - The Temples and Towers of the Virgen, Tertiary history of the Grand cañon district, with atlas,.... Map by William Henry Holmes, 1882. Geography and Map Division.

A Landmark Atlas of the Grand Canyon

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For many Americans, Memorial Day marks the unofficial start to summer, and with the holiday weekend behind us, millions will be heading to the beaches, mountains, and everywhere in between for seasonal getaways over the next few months. Some of these vacationers will be among the roughly 5 million annual visitors to the natural wonder that is the Grand Canyon. One of the most visited national parks in the country and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Grand Canyon has a very long history, from its millennia-spanning geologic creation, to the thousands of years of human habitation by indigenous tribes, to 19th and 20th century explorations by European Americans to survey the area and eventually formalize its protection as a national park in 1919.

As part of a collection documenting the maps of national parks across the country, the Geography and Map Division has a multitude of maps documenting the Grand Canyon. Among this collection, perhaps the most celebrated and awe-inspiring set of maps is the atlas accompanying Clarence Dutton’s The Tertiary History of the Grand Cañon District, published in 1882.

Illustration of Grand Canyon looking east from Point Sublime.
Sheet XV – Panorama from Point Sublime, Tertiary history of the Grand cañon district, with atlas,…. Map by William Henry Holmes, 1882. Geography and Map Division.

After fighting for the Union in the Civil War, Clarence Dutton began his long and esteemed career as a geologist by joining surveying expeditions of the Colorado River led by John Wesley Powell in the late-1870s. It was out of Powell’s and others’ surveys of the American West that the United States Geological Survey (USGS) was formed in 1879. Building from Powell’s work in broadening national awareness of the area’s unique geography, Dutton synthesized previous survey findings, compiled geologic and panoramic maps, and combined scientific descriptions and literary prose to produce The Tertiary History of the Grand Cañon District in 1882, the first official publication of the USGS and a landmark report on the Grand Canyon.

Topographic and geologic maps in the report were drawn at multiple scales and demonstrate the depth of scientific knowledge of the region’s natural features, gathered through years of comprehensive surveys. “The Southern Part of the Kaibab Plateau-Head of the Grand Canyon” displays the complex topography of the Grand Canyon and connecting geologic amphitheaters in a maze of contour lines. The colorful “Geologic Map of the Mesozoic Terraces of the Cañon District” delineates zones of geologic periods spanning more than three billion years.

Geologic map of various colors, including topographic lines, covering the Grand Canyon.
Sheet XXI – The Mesozoic Terraces of the Grand Canon District, Tertiary history of the Grand cañon district, with atlas,…. Map by Clarence E. Dutton, 1882. Geography and Map Division.

The showstoppers in this atlas are undoubtedly the artistic panoramic illustrations of the stunning Grand Canyon landscape. The USGS commissioned artists William Henry Holmes and Thomas Moran to produce the atlas’s panoramic views, breathing life into the report’s scenic descriptions. “Panorama From Point Sublime,” a three-panel 270-degree panoramic view, and “The Grand Cañon at the Foot of the Toroweap-Looking East” both emphasize the vertical scale of the canyon’s great depths. “The Transept, Kaibab Division, Grand Canyon” features imposing shade covered buttes that stretch out to the horizon.

Illustration of Grand Canyon with canyon in foreground and orange buttes towards horizon.
Sheet VI – The Grand Canon at the foot of the Toroweap-Looking East, Tertiary history of the Grand cañon district, with atlas,…. Map by William Henry Holmes, 1882. Geography and Map Division.

Unsurprisingly, surveying and mapping of the Grand Canyon by both government and private mapmakers continued in earnest following Dutton’s landmark publication and served to bolster preservation efforts. President Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed the Grand Canyon to be a National Monument in 1908 and in 1919, the Grand Canyon National Park was established. After the report, Dutton would go on to make other important contributions to geology, including groundbreaking work in seismology, studies of lava flows in Hawaii, and depth measurements of Crater Lake in Oregon.

What is today a national park that is mapped extensively, from wildlife preservation maps to hiking trail maps for tourists, was once a place known intimately by indigenous tribes, but a blank spot on the map for European Americans heading west. Centuries of mapping, surveying, and scientific study have brought understanding and awareness of this natural wonder. This rich history is documented in Patricia Molen van Ee’s essay on Grand Canyon mapping through Library of Congress maps, part of a series on national park mapping histories. Out of this long tradition, Dutton’s The Tertiary History of the Grand Cañon District stands out as a cartographic milestone in the human history of the Grand Canyon.

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