Books by Frederick H. Swanson

George C. Fraser changing camera plates at his camp on Navajo Creek during his 1916 traverse of the northern Navajo Reservation.


Journeys in the Canyon Lands of Utah and Arizona,
1914-1916

by George C. Fraser
Foreword by Hal Rothman
Edited by Frederick H. Swanson

University of Arizona Press
Softcover, 224 p., $19.95

Have you ever wished that you could stand at the edge of the Grand Canyon with one of the great geologists of the nineteenth century--perhaps John Wesley Powell or Clarence E. Dutton--and listen to them tell the story of the Canyon's evolution? Perhaps you've read Powell's Exploration of the Colorado River or Dutton's Tertiary History of the Grand Caņon District and gained new insights into this most sublime of the Earth's spectacles. Nearly a hundred years ago, a well-to-do explorer from Morristown, New Jersey, felt the same call to explore the landscapes of the Plateau Province, taking along for his guides the works of these master exponents of canyon geology.

George Corning Fraser was a successful attorney with a Wall Street practice, but his interests were decidedly rustic. He had read the accounts written by early-day geologists and explorers of the Colorado Plateau and wanted to see this country from the same exposed rims and deep canyon bottoms. He decided to retrace the routes that Powell, Dutton, G. K. Gilbert, and other scientists had taken through the region and, with their reports and maps in hand, reach a fuller understanding of the "Great Denudation," as Dutton called the sixty-million-year excavation of the stair-stepped topography of the region.

Beginning in 1914, Fraser made a series of ambitious journeys on horseback and by wagon into the country lying between Flagstaff, Arizona and the Mormon towns of central Utah. Several qualities set Fraser apart from most travelers: he seemed ready for almost any adventure, no matter how difficult; he had a gift for careful observation, both of the landscape and of the people who lived and worked there; and (most important for us) he could relate his adventures in elegant and descriptive prose.

In 1914 Fraser photographed the view from Dutton Point on the Powell Plateau, one of the great overlooks on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. Point Sublime is in the distance.

Journeys in the Canyon Lands presents three of Fraser's detailed travel journals, covering trips he made to the Kaibab Plateau and Grand Canyon region, the Utah high plateaus, and the northern Navajo Indian Reservation. He describes the Zion Narrows, the view from the Toroweap, the monoliths of Cathedral Valley and dozens of other features in lively but straightforward language. He was intensely interested in people, and he got all manner of folks to tell him their life stories. And in the company of one or more of his family members and his guide, David D. Rust of Kanab, Utah, he got into canyons and mesas that are still tough to reach today.

When I came across Fraser's journals, which are archived at the Princeton University Library, I felt I'd been transported to a time before the tourist's heyday. The settling of the frontier was several decades past, but much of this landscape was unknown to the outside world, and Fraser's reactions to it convey the sense of amazement that many of us have felt upon first seeing the Colorado Plateau. He is a marvelous writer, eschewing the flowery language of the Victorian travelers or the purple prose of Zane Grey, and he lets the features of the country speak for themselves. Yet he weaves understated humor throughout his journals as he encounters the hardships of travel in this rugged country and observes the lives and practices of its inhabitants.

Perhaps, like me, you've wondered how the canyon country looked and felt to those who got there before the highways and tour operators. If so, you'll enjoy these narratives from a most unusual and observant traveler.

Photos courtesy of LDS Church Archives (masthead); Rust family (middle); Fraser family (lower)