Did the First Europeans to See the Grand Canyon Leave This Mysterious Inscription?

NPS photo.

The first viewing of the Grand Canyon by Europeans is usually credited to a party of Spaniards led by Don Garcia Lopez de Cárdenas in 1540, but the location of that event has never been confirmed. Now the discovery of an old inscription carved in sandstone offers an intriguing clue.

Dr. Ray Kenny is a Professor of Geosciences at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado, and his professional and personal interests have led him to work and hike extensively in Grand Canyon National Park. During the 1990s, Dr. Kenny was conducting research related to the geology of the area when he found an inscription "that may provide a clue to the location where the Spanish explorers first tried to descend to the Colorado River."

The geologist reports on his discovery—and provides a careful and intriguing analysis of the possibilities—in the Fall 2010 issue of Park Science.

Cárdenas and a group of 12 companions had been sent to the area by the Spanish explorer Coronado after others in his command heard reports of a large river that lay to the west of a desert; the possibility of a major water source in an arid land would certainly be a matter of interest.

Generations of historians have been intrigued by the tantalizing lack of details in the reports of Coronado's expedition. The description of the place where members of the Cárdenas party saw, but didn't reach, the river isn't a lot of help: "…elevated and full of low twisted pines, very cold, and lying open toward the north…" That covers a lot of territory along the South Rim of the Canyon!

In his article, Dr. Kenny notes, "Most historians, based on this meager and ambiguous description, have surmised that Cárdenas arrived at the South Rim of Grand Canyon in the area between Moran Point and Desert View," but the geologist offers some interesting and logical reasons why that might not be the case.

Indian guides would have good reason not to lead these foreigners to the river near present-day Desert View; the native inhabitants considered those areas to be sacred, and Dr. Kenny suggests their local guides may have taken the visitors on a longer and difficult trip to more distant parts of the canyon, in hopes of discouraging further interest in the area. They apparently succeeded; it would be 300 years before the next serious Anglo exploration of the area—the Ives expedition—visited the South Rim in the 1850s.

The "wily Indian guides" factor is certainly a plausible reason to consider other parts of the canyon for the Spaniards' route in 1540, including the spot where the scientist discovered a "weather-worn and elegant inscription carved in sandstone." Given the destructive tendencies of modern collectors and vandals, Dr. Kenny is wisely vague about the location of his find: "about 50 miles west of Desert View."

So, what did he find?

Carved in the rock are two Spanish- or Portuguese-derivative words: "MONTE VIDEO."

Dr. Kenny notes,

The exact “old Spanish” meaning of the words is unclear and may be lost to time, but “monte” could be translated as “mount” (as in mountain); “video” may be loosely translated as “seer” or “sighted” or possibly even “view.” The location of the inscription does have a spectacular view of the topographically higher North Rim (perhaps interpreted as a mountain?).

The inscription site also corresponds to information that three members of the Cárdenas party who were sent to try to reach the river itself were unsuccessful—they only made it about a third of the way to the bottom of the canyon before the terrain forced them to turn back—but they were able to see the river from their vantage point.

The scientist also offers an analysis of "calligraphic considerations" of the inscription, and notes that the "style of lettering appears to resemble the block letter calligraphy of 16th-century Spanish writings."

The author has some experience in analyzing biogeophysical and biogeochemical weathering of old inscriptions carved into sandstone, and offers an overview of those and other techniques that might be used to date the inscription based upon its physical characteristics. His conclusion: current scientific techniques simply can't provide a reliable answer.

Dr. Kenny notes one unique and intriguing aspect of his find: "I find it especially curious that of all the known inscriptions in Grand Canyon, this is the only Spanish- or Portuguese-derivative inscription yet to be found."

Can the geologist's discovery be tied to the early Spanish expedition? He offers a cautious opinion:

So is this weather-worn and elegant inscription carved in sandstone an engraving from Captain Melgosa, Juan Galeras, or the unknown companion? Did the three ancient Spaniards leave a clue to their labors, stand at this daunting point, and gaze out into the abyss for the last time before leaving the canyon forever? We may never know for sure, but this enigmatic inscription suggests that the intrepid Spaniards may have traveled to this point more than 470 years ago.

You can view the entire article in the latest issue of Park Science at this link.