A black and white photograph of a man standing next to a mule.
“Capt.” John Hance

The most exciting, challenging and drenching whitewater rapid on the Colorado River from Lee’s Ferry to Phantom Ranch is Hance Rapid. Located at river mile 77.2, the rapid was formed by a large pile of rock debris deposited by flash floods in 1966 that tore through Red Canyon. The rapid is rated as an 8 on the Colorado River whitewater 10-point scale and drops 30 feet, which is one of the sharpest descents in the Grand Canyon. The notorious rapid was named for the local legend, John Hance, and it has been the site of several rafting deaths, including one in 2021.

Hance Rapid is an 8 on the Whitewater Scale

Grand Canyon National Park & John Hance

According to the National Park Service, the year 1919 marked two momentous occasions in the history of Grand Canyon: first was the official birth of the National Park and second was the death of ‘Captain’ John Hance. The timing of these events seemed fitting, because if the designation of National Park marked the beginning of a new age of management and stewardship of the Grand Canyon, Hance’s death marked the end of the greatest living symbol of the previous era — wild, untamed, and fixated on incredible stories.

At its roots, the Hance myth was about a man who claimed to be the first, oldest, and longest living European-American resident of the Grand Canyon. Many of the details of John Hance’s life before and during his Canyon years are unknown. Why? Because the man wrapped himself in tall tales — a cloak of mystique and glamor.

John Hance with two Abert Squirrels. 1899

Hance: the Man, the Legend

By local legend, John Hance was born in Tennessee around 1840. He was reported to have fought in the Civil War as a Confederate soldier, although he was never a captain. Arriving at Grand Canyon as early as 1883, Hance is believed to have become its first permanent white settler. And as white settlers do, he used sharp elbows to make room for himself. Hance tried his hand at mining (gold, silver, and asbestos), trail blazing, and tourism. Hance did use his trail-making skills to improve an old Havasupai trail into the canyon. Very quickly, however, he found a more lucrative calling: guiding and providing lodging to visitors coming to the canyon to see if the stories of western explorers like Major John Wesley Powell were true. [1]

As time passed and tourism grew, Hance became a legendary human fixture of the canyon. Visitors making their way down the treacherous Old Hance Trail would be entertained by stories of how the old frontiersman had dug the canyon all by himself. He also claimed that his trusty horse, Darby, could cross the canyon from rim to rim by galloping atop banks of fog. As Hance himself once said, “I’ve got to tell stories to these people for their money; and if I don’t tell it to them, who will? I can make these tenderfeet believe that a frog eats boiled eggs, and I’m going to do it; and I’m going to make ’em believe he carries it a mile to find a rock to crack it on.” 

Pecos Bill lassos a twister

Jumping The Grand Canyon

Hance’s stories are like those of Pecos Bill and Paul Bunyon: each known for their wild imagination and bold exaggeration. Many of Hance’s stories were infamous because they began in the realm of the believable, migrated to the merely plausible, and ended in the domain of the completely fantastic. Such was the case of when Hance claimed to have jumped Grand Canyon on his horse, Darby, to escape from danger.

John Wesley Powell meets a Ute Indian (1869)

Unfortunately, Hance felt he must resort to the old “angry Native American Indian” tropes to give the story urgency. Yes, there were stories of Native American versus white aggression, but they seem highly justifiable in retrospect to broken treaties and stolen property rights of Native Americans to the land. The US Government always handled the native tribes and residents with distain and mistrust. The Hance stories would have been better without the racial stereotypes and slurs.

Below is an often retold story:

[H]e was riding his favorite white horse, Darby, (he called all his horses by the same name, claiming it made it easier for him to remember their names) near Red Butte along the South Rim, when he saw a band of angry Ute warriors approaching from the west. Looking over his shoulder to the south several hundred Apache were fast-approaching. Darby set up and turned the other way only to find a painted-up war party of Navajo were riding hard in his direction. His only chance of escape was to jump the Grand Canyon. They didn’t have a minute to waste. Was ol’ Darby going to be up to the challenge?

That horse got a runnin’ start and gave it a mighty leap. Up and over the canyon they soared. About half way across though, Cap’n Hance let his eyes drift downward. Several thousand feet below, the mighty Colorado looked like a tiny, reddish-brown ribbon twisting and winding between the steep canyon walls.

