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John Wesley Powell: Mapping the Colorado River

Originally published by American History magazine. Published Online: June 12, 2006 
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On my return from the first exploration of the canyons of Colorado,' wrote John Wesley Powell in a memoir published in 1895, 'I found that our journey had been the theme of much newspaper writing. A story of disaster had been circulated, with many particulars of hardship and tragedy, so that it was currently believed throughout the United States that all the members of the party were lost save one. A good friend of mine had gathered a great number of obituary notices, and it was interesting and rather flattering to me to discover the high esteem in which I had been held . . . .'

The notion that Powell and his party had met an unfortunate end during their 1869 expedition did not strain the imagination. They had, after all, undertaken what is now considered one of America's great adventure stories. The mighty Colorado River's course had, until then, been a mystery even to Native Americans of the region, a blank space on the best maps available. Powell's expeditions in 1869 and 1871-72 revealed the Colorado's secrets, as well as some of the most remarkable terrain–including the magnificent Grand Canyon–to be found anywhere on earth.

Wes, as he was known, was born on March 24, 1834, at Mount Morris, New York, to Joseph and Mary Dean Powell. The family traveled west, living first in Ohio and then in Wisconsin. Joseph, a tailor and lay preacher, intended that his son follow in the footsteps of his namesake, John Wesley, the Methodist minister. But while his father was off saving souls on the frontier, Wes's imagination was fired more by a neighbor versed in geology and natural history than by Joseph's religious tracts.

At age 16, Wes rejected his father's offer to educate him in the ministry, choosing instead to attend a school in Janesville, Wisconsin, twenty miles from home. He supplemented the school's disappointing curriculum with books on geometry, history, and geology, which he borrowed from a friend in the town.

When Reverend Powell sold the Wisconsin farm in 1851 and purchased 320 acres in Illinois, he ordered his son home to help break the new sod. Wes reluctantly complied, but a year later, he packed his clothes and books and left for Jefferson, Wisconsin, to teach in a one-room schoolhouse. In addition to instructing his students in the basic subjects, Wes led them on field trips to collect specimens and explain to them the geology of the area.

Finally, at the age of 21, Powell was able to pursue his education by enrolling in Illinois College at Jacksonville. Before beginning his studies, however, he ventured out on his first exploring expedition. In a small skiff, he rowed up the Mississippi River to St. Paul, Minnesota, where he sold the boat and set off on foot through the forests of Wisconsin and Michigan. His travels ended in Detroit, where he stopped to visit his mother's brother, Joseph Dean, and his family. Introduced to his 18-year-old cousin Emma, Wes soon found himself in love.

In 1858, Reverend Powell, accepting that his son was adamant in his refusal to study for the ministry, gave Wes the money to attend Oberlin College for a year. A teaching post in Hennepin, Illinois, followed, with Wes using the summer months to explore the Illinois and Des Moines rivers.

When the Civil War erupted in 1861, Powell joined the Union forces as a private, rising to lieutenant within one month, and then became a captain when he recruited a company of artillery. He married Emma in March 1862, and a few days later moved with his company into some of the bloodiest fighting of the war. At the Battle of Shiloh in Tennessee, a bullet ripped through Wes's right arm, which had to be amputated below the elbow.

But the Army needed every man, and Powell was soon reactivated, with special orders from General Ulysses S. Grant for Emma to accompany him. She was never far away when the newly promoted Major Powell returned to duty. On January 4, 1865, with a Union victory imminent and the pain from his wound constant, Wes requested and received an immediate disability discharge.

Taking a job at Illinois Wesleyan University, a Methodist college in Bloomington, Powell lectured on botany, cellular histology, physiology, zoology, geology, and mineralogy. A year later, he became professor of geology at the Illinois State Normal University in Normal.

In 1866, while secretary of the Illinois Natural History Society, Powell approached the state legislature for money to house and care for the society's collections. His skills as an orator and his aptitude as a negotiator gained for the Society $2,500 earmarked for the salary of a commissioner and curator and for buying needed books and equipment. In appreciation for his efforts, the Society named Powell curator.

Turning his oratorical skills onto the Society itself, Powell requested $500 to fund the exploration of the mountain-park country of Colorado. The journey, he told the Society, would provide its museum with fabulous natural specimens that would add significantly to its collections. The Society voted unanimously to underwrite Powell's trip with half of the money that the legislature had allocated for books and equipment.

