Naming of Places in the Grand Canyon

Learning about names is a fun way to discover some of the history of the area, so check it out.

I stood at the Yavapai Overlook (named after the local Yavapai people and translated to mean People of the Sun) on the South Rim gazing at the map and trying to pick out landforms along the horizon. The names linked to the distant buttes conjured up exotic images of far-away mystical lands and religions: Zoroaster, Vishnu, Shiva, Brahma, Buddha. Someone had looked to Eastern mysticism for monikers worthy of this awe-inspiring landscape.

It turns out that someone was Clarence Edward Dutton, a geologist who traveled through the Grand Canyon on John Wesley Powell‘s second voyage down the river and later returned to conduct his own canyon survey. Dutton wrote the butte he named Shiva after the Hindu deity, Shiva the Destroyer, was “the grandest of all buttes and the most majestic in aspect…such a stupendous scene of wreck, it seemed as if the fabled ‘Destroyer’ might find an abode [here] not wholly uncongenial.”

Not all of the canyon’s namers look so far a field for inspiration. Many of the canyon’s place names honor legendary explorers or famous canyon characters, including Powell Butte named after Dutton’s colleague, Major John Wesley Powell, the famous one-armed explorer who led the first two river trips through the canyon. Powell’s journeys resulted in many place names including Separation Rapid that marked the point where three members of his original expedition, William Dunn, and the brothers Seneca and O.G. Howland, dispirited and convinced the trip was doomed, decided to hike out of the canyon leaving the rest of their party behind. Two days later, the expedition broke out of the canyon, their voyage a success. Dunn and the Howlands were never seen again.

Powell borrowed heavily from the Native American’s who lived in and around the Grand Canyon in his naming resulting in some of the canyon’s most poetic labels: Nankoweep, Toroweap, Coconimo, Tapeats, Havasu and Matakatamiba. Some of the names, Tapeats and Matakatamiba for example, were names of Indian families who lived in the area. Others are descriptive: Havasu means blue-green water in honor of the surreal-turquoise water in its namesake creek. Coconimo is a Havasupai word for “little water” and Toroweap is a Pauite word for “dry or barren valley.”

Finally, some names tell stories. Upset Rapid commemorates boatman Emery Kolb‘s capsize in the rapid during the 1923 U.S. Geological Survey’s trip down the canyon, while Badger and Soap Canyon’s names reflect a story about an early settler in the area, Jacob Hamblin. According to the lore, Hamblin killed a badger in one of the two small side canyons and then carried it to his camp in the other to boil it for food. He left the kettle on overnight to soften the tough, stringy meat, and in the morning, because of the alkali in the water and the fat in the badger, he was left with nothing but a kettle of soap.

Several books have been published compiling and explaining the colorful names found in the Grand Canyon. You can also learn a lot online. Learning about names is a fun way to discover some of the history of the area, so check it out. Write down the names that capture your imagination and look them up. You may learn more than you expected.