Grand Canyon Pioneer Cemetery

Headstones and their inscriptions can provide clues, telling us more about the person, their interests, or their hobbies. Explore the Grand Canyon Pioneer Cemetery and you’ll find many who appreciated the grandeur of the Grand Canyon in the 19th and 20th centuries. Here are a few of their stories.

Photo credit: Lemon Bee

John Hance was born about 1838 in Tennessee. After the Civil War he traveled west and settled at the Grand Canyon. He tried his hand at prospecting. He also became a trail builder, guide, and provided shelter for visitors to the Grand Canyon. Over time he became a legendary figure, telling stories of how he dug the canyon himself or how his horse could cross the canyon from rim to rim by galloping on the fog. His stories were implausible, but that was part of his charm, what was expected, and the added entertainment with him as a guide. He led Theodore Roosevelt, who affectionately called him “the greatest liar on earth,” down into the canyon in 1903. In the early 1900s he was housed by the Fred Harvey company in exchange for telling stories until they had a falling out in 1914. At that point, he camped at the head of the Bright Angel Trail until he passed away in 1919. He was the first person buried in what would be known as Grand Canyon Pioneer Cemetery. His brother, George Hance, gives a brief history of his life here.

Photo credit: K.C.

The Kolb brothers, Ellsworth and Emery, came to the Grand Canyon from Pittsburgh in the early 1900s. They established their photography studio at Bright Angel Trail, where they would photograph visitors being taken down the trail on mules. At the beginning they worked out of a tent and had to find creative ways to develop the photographs, using an abandoned mining shaft as a dark room and bringing in water from miles away. Later they built a small frame cabin near the canyon’s edge. This also served as their home. As their studio grew, they expanded their business and built an auditorium onto the studio.

In the winter of 1911, the brothers went on a river trip, filming the first movie of a trip down the Colorado River. The film was shown in the auditorium every day from 1915-1976, being introduced by Emery in to his later years. It is the longest continually running movie in the United States. The adventurous brothers photographed the Grand Canyon in places where tourists didn’t go, dangling from ropes, and scaling unclimbable cliffs. They sold their photographs to tourists and in August, 1914 their photos and experiences were featured in the National Geographic Magazine. Ellsworth left the business in 1915 and Emery continued until his death in 1975. Their headstones are both inscribed with an etching of the Grand Canyon and include these inscriptions: 

Ellsworth L. Kolb: “Photographer – Explorer – Author

Emery C. Kolb: “A hard work and doer of many things. Photographer – Artist – Explorer – Lecturer

Photo credit: Sharla

Shana Watahomigie, a Havasupai tribe member, was the first Havasupai woman to be a river runner with the National Park Service. In her obituary it says that “she considered the canyon, the river, and Havasupai Falls her home.” Shana loved “each stroke of the paddle and life in the water she ran. River guiding was one of the biggest accomplishments and joys…; it was something that filled her with life.” She was the river guide for Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. and explorer/author Wade Davis on an 18-day water conservation expedition on the Colorado River. Filmmakers joined them and their mission to inspire and educate to promote water conservation, which is needed to keep rivers like the Colorado from running dry. Her headstone includes the inscription, “whose laugh warms your soul.”

Gunnar Widforss studied to be a muralist in Stockholm. He painted landscapes across Europe and Africa before coming to America. He landed in California and after traveling to Yosemite Valley he met Stephen T. Mather, who laid the foundation for the National Parks Service. Mather was interested in Widforss’s work as he recognized his talent and knew that Widforss could showcase the National Parks. He suggested to visit and paint them. Widforss traveled to the Southwest in 1923 where he visited the Grand Canyon, Zions, and Bryce Canyon National Parks. He lived briefly at the Kolb studio home as well as a Fred Harvey company dormitory, selling his paintings in the lobby art gallery in the El Tovar Hotel. He visited other National Parks as well.

