There is evidence of the crater being referenced by Native Americans in the area, however, a man named Franklin, who served as a scout for General Custer, wrote the first report of the crater in 1871. For years the crater was referred to as Franklin’s Hole. Later, local settlers named it Coon Butte, and it was thought to be just another extinct volcano, possibly part of the Hopi Buttes volcanic field located in the northeast. In 1886, a sheepherder found iron-nickel meteorites in the area. Believing them to be silver he did not report his findings until 1891. Eventually, such discoveries led to the suggestion that the crater was a result of a giant meteor impact.
During that year, the chief geologist of the United States Geological Survey, G.K. Gilbert briefly visited and explored the crater. He had earlier correctly concluded that the bulk of the craters on the moon were formed by impacts. However, he interpreted the field evidence at Meteor Crater incorrectly and concluded it had volcanic origin. Although this idea held fast for the next two decades, a major change in scientific thinking was about to occur.
In 1902, Daniel Moreau Barringer, a Philadelphia mining engineer, became interested in the site as a potential source for mining iron. He later visited the crater and was convinced that it had been formed by the impact of a large iron meteorite. He further assumed that this body was buried beneath the crater floor. Barringer formed the Standard Iron Company and had four placer mining claims filed with the Federal Government, thus obtaining the patents and ownership of the two square miles containing the crater. This was ten years before Arizona became the 48th state.
In 1903, Barringer came to meteor crater and spent the next twenty-six years attempting to find what he believed would be a giant iron meteorite. His work and scientific research were carried on with great perseverance and bitter disappointment. Since the crater is roughly circular, it was natural at that time to assume that the body that formed it lay beneath its center. Consequently, the first shaft was started where the low, white mounds of pulverized Coconino sandstone can still be seen on the crater floor. A few small meteoritic fragments were reported in the shaft, but unfortunately, the pulverized sandstone beneath the water table turned to quicksand and prevented mining to a depth where the main body was supposed to lie.
After the initial exploration, Barringer conducted some simple experiments and discovered that a rifle bullet fired into thick mud, even at a low angle, generally produces a circular hole. This was an important clue- could the meteorite have penetrated at an angle and is buried off center? Looking at the south crater wall you will see as did Barringer, that the rock is noticeably uplifted. Sandstone and limestone beds, which once were deeply buried, are now more than 250 feet above their pre-impact levels; in fact, they are higher than anywhere else in the crater.
This observation, coupled with the fact that many meteorite fragments had been found on the northeast side of the crater, led Barringer to conclude that the mass had come in at an angle from that direction and buried itself beneath the south rim of the crater.