With this backing, Powell traveled to Washington, D.C., where he asked the assistance of his friend and old commanding officer, General Grant, then temporarily acting as secretary of war. Grant signed an order allowing Powell's expedition to purchase rations at cost. Heading next to the Smithsonian Institution, Powell convinced its secretary, Dr. Joseph Henry, to provide all the scientific instruments needed for the undertaking in exchange for topographic measurements of the western mountain region.

Emboldened by his powers of persuasion, Powell visited several railroad companies, suggesting that they trade good publicity for free transportation for the men in his party. By the time he got back to Normal, Wes had passes worth $1,700, together with the understanding that his equipment and specimens would be shipped free of charge. He also had convinced the Illinois Industrial University (later the University of Illinois) and the Chicago Academy of Sciences to contribute money for scientific instruments in return for specimens collected along the way.

Accompanied by a band of amateur scientists, Powell finally set out in June 1867 to explore the mountains of Colorado. His Army career may have cost him an arm, but it also taught him how to handle men. Despite standing only five and a half feet tall, he possessed a presence that enabled him to lead men over the forbidding terrain. Emma, who again accompanied her husband, kept notes of the expedition, helped collect and catalog specimens, and became an expert on alpine plants.

Mrs. Powell and the rest of the party of flatlanders soon became familiar with the hazards of mountain climbing. In July 1867, she shared the party's triumph when she became the first woman to climb Pikes Peak. The views that rewarded the group's perseverance in reaching the 14,110-foot summit were more wonderful than had been imagined, with peak after glowing peak piercing the bluest of skies as far as the eye could see.

After this adventure, a grander scheme began to take shape in Powell's mind; he would conquer the mile-deep Grand Canyon of the Colorado River. He was undeterred by the Native American belief that the gods had purposely made the river impassable and that harm would befall anyone who tried to enter the canyon.

Once again Powell traveled to Washington, D.C., to secure financial assistance. Although unable to acquire as much money or as many supplies as he had for his first expedition, he did persuade the railroad and express companies once again to issue passes and to transport the equipment and supplies free of charge.

Powell's companions on the trip would be his brother, Walter; J. C. Sumner, an experienced traveler and hunter in the wilds of the Mississippi Valley and the Rocky Mountains; O. G. Howland, a printer, editor, and hunter; his brother, Seneca Howland; Billy Hawkins, an ex-Union soldier who traveled west after the war and who served as the expedition's cook; William Dunn, a hunter, trapper, and mule-packer in Colorado; an Englishman by the name of Frank Goodman, who had come west seeking adventure and who was a skilled boat handler; Andrew Hall, a husky, cheerful 19-year-old, already experienced in hunting, trapping, and fighting Indians; and G. Y. Bradley, a Union lieutenant during the Civil War and until recently an orderly sergeant in the regular army.

Three of the group's four boats–the Maid of the Canyon, Kitty Clyde's Sister, and the No Name–measured 21 feet in length, were built of oak, and were strengthened by bulkheads that divided each into three compartments, one of which was watertight. The fourth boat, the Emma Dean, a 16-foot, pine pilot boat, was lightweight, built for fast rowing, and also was divided into compartments.

The craft carried rations to last for ten months; tools; nails and screws; two sextants; four chronometers; an assortment of barometers, thermometers, and compasses; ample supplies of clothing; and several guns and large quantities of ammunition.

Powell and his party planned to travel first down the Green River to where it meets the Colorado, then proceed down that great river to the Grand Canyon. When several months of preparation for this next adventure were completed, he and his companions took to the water–with Powell in the Emma Dean–at Green River Station, Wyoming Territory, on May 24, 1869. No one knew how long it would be before they reached their destination in Arizona; the river's curves and twists made it impossible to estimate the length of the journey they were undertaking.

On June 9, at a canyon they named Lodore, Powell spotted rough water ahead and, intending to look for a way to set up lines and portage around the rapids, pulled his boat ashore. He signaled for the others to do the same, but the crew of the No Name failed to understand the signal and continued on ahead. Powell leaped onto a rock and gestured frantically for the men to pull the boat to shore. But it was too late. The little boat was already caught in the current. The Howland brothers and Goodman pulled furiously at the oars and the rear sweep that guided the boat, but to no avail.

The boat hung briefly at the head of the rapids before being swept in. Making it through the first falls, it roared on, then struck a boulder and heaved up at one end, tossing three men into the raging current. When the boat jammed against a rock, the men grabbed the gunwale and managed to climb back on board. But the current again caught the boat and tossed it down to the next series of rapids. Only the watertight compartment kept the small craft afloat. Roaring down the next set of falls, No Name slammed broadside into the rocks and broke in two.