Photo credit: Albert Derome

His paintings and prints showed up in brochures, magazines, and art galleries across America. The incredible landscapes that he painted brought people to the National Parks to see for themselves. He called Grand Canyon his home, but in his fifties he was diagnosed with heart disease and his doctor warned him that he shouldn’t be working at such high altitudes. He came back to the south rim of the canyon, packed up his paintings, and was driving away from the hotel when he died of a heart attack. His stone’s inscription reads:

Bury this man there?  
Here, here’s his place, where meteors shoot, clouds form 
Lightnings are loosened, stars come and go.  
Lofty designs must close in like effects
Lofty lying
Leave him still loftier than the world suspects
Living and dying

A few words leaves one to wonder about the experiences people had and the type of person that they were, as with other inscriptions found in the Grand Canyon Pioneer Cemetery.

Catch the Wind”  “A lady of rare courage”  “He walked like a man”  “Make Time to Laugh” 

The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is to just to love and be loved in return. Our Nature boy

They shared a love of natural history and the Grand Canyon

After sunset – Photo credit: Randy Madsen

41 comments

    • Can you begin to imagine waking up to the Grand Canyon every day? Or watching the sunset over the Grand Canyon?? How fortunate we are to have these memories documented, Thank you pioneers for writing your memories down, so others could have an idea what life was like back in your day!!

    • This was very beautiful and touching story. It truly warmed our hearts reading it. It’s been years since I’ve visited there and your story has left us longing to return soon. Thank you for the wonderful words.

  1. I live in the next state over–New Mexico– this article really captures the raw beauty of the Southwest. I loved the headstones , the trail and the life stories.

  2. Thank You! I enjoyed the article. Such interesting lives and the Grand Canyon is truly spectacular.

    • In the old west they are many stories, each one is different. Thanks for sharing.

  3. what wonderful lives these people lived and so wonderful we are able to read about them. Thanks!!

  4. One year in mid-October we participated in a National Park Service ghost tour of this cemetery. We gathered outside the cemetery after dark and were given lanterns to light the way. A “ghost” appeared and led us from grave to grave, highlighting the lives of a dozen or so people buried there. It was a tour not easily forgotten and a wonderful way to highlight the rich history of this cemetery.

  5. Interesting information about ordinary people doing extraordinary things.

  6. history is always interesting to review thank you for your posts

  7. Thank you for showing the beauty and awesomeness of the Grand Canyon and some of the most interesting stories about the people who lived and died there!

  8. Very interesting article, a completely different world to now, it looks an amazing place, very historical with a multitude of stories and experiences, thank you for sharing so people who can not visit, can at least get an understanding of the area.

  9. I have never been and probably will never get to view the beauty but I love watching people on youtube sharing the beauty of it.

  10. I have been to the south rim in 2019 it is so amazing. I enjoyed reading about these people.Thank you so much.

  11. Historically significant graves of importance no doubt, but one in particular appears missing: that representing the lost of the United Airlines DC-7 in the midair collision with TWA Continental (they are buried in Flagstaff) on 30 June 1956. Recoverable remains from the DC-7 were interred in 6 caskets at this cemetery. The incident was of such horrific significance at the time that it gave rise to the establishment of today’s FAA to assure that such a disaster could never occur again.
    Author Mike Nelson wrote “We Are Going In”, THE authoritative work of the incident, himself being personally connected by blood to one of the victims. It is his lifelong work and dedication to produce a factual and yes, graphic work so that those lost on both aircraft will never be forgotten.

    • Yes, that is a significant memorial in this cemetery. Thank you for adding this comment about it.

  12. Carol Ann Martin was my cousin, her husband was a ranger also buried there. Thanks for the picture. Jim Larsen

  13. One magical spot on earth. The fact that it shares such a plethora of emotions for each visitor only enhances its beauty. And those who visit have forever memories of what beauty truly is.

    • we visited here in 1896 a silver wedding trip from England. celebrated morning servive at dawn on Easter sunday with a group of visitors on the edge of the rim. sun rose as we were there all join ed in ecumenical service a never forgotten experiece remembered every easter day.