Ol’ Darby got curious too and looked down. He’d never seen a better example of nature’s work of art. Great Scott! Gazing at all those wondrous wonders caused him to lose his concentration. It was only ten miles across to the North Rim and that was a jump he could have done standing on his head, but suddenly they were losing altitude. They began to fall like an elevator gone berserk. Cap’n Hance knew the only way they’d survive was to pull up on ol’ Darby. Ya see he was a cuttin’ horse and he could turn on a nickel and give ya some change.

The Cap’n took a firm grip on the reins and hollered “Whoa, Darby, whoa.” Well, you should have seen it! That horse put on the skids and pulled up short just two feet from the canyon floor. They glided safely down the rest of the way.

Teddy Roosevelt, mounted on a horse, speaking to John Hance
John Hance speaking to Teddy Roosevelt 

As the twentieth century approached, the South Rim of Grand Canyon saw increasing commercial development, with stagecoaches and railroads being built to take visitors traveling from across America and the world directly to the rim. His popularity increasing, Hance continued to lead visitors down into the canyon and he constructed a brand-new trail when rockslides and washouts finally made the Old Hance Trail impassable. His legend as a “windjammer” became such that some began to say: “To see the canyon only and not to see Capt’n John Hance, is to miss half the show!” The prestige of the old guide was such that when President Theodore Roosevelt came to Grand Canyon in 1903, it was John Hance who led his group down the trail. [4]

Hance leads entourage and Roosevelt on pack animals down the trail, 1903.

At the same time, large commercial entities were moving to the South Rim, supplanting Hance and other early pioneers and forcing them to give up their operations. Despite the competition, Hance continued to be a Grand Canyon fixture for a few more years, providing his services as a guide and storyteller to visitors for the Fred Harvey Company of concessionaires. Later, Hance served as the first postmaster for the Grand Canyon and he opened the first post office on the South Rim.

The grave marker of John Hance
‘Captain’ John Hance Marker as “First Locator” on Grand Canyon, Arizona

‘Captain’ John Hance died on January 8, 1919, at the approximate age of 84 (the plaque above says he was 80). However old he was, Hance’s death was mourned by many. Still others who heard him speak believe his spirit and his legacy are alive and well in the Grand Canyon today.

John Hance (1840 – January 8, 1919) is thought to be the first non-Native American resident of the Grand Canyon, US. He opened the first tourist trail in the canyon in the late nineteenth century. He started giving tours of the canyon after his attempts at mining asbestos failed, largely due to the expense of removing the asbestos from the canyon. ‘Captain’ John Hance was said to be one of the Grand Canyon’s most colorful characters. He delighted in telling canyon stories to visitors, favoring the whopper of a tale over mere facts. With a straight face, Hance told travelers how he had dug the canyon himself, piling the excavated earth down near Flagstaff (a dirt pile now known as the San Francisco Peaks). Despite such questionable claims, Hance left a lasting legacy at the Grand Canyon, dying in 1919, the year the Grand Canyon became a National Park. Hance was the first person buried in what would become the Grand Canyon Pioneer Cemetery. [1]


[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Hance. On a river trip down the Colorado River in July, 2021, our river guides pointed out the mine tailings and the circular mine entrance from the failed asbestos mine Hance had dug on the north rim, near Hance Rapid, which is named in his honor. Apparently, the costs of getting the asbestos from the mine and to the vendors on the rim, extended beyond the market value of the minerals in the mine. Onward, Cap’n!

Christmas Day with16 Miners at Hance Asbestos Mine, Grand Canyon

[2] http://www.ohranger.com/grand-canyon/john-hance

[3] John Hance, Grand Canyon’s Windjammer, Marshall Trimble, True West Blog. Hance was indeed a windjammer as his stories got more and more fanciful over the years. 

New Hance Trail, still in good shape after all these years.

[4] On our Colorado River trip we saw the trails after regular rock slides. We have a new appreciation for the rangers, workers, and trail menders in the Canyon. Their perpetual efforts keep the trails (particularly the Bright Angel and Kaibab Trail) well maintained and cared for, despite their heavy use. Hance was a prodigious trail blazer and he did a lot of the back-breaking work himself to create and maintain those early trails down from the South Rim. https://www.nps.gov/grca/learn/historyculture/john-hance.htm