Suggestions for the Classroom
Time Period: 1834-1902
Themes: American frontier, western settlement, homesteaders, geological history, environment
In the summer of 1869, a one-armed Civil War veteran led the first expedition down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. John Wesley Powell's epic journey into the unknown established the Grand Canyon as a national landmark, and made him a hero. But when he used his fame to argue against the overdevelopment of the West, Powell was attacked.
For additional information about the Grand Canyon, the Colorado River, and the settlement of the West, see "Hoover Dam," which originally aired January 18, 1999, and the accompanying Web site and teacher's guide.
- Before viewing this program, find out how familiar your students are with the Grand Canyon. Have any of your students been there? What were their experiences and impressions? Locate the canyon on a map of the United States or Arizona and discuss some if its unique features: No other place on Earth compares with it for its extensive record of geological events. The canyon walls reveal an amazing, though incomplete, time scale of Earth's geological history going back to the Precambrian era. Over the past 6 million years, the Colorado River has cut a 1.6 kilometer-deep canyon, which was first seen by a European in 1540 though never completely explored until 1869. While today it is controlled by dams, the unfettered river was so powerful that running it was extremely dangerous.
- What do you think motivated Powell to undertake such a dangerous expedition? What was at stake for him? Once Powell was successful and began mapping the Grand Canyon for the federal government, what do you think was at stake for the government? How were the motives of Powell and the government similar? How were they at odds?
- Rivers have played an important role in U.S. history, as transportation and trade routes both for Native Americans and for early Europeans, as avenues of exploration, as providers of water for farming and power for mills and factories, etc. Have students choose a major river and find out about its history. How is it connected to different periods of the American story? Has its importance and role changed?
- The federal government originally had no interest in Powell's plan to explore the Grand Canyon. And yet the Colorado River later became the key to successfully settling the West. Have students research the history of the Colorado River since Powell's survey. How many areas of the West depend on the river? How is it being exploited? What does it provide? What would the West be like if it had not been tamed? What has been gained? What has been lost?
- Who do you think are today's explorers? What are they trying to accomplish? Do they take the same kinds of risks? What role do they play in society? Are their motivations and importance different than or the same as earlier explorers?
Educators & Librarians: You may order "Lost in the Grand Canyon" at PBS Video.