Meanwhile, Powell and the others, watching in horror as their three comrades disappeared into the foam, scrambled down around the bend. To their relief, they saw O. G. Howland, who had made it to a sandy bar, extending a pole to Goodman, who clung to a rock near the shore. Finally able to grab on, Goodman was hauled from the water. Farther downstream, Seneca Howland, although battered by his experience, had also managed to pull himself to safety.

Lost, along with the boat, were the men's clothes, guns, and belongings, as well as a large store of provisions and, most distressing of all, the barometers, which foolishly had all been stored together. Without these instruments, it would be impossible to determine the altitude of the mountains through which the party would pass.

Determined to recover the lost barometers, Powell set off the next day to search for the wreck, which he found only fifty or sixty feet from their camp. Sumner and Dunn volunteered to retrieve the instruments and whatever was left of the provisions. The watertight compartment had been smashed, but the men were able to bring back the barometers, a package of thermometers, and a three-gallon keg of whiskey that had been taken aboard without Powell's knowledge. That night the bruised and tired explorers made good use of the keg.

It took days to portage past these rapids. The craggy shore offered no good place to camp, nor protection from the river's constant spray. In addition to being tired and wet, the men had to endure clothing full of sand carried by the spray and food that had begun to spoil.

About a week after the loss of the No Name, another accident occurred that nearly finished the expedition. While portaging around another set of rapids, the Maid of the Canyon broke free of the ropes and went hurtling out of sight into the mist. The loss of this boat would mean that the two remaining would be overloaded, and the party could not survive the loss of this second boatload of provisions.

Luck was with them, however. The men, gripped with despair as they raced down the shore, soon were shouting triumphantly at the sight of the boat whirling upright and unharmed in an eddy. They snagged her in and continued on, emerging finally in a park-like area where the Yampa River flows into the Green. There they camped on a grassy spot to take stock and to rest after their ordeal. Hawkins killed a buck, which provided the men with the first fresh meat they had eaten since the start of their journey.

On June 28, Powell and his party reached the mouth of the Uinta River, in Utah. From here, they were able at last to communicate with the outside world. Frank Powell and Andy Hall went to the Uinta Agency, thirty miles away, to dispatch letters from the men and to collect any mail that had arrived there for them. Goodman, the adventure-seeking Englishman, announced that he 'has seen danger enough' and was leaving the party.

When Powell and Hall returned, the rest of the expedition moved on, up barrier canyons, over unexpected rapids, and down rushing waterways, assigning names to each feature as they passed it. Each of the names they chose told a story–the Canyon of Desolation, Dirty Devil River, Sumner's Amphitheater, Gray Canyon, Stillwater Canyon, Whirlpool Canyon, and Bright Angel Creek–and many remain on maps to this day.

Always, Major Powell stood on the prow of the Emma Dean, trying to peer around the corners of blind canyons. At every stop, he investigated the geological formations and collected shells to ship back to his mentors. On one occasion, the one-armed explorer climbed a cliff to peer downriver. Near the top, he suddenly found that he could proceed neither up nor down. 'I find,' he wrote, 'I can get up no farther and cannot step back, for I dare not let go with my hand and cannot reach foothold below without.'

Having found a way to climb to a flat rock above Powell, Bradley could see the major's toeholds weakening. With no time to run back to the boats for a rope and no stick or tree limb to pass down to Powell, Bradley took off his trousers and lowered them toward the man marooned on the cliff below. Powell could just barely reach the trouser leg as it brushed his hand: 'I hug close to the rock, let go with my hand, seize the dangling legs, and with [Bradley's] assistance am enabled to gain the top.'

While all this was going on, the nation's newspapers anxiously awaited news of the expedition. As the weeks passed without word of its progress, stories began to surface about the fate of the explorers. On July 2, the Omaha Republican reported that a disaster had befallen the Powell party. A trapper, the paper said, claimed that, while at Fort Bridger, he met Sumner, who told him that he had watched helplessly from the shore as all four boats went over a 12-foot-high waterfall and were destroyed in the rapids below.

The story swept eastward and soon appeared in the Chicago Tribune and other Illinois newspapers. A man named John A. Risdon claimed to be the only survivor of the Powell expedition. He recounted the disaster of May 8, when the expedition had been lost, and his own desperate struggle to find his way out to civilization.