  14. So interesting. My mom, brother and I went down to the floor of the Canyon on mules back in 1956. The Kolb family were still operating the photography business. The guide stopped our mules in front of the house above the trail as we had our “group” photo taken. The Kolb Bros is stamped on the back of that photo that I still have today. It was so exciting on the 4 hour trip down but not so much on the 4 hour trip back up the switch back trail. Every time a mule stopped to pee the next one would stop in succession. I felt like an elf after getting of the mule having ridden so long on that mule. Not to mention how sore we all were. I’ve obviously never forgotten it.

  15. I have a trip planned to go to the Grand Canyon next
    month. Hope to visit the cemetery.

  16. My husband (now deceased) . and I went to Grand Canyon on our honeymoon in May, 1962. I treasure the photo of us on our mules as we paused at the photo booth. Women rode in front and men in the rear AND “pull that mule’s head up – don’t let him eat!” I also have my “Order of the Master Mule Skinners of the Grand Canyon Trails” certificate certifying my feat riding on my mule Rosey signed by our guide Bob Avante. We drove across our beautiful country from New Jersey without a reservation to stay at the Canyon. We were first-time occupants of a room at Yavapai for $11. a night. Most of the people on the ride were not from the US.

    Forty-two years later, following my husband’s WWII ship reunion in LasVegas, we again visited the Canyon traveling via train. We did stay at a much different Yavapai. Even if we had wanted to, our trip was not planned in the time required to make a reservation for a mule ride. The number of park visitors was incredible. This trip of ours was featured in a local newspaper.

    Thanks for this interesting article and the memories invoked. I am a big fan of Find-a-Grave as genealogy is one of my hobbies. I was not aware of the Grand Canyon Cemetery.

  17. I enjoyed reading this, but was going for an “honorable mention” of someone buried IN the Grand Canyon — Rees Griffiths (1873-1922).

  18. In 2016 my husband published a book about each person buried in the Grand Canyon Cemetery (the previous year I published a walking tour map with about 80 graves identified).

  19. Most excellent article about history and those who were there before us. More like this, please!
    Thanks!

  20. FIND-A-GRAVE TEAM: I can’t thank you enough for sharing this true story of JOHN HANCE, AS TOLD BY HIS BROTHER: GEORGE!

    My Father was an Air Force officer and we lived in Albuquerque, N.M. and in Tucson, AZ when I was in Grammer School. I started to school in Tucson.

    These places that are mentioned in this article CAME ALIVE IMMEDIATELY TO ME, because I LOVED THE GRAND CANYON AND THE COLORADO RIVER! Daddy, Mama and I traveled THE GREAT SOUTHWEST extensively during Daddy’s “time-offs” from the bases. WE LOVED IT—-AND ALL OF THESE YEARS LATER IT REMAINS IN MY HEART WITH DEEP LOVE FOR THIS SACRED LAND CALLED “THE GREAT SOUTHWEST.”

    IT REALLY IS A SACRED LAND—–YOU FEEL IT WHEN YOU ARE THERE.

    MEMORIES ARE FOREVER!!!!!

  21. I was awed by this article! The beauty of The Grand Canyon was and still is special to so many people through out history. I was amazed by the people who loved it so much it became their home. I have been fortunate to have seen it myself, AWESOME!

  22. I have visited the canyon 3 times in my life and all is so breath taking.Each visit always made me feel like holy spirits were everywhere.I was there in 1965,1968 and 1978.You could go just about anywhere you wanted in the 60’s and meet native american indians.The indians would set up on the roadside and sell all types of things that were hand made.So glad i got to visit then as i have gave all the things i purchased to my daughter.Beautiful turquoise and hand hammered silver jewelry.purchased many other items such as hand made pottery and leather goods.So sad those days are gone as our Government put a stop to all that.Will cherish those memories forever.

  23. My book, John Hance—The Life, Lies and Legend of Grand Canyon’s Greatest Storyteller (University of Utah Press), describes Hance’s life accurately. He was born in 1837, not 1838, and was not involved in prospecting until 1891, almost ten years after he got to Grand Canyon.

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