From the European discovery of America through to the land rushes and gold rushes of the 19th century, a host of explorers, navigators, cartographers, and prospectors have opened up the landscape of the United States over the years—and provided vivid accounts of everything they found. The stories behind the discovery and earliest descriptions of five of America’s most familiar natural landmarks are listed here.
1. OLD FAITHFUL // WYOMING
The giant geyser named Old Faithful in Yellowstone National Park was discovered in 1870 by members of the Washburn-Langford-Doane Expedition, a team of explorers led by the surveyor-general of Montana, Henry D. Washburn, and explorer Nathaniel P. Langford. Old Faithful, so called because it erupts so frequently and predictably, was the first geyser in Yellowstone to be given a name.
“Judge, then, what must have been our astonishment, as we entered the basin at mid-afternoon of our second day's travel, to see in the clear sunlight, at no great distance, an immense volume of clear, sparkling water projected into the air to the height of one hundred and twenty-five feet. 'Geysers! geysers!' exclaimed one of our company, and, spurring our jaded horses, we soon gathered around this wonderful phenomenon. It was indeed a perfect geyser … It spouted at regular intervals nine times during our stay, the columns of boiling water being thrown from ninety to one hundred and twenty-five feet at each discharge, which lasted from fifteen to twenty minutes. We gave it the name of ‘Old Faithful.’”
Yellowstone was given National Park status just two years later, with one of its earliest advocates, U.S. Army General Philip Sheridan, spending much of the latter part of his military career fiercely protecting its land from development—although his passionate environmentalism seemingly didn’t pass down to the men in his 1882 expedition, who used Old Faithful to do their laundry.
2. DENALI (FORMERLY MT. MCKINLEY) // ALASKA
While the native Koyukon living in the area knew of North America’s highest mountain long before anyone else, and Russian explorers may have come across it in the 1770s, the earliest known European description of Denali is from the British naval captain George Vancouver, who noted “distant stupendous mountains covered with snow and apparently detached from one another” while he was exploring the area in May 1794.
Other accounts would soon follow: in 1878, Arthur Harper and Al Mayo supposedly described “a great ice mountain off to the south which was plainly visible.” In 1885, Lieutenant Henry Allen is said to have made a sketch of the range, and in 1889 Frank Densmore traveled to the region and returned to the Yukon with such effusive praise for the mountain that locals started referring to it as “Densmore’s Mountain.” But the peak would remain obscure to the outside world until 1897, when a gold prospector named William Dickey wrote an account of his time panning for gold in the Susitna river near the mountain in the New York Sun:
“We named our great peak Mount McKinley, after William McKinley of Ohio, who had been nominated for the presidency and that fact was the first news we received on our way out of that wonderful wilderness. We have no doubt that this peak is the highest in North America, and estimate that it is over 20,000 feet high.”
He wasn’t far off: McKinley—which was officially renamed Denali in 2015—stands 20,310 feet tall.
3. NIAGARA FALLS // NEW YORK AND ONTARIO, CANADA
The French cartographer Samuel de Champlain navigated and mapped Lake St. Louis (now Lake Ontario) as early as 1604. Although it’s thought that he didn’t actually see Niagara Falls himself, he nevertheless included a description of it in his journals, based on the description from a young Algonquin that they met:
“That there was a fall about a league wide and a large mass of water falls into said lake: that when this fall is passed one sees no more land on either side but only a sea so large that they have never seen the end of it, nor heard that anyone has.”
The earliest eyewitness description of the Falls didn’t appear until 1683, when a Belgian-born Roman Catholic missionary named Louis Hennepin published a travelogue, Description de la Louisiane, translated into English in 1698:
“Betwixt the Lakes Ontario and Erie, there is a vast and prodigious cadence of water which falls down after a surprising and astonishing manner, insomuch that the universe does not afford its parallel. ’Tis true, Italy and Suedland [Sweden] boast some such things; but we may well say they are but sorry patterns, when compared to this of which we now speak. At the foot of this horrible Precipice, we meet with the River Niagara … It is so rapid above this descent, that it violently hurries down the wild beasts while endeavoring to pass it to feed on the other side, they not being able to withstand the force of its current, which inevitably casts them above six hundred foot high.”
4. GRAND CANYON // ARIZONA
As early as the mid 16th century, a Spanish conquistador named Francisco Vázquez de Coronado led an expedition from modern-day Mexico as far north as Kansas, in the hope of finding the legendary city of Cíbola. Coronado’s expedition might not have succeeded in locating the Seven Cities of Gold, but it did at least take in the Grand Canyon.
On hearing word of a huge river in the middle of the desert from Native Americans living in the area, Coronado dispatched one of his commanders, García López de Cárdenas, along with around a dozen of his men to locate it. They likely arrived somewhere near to what is now Moran Point in September 1540, becoming the first non-Native Americans in history to see—and eventually explore and describe—the Grand Canyon. An account of their arrival later recorded that:
“After they had gone 20 days, they came to the banks of the river. It seemed to be more than 3 or 4 leagues [10-13 miles] in an air line across to the other bank of the stream, which flowed between them … [They] spent three days on this bank looking for a passage down to the river. It was impossible to descend, for after the three days Captain Melgosa and one Juan Galeras and another companion made an attempt to go down at the least difficult place, and went down until those that were above were unable to keep sight of them. They returned … in the afternoon, not having succeeded in reaching the bottom on account of the great difficulties which they found, because what seemed easy from above was not so, but instead very hard and difficult.”