This brought a letter to the Detroit Free Press from Emma Powell accusing Risdon of being a liar. No such person had been with her husband's party, she stated. Moreover, she had received letters from her husband dated May 22, two days before the departure from Green River. Despite her refutation, the story flourished in midwestern and eastern newspapers. Risdon was feted and given free accommodations in return for his tearful rendition of the demise of his comrades.

Then the Rocky Mountain News ran two letters, both written in June, from its former editorial employee, O. G. Howland. Finally, the Chicago Tribune printed a letter from Major Powell himself, in which he recounted how the party had come down the Green River, passed through all the canyons previously considered impassable, and camped in the Uinta Valley of Utah. Newspapers all over the country eagerly printed the good news.

Although the expedition had traveled that far safely, much danger still lay ahead. As they made their way down the Colorado, Powell, from his vantage point on the Emma Dean's prow, would peer ahead, wary of the sound of water rushing over a falls. Whenever he sensed danger, Powell would call to his oarsmen to pull the pilot boat over and would motion the others to do the same. Once ashore, he would climb a cliff to evaluate the degree of difficulty they would face. If the falls seemed impassable, the men would lower each boat down with ropes tied fore and aft. As laborious as this task was, it was considerably safer than letting the boats careen over the rocky falls to become caught in the current below.

For the majority of the men, only the occasional exhilaration of running the rapids relieved the monotony of endless days on the river. But to Powell, every moment was exhilarating. His diary describes in poetic detail, the colors of the rocks, the magnificence of the cliffs, and the majesty of the waterway itself.

By July 18, the men rested before undertaking the most harrowing part of the journey. The glassy granite canyon walls would soon squeeze ever closer to the turbulent river. In some areas, cliffs overhung the water, threatening to decapitate a man if his boat slid under the jagged rock. And, from here on, maps were useless; mapmakers had merely guessed at the points where rivers poured into the canyons.

The boats left the Green River on July 21, and headed down the Colorado. As they navigated the wide, deep, cocoa-colored river, they passed canyon walls that reached almost 1,500 feet in height. The rapids they had encountered so far, though they seemed fearsome at the time, were trifling by comparison. Portaging too was more dangerous; often there were no footholds, no way to line the boats down. Boats had to be unloaded and carried through boulders and talus in 120o temperatures on some days, chilling rains on others.

But with each passing day, the scenery became more and more magnificent: Powell noted in his diary for August 9 that 'The walls of the canyon… are of marble, of many beautiful colors, often polished by the waves, and sometimes far up the sides, where showers have washed the sands over the cliffs… '

A moving entry in his diary on August 13 recorded that 'We are now ready to start on our way down the Great Unknown. Our boats, tied to a common stake, chafe each other as they are tossed by the fretful river… We have but a month's rations remaining. The flour has been resifted through the mosquito-net sieve; the spoiled bacon has been dried and the worst of it boiled… We have an unknown distance yet to run, an unknown river to explore. What falls there are, we know not; what rocks beset the channel, we know not; what walls rise over the river, we known not. Ah, well! we may conjecture many things.'

Two weeks later, mutiny threatened as the bone-weary men faced mile-high cliffs, short rations, and rushing water. Powell wrote in his diary that Captain Howland sought 'to remonstrate against my determination to proceed. He thinks that we had better abandon the river here… [H]e, his brother, and William Dunn have determined to go no farther in the boats.'

Powell spent the night thinking, recalculating the distance ahead, the amount of rations remaining, and the chances of getting through the desert if they did succeed in climbing out of the canyon. Desperately wanting to continue the expedition, he woke the others one by one to ask if they would stay or go. His brother Walter agreed to stay, as did Billy Hawkins, Andy Hall, Sumner, and Bradley. At breakfast, knowing there were some who would stay, he put the choice to the whole group. O. G. Howland and Dunn were adamant in wanting to leave. Seneca Howland tried to persuade them to stay, but finally agreed to go out with them.

The party named the point of the trio's departure 'Separation Rapid.' Powell gave them guns and offered them part of the miserable rations, which they refused. With a solemn parting, the group broke in two, never to see each other again.

Before moving on, Powell decided to leave the Emma Dean behind. The boat had taken such a beating in the rapids that it was no longer watertight. Besides, there were now fewer men to handle the oars and few supplies left to be carried.

The trip at this point was no longer the'scientific' expedition Powell had intended. All of the instruments had been lost or broken, or had been left behind with the fossils and minerals they had collected. Yet, if they succeeded in making it through the granite-walled rush of water, they would have accomplished something no others had.

