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Profiles in Mojave Desert History - Explorers and Surveyors

Lieutenant Joseph Christmas Ives

Joseph Christmas Ives (1828–1868), soldier, botanist, explorer of the Colorado River in 1858.

Ives was born in New York City in 1828 and was a graduate of the United States Military Academy in 1852. As a Lieutenant from 1853 to 1854 he was appointed by the U.S. Army to the Topographical Engineers as assistant to Lt. A.W. Whipple in the Pacific Railroad survey along the 35th parallel.

From 1857 to 1858 Ives commanded an expedition to explore up the Colorado River from its mouth.


Name: Lt. Joseph Christmas Ives and small party includ- ing Dr. John Stone Newberry, physician and naturalist, and Baldwin Mollhausen, personal representative of famous scientist Count Von Humboldt.

Dates: November 29, 1857 to May 23, 1858.

Purpose: To see how far and to what extent the Colorado River was navigable by steamboat.

Route: An ocean going vessel arrived with the prefabri- cated river boat at the mouth of the Colorado in Mexico at the end of November. The iron-hulled, shallow-draft, stern-wheeled craft was assembled by December 30. It was approximately 50 feet long, 14 feet at the widest point, and 3% feet in draft. On the last day of 1857 this boat, christened The Explorer , started up the river. Ives found the river low. Impatiently, he left the boat fifty miles below Fort Yuma and pressed on to the fortification with a small party on January 7, 18 58. The Explorer arrived two days later having found its way up the river to Fort Yuma despite the low water. On January 11, 1858 Ives' boat started up the river from Yuma. The Explorer steamed past Purple Hill Pass, Canebrake Canyon, and the Red Gates of the Chocolate Mountains. Then the vessel headed up the Colorado Valley and up to Monument Mountain.

The vessel passed Bill Williams Fork which Ives did not recognize. Indian runners kept Ives in touch with Fort Yuma. Above Needles Ives' craft entered Mojave Canyon. There the explor- ing party encountered the Mojave Indian Villages.

Then the expedition steamed upriver past Cotton- wood Valley. At the head of this valley was Black Canyon, the first gigantic Valley of the Colorado. When The Explorer entered the Black Canyon it struck a sunken rock. Ives reluctantly decided that he had reached the heal of navigation on the river. Ives' party made camp awaiting the arrival of a supply party coming by land from Yuma under the command of Lieutenant John Tipton. While they were waiting, Ives, and two comrades paddled a skiff up Black Canyon, reaching Las Vegas Wash. Upon the arrival of Lieutenant Tipton, Ives split his command. He sent half of his men back by the steamer, but he himself with the remainder including the principal scientists and twenty soldiers set off eastward to find a connection with the Mormon's Trail. Ives 1 group moved eastward parallel to Beale's Wagon road.

Eventually, by way of the Grand Canyon, they reached the Little Colorado and by May 23, 1858, Ives* group reached Fort Defiance, New Mexico.

Adapted from Cultural Resources of the California Desert, 1776 -1880 -- Historic Trails and Wagon Roads Elizabeth von Till Warren & Ralph J. Roske 1981 cultural Russell L. Kaldenberg, Series Editor II-19, II-20


Grand Canyon was the last largely unexplored area of the West in 1857. Often called "The Great Unknown" it was literally a blank space on maps. It was known that the Colorado River made a significant portion of its journey through this area, so the federal government funded an expedition to explore the river and determine its usefulness as a trade route.

Print of a vintage steamboat in front of rugged terrain. Ives' steamboat, the Explorer

Army First Lieutenant Joseph Christmas Ives of the U.S. Army Corps of Topographical Engineers would embark on this challenge and become the first European American known to reach the river within Grand Canyon.

Joseph Christmas Ives would navigate up river using a fifty-foot long sternwheel steamboat, the Explorer. His plan was to steam up the Colorado River from the known into the unknown. However, he crashed just below Black Canyon, not yet in Grand Canyon itself, but continued upriver for another thirty miles in a skiff. Continuing on foot, his overland journey took him down into the canyon at Diamond Creek, today part of the Hualapai Indian Reservation.

Artwork of the Grand Canyon's steep, dark cliffs with the river rapids below. Artwork from the Ives expedition was very dark, depicting the canyon as a terrifying place.

In his Report upon the Colorado River of the West; Explored in 1857 and 1858 (Washington: GPO, 1861), Ives admires the canyon’s scenery:

"The extent and magnitude of the system of canyons is astounding. The plateau is cut into shreds by these gigantic chasms, and resembles a vast ruin. Belts of country miles in width have been swept away, leaving only isolated mountains standing in the gap. Fissures so profound that the eye cannot penetrate their depths are separated by walls whose thickness one can almost span, and slender spires that seem to be tottering upon their bases shoot up thousands of feet from the vaults below."

But he could not envision that the scenery alone would bring millions to view the wonder of the canyon. He also writes:

"The region is, of course, altogether valueless. It can be approached only from the south, and after entering it there is nothing to do but leave. Ours has been the first, and will doubtless be the last, party of whites to visit this profitless locality. It seems intended by nature that the Colorado river, along the greater portion of its lonely and majestic way, shall be forever unvisited and undisturbed."

Source: NPS Grand Canyon


More information:

Pertinent chapters (chapters 3 - 7) of Ives' official report, "Report upon the Colorado river of West.

Also see:

Beale Expedition
When, under orders from the Secretary of War, Lt. Joseph C. Ives, earlier with the Whipple Expedition, arrived at the mouth of the Colorado River with the ...

Chemehuevi, Mohave & Cahuilla Indians
Whipple and Ives, for the sake of some new and curious acquaintance-for which we shall be indebted to those intelligent and experienced path-finders-with ...

Indians of the Mojave Desert
Tribes of the 35th Parallel. Let us accompany Messrs. Whipple and Ives, for the sake of some new and curious acquaintance-for which we shall be . ...

Whipple Expedition
The Whipple Expedition, a large scientific expedition led by Lt. Amiel Weeks Whipple, Brevet Lt. J. C. Ives, and 2nd Lt. D. S. Stanley, which was the next ...

Military & Pioneer Period - Mohave Indians
The Whipple Expedition, a large scientific expedition led by Lt. Amiel Weeks Whipple, Brevet Lt. J. C. Ives, and 2nd Lt. D. S. Stanley, which was the next ...

Amiel Whipple
In 1858 Lieutenant Ives named a mountain range along the west bank of the Colorado River for Amiel W. Whipple. These mountains lie east to west in what is ...

Lake Mead
In 1855, Lt. Joseph Christmas Ives traveled the lower Colorado River in search of ... Following Ives, John Wesley Powell continued exploration of the upper ...

History of Hoover Dam
River explorers and mappers first came in January, 1858, under the leadership of Lt. Joseph Christmas Ives, who came up the Colorado by steamboat from the ...

Hoover Dam Chronology
Lt. J. C. Ives navigates the Colorado River and, with his steamboat The Explorer , reaches the end of Black Canyon. 1869. Major John Wesley Powell makes the ...

photo of Lt. Joseph Christmas Ives

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