5. DEATH VALLEY // CALIFORNIA
After gold was discovered in California in 1848, pioneers from all across the United States began to trek across country to try their luck prospecting in the West. The ill-fated Donner Party expedition from two years earlier—in which a group of emigrants became trapped by the snow in the Sierra Nevada, leading to the deaths of almost half the travelers and grisly stories of cannibalism—was still fresh in many people’s minds, so most of the prospectors delayed their journeys to escape the worst of the weather and risk the same fate. One party of 49ers, however, waited too long.
A group of around 100 wagons arrived in Utah in early autumn, much too late in the year to cross the Sierra Nevada without risk of getting snowbound. With little alternative but to spend the winter in Salt Lake City, they opted instead to take the “Old Spanish Trail,” a route that would take them around the southern edge of the Sierra Nevada and was, more importantly, traversable all year round. They set off in mid-October led by a local guide named Jefferson Hunt and, following the Beaver River, soon reached modern-day Minersville. From there, Hunt attempted an untried shortcut south into the desert. After nearly dying of thirst, the group was forced to turn back, effectively wasting a week’s worth of provisions. With their confidence in Hunt shot—and after a chance meeting with a pack train led by a New Yorker named Orson K. Smith, who had a trapper’s map showing a different route through Walker Pass—the party disbanded. Only seven wagons maintained their faith in Hunt and continued heading south to the Spanish Trail, while the remainder followed Smith. Barely 25 miles from the trail, however, Smith’s party began to regret their decision.
Ahead of them was a vast canyon, impossible to cross with a wagon. After several days trying to find a suitable route across, the majority of the 49ers turned back in the hope of catching up with Hunt and following his original route south around the mountains, while the rest set off around the edge of the canyon in the hope that, so long as they kept vaguely heading west, they would eventually reach the pass through the mountains.
Days and eventually weeks went by as the group headed further out into Nevada’s Great Basin Desert. With provisions running low, they were forced to drink from puddles and eat ice to quench their thirst, began slaughtering their oxen (and eventually their horses) for food, and dismantled their wagons for firewood. Disagreements among the group led to their numbers dwindling even smaller: Some turned south to try to intercept Hunt’s party, others headed north towards a distant range of snow-capped mountains in search of a better water supply, while one group—the Bennett–Arcan party, of around a dozen individuals—first headed south, but then changed direction and headed to what they thought would be safety. Instead, they were unwittingly walking straight into Death Valley.
What happened next was recorded by a 29-year-old fur-hunter turned gold prospector named William Lewis Manly, who had joined the 49ers just outside Provo, in Utah. When it became clear that the Bennett-Arcan party was hopelessly lost, the group set up camp beside a small spring (now called Bennett’s Well) while Manly and a fellow prospector named John Rogers climbed out of the valley and set off on foot to find aid. Two weeks and more than 250 miles later, they reached Rancho San Fernando, a small settlement 30 miles outside Los Angeles, where they managed to procure a mule, two horses (which wouldn't make it), and additional supplies—before they headed back, another 250 miles across the Mojave Desert, into Death Valley to rescue the rest of their party.
They arrived in February 1850 to find that one of the group, a Captain Culverwell, had died just days before they returned, while other members of the group had given up hope and headed out of the valley themselves, presuming Manly and Rogers to be either lost or dead. Those that had remained followed them out of the valley and back towards civilization.
Manly and his fellow prospectors are today credited with the discovery of Death Valley, while Manly’s description of it—and of his and Rogers’ rescue of the Bennett-Arcan party—included in his memoir, Death Valley ’49, remains one of its earliest accounts:
“West and south it seemed level, and low, dark and barren buttes rose from the plain, but never high enough to carry snow even at this season of the year … The range next east of us across the low valley was barren to look upon as naked, single rock. There were peaks of various heights and colors, yellow, blue firery [sic] red and nearly black. It looked as if it might sometime have been the center of a mammoth furnace. I believe this range is known as the Coffin’s Mountains. It would be difficult to find earth enough in the whole of it to cover a coffin. “Just as we were ready to leave and return to camp we took off our hats, and then overlooking the scene of so much trial, suffering and death spoke the thought uppermost, saying:—“Goodbye, Death Valley!” … Even after this, in speaking of this long and narrow valley over which we had crossed into its nearly central part, and on the edge of which the lone camp was made for so many days, it was called Death Valley.”
It took another 23 days for the Bennett-Arcan party to cross the Mojave Desert and reach civilization. The shortcut Smith’s map had promised—and which had taken them away from Hunt’s original route—had led to a four-month-long ordeal.
All images courtesy of iStock.