So down they went, fighting the rapids, sleeping at night in wet clothing on ledges so narrow that to roll over might mean plunging into the thundering river below. Finally, on August 29, some 13 weeks and 900 miles from the start of their journey, they drifted out from between the Grand Wash cliffs of the Grand Canyon to rolling, mountainous country. Elated, Powell wrote: 'The river rolls by us in silent majesty; the quiet of the camp is sweet; our joy is almost ecstasy. We sit till long after midnight talking of the Grand Canyon, talking of home… '

Two days later, the bedraggled, starving group came to a wide spot in the river. There they saw three white men–Mr. Asa and his two sons–and an Indian hauling a seine. The white men were Mormons sent to the river by Brigham Young to look for debris that could have come from the Powell party, now reported as having been lost weeks ago.

The Indian was immediately dispatched to the Mormon town of St. Thomas to fetch any letters that might be waiting for members of the expedition. The news of the party's survival brought a wagon filled with food–bread, butter, cheese, melons–for the explorers. And the telegraph wires hummed with the news that the party was not only safe, but had indeed conquered the Colorado River.

The intrepid group soon disbanded. Sumner, Bradley, Hawkins, and Hall continued down the Colorado in the boats. Their aim was to travel to Fort Mojave, and then possibly continue overland from there to Los Angeles. Major Powell and his brother headed for St. Thomas, on their way to Salt Lake City. They inquired repeatedly about the three who had left the group at Separation Rapid.

When the news finally came, it was not good. The Howland brothers and Dunn had made it up out of the canyon to the top of the plateau, but no farther. A party of Shivwit Indians, mistaking them for another group of white men who had murdered one of their women, killed all three.

When Powell reached Salt Lake City in September, newspaper reporters were there to greet him and hear his account of the fantastic adventure. Back in Normal, a hero's welcome awaited him. A flurry of lecture invitations and receptions engulfed Powell for a while, but then he began making plans for a second trip down the Colorado River.

Much of the data of the early part of the 1869 trip had been lost along the way, and during the latter part, the party had been more concerned with survival than with science. Powell knew that in order to accomplish his original purpose, he must undertake the trip again. This time, he would be fortified by knowledge instead of folklore; knew that he could not carry provisions for the entire trip, but instead should store caches of goods at points along the way; and planned to devote two or three years to the expedition.

Interaction with the Native Americans in the West was precarious in those years, and Powell wanted to make sure that he would enjoy good relationships with any whom he encountered. To this end, he visited Indian camps, learning their languages and their lore.

In May 1871–financed by a small congressional appropriation–the second Powell expedition rolled down the river toward the Grand Canyon. Wanting to be more comfortable this time, Powell acquired a sturdy armchair and had it tied to the middle bulkhead of the pilot boat. From this perch, he could watch the river ahead.

In addition to a brand new crew, Powell was accompanied by a photographer and an artist. This genuine scientific expedition would fill in the blanks left in the records of the previous trip.

When the journey, which was much less nerve-wracking than the first, was completed to his satisfaction, Powell went to Washington and fought for a single agency to sponsor the scattered explorations of the West that had been going on for some time. He brought earlier studies of America's indigenous people together; started a systematic study of Indian life; and published a series of pamphlets on their vocabularies, mortuary customs, sign language, medical practices, tribal governments, and mythology. His interest in the American Indian and his records of their ceremonies, culture, and folklore contributed toward the establishment in 1879 of the Bureau of American Ethnology, with Powell as its first director. He also helped to found the United States Geographical and Geological Survey, serving as its director from 1881 to 1894.

By his death in 1902 at the age of 68, Powell had become a leading authority on the American West–a distinguished geologist, scientist, and ethnologist, as well as the man who directed the path of development of the immense semiarid area of the country. But with all his achievements, he is still primarily remembered as an adventurer who explored and conquered the last unknown region within the continental United States.

This article was written by Carolyn J. Hursch and originally published in June 2000 issue of American History Magazine.

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2 Responses to “John Wesley Powell: Mapping the Colorado River”


  1. 1
    Bernita says:

    The spirit of adventure is what I will take from this article of John Wesley Powell, and the expedition that keep our young country on the edge of their seats. I felt as if I was for the first time going down the Colorado River experiencing every trial and victory.

  2. 2

    [...] Memory Day nominee: John Wesley Powell, the Civil War veteran, college professor, and Western explorer whose contributions to our national awareness of and respect for our natural treasures and resources was second only to [...]



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