John Wesley Powell lost his right arm at Shiloh in the Civil War, but that didn’t affect his ambition. Self-schooled in geology and native cultures, he launched an expedition in 1869 to explore the canyon lands of Colorado. He set off with nine men and four boats on a three-month trip that covered more than 1,500 miles. Only six men, including Powell’s brother, Walter, and two boats made it to journey’s end near St. George, Utah. In 1875, Powell published an account of his explorations. This passage takes place in the deep chasm of the Grand Canyon, where the men brave food shortages, terrifying rapids and a quiet mutiny.
AUGUST 26— The canyon walls are steadily higher as we advance. They are bold, and nearly vertical up to the terrace. We have seen no evidence that the tribe of Indians inhabiting the plateaus on either side ever come down to the river; but about 11 o’clock today we discover an Indian garden, at the foot of the wall. Along the valley, the Indians have planted corn, using the water which burst out in spring at the foot of the cliff, for irrigation. The corn is not sufficiently advanced to give us roasting ears; but there are some nice, green squashes. We carry ten or a dozen of these on board our boats, and hurriedly leave, not willing to be caught in the robbery, yet excusing ourselves by pleading our great want.
AUGUST 27— About 11 o’clock we come to a place in the river where it seems much worse than any we have yet met. A little creek comes down from the left. We clamber up over the granite pinnacles, but can see no way by which we can let down, and to run it would be sure destruction. In my eagerness to reach a point where I can see the roaring fall below, I go too far on the wall, and can neither advance nor retreat. I stand with one foot on a little projecting rock, and cling with my hand fixed in a little crevice. Finding I am caught here, suspended 400 feet above the river, I call for help. The men come, and pass me a line, but I cannot let go of the rock long enough to take hold of it. Then they bring two or three of the largest oars. The blade of one of the oars is pushed into a little crevice in the rock beyond me, in such a manner that they can hold me pressed against the wall. Then another is fixed in such a way that I can step on it, and thus I am extricated.
I decide that it is possible to let down over the first fall, then run near the right cliff to a point just above the second, where we can pull out into a little chute, and, having run over that in safety, we must pull with all our power across the stream, to avoid the great rock below. On my return to the boat, I announce to the men that we are to run it in the morning. After supper Captain Howland asks to have a talk with me. I learn that his brother, William Dunn, and himself have determined to go no farther in the boats. So we return to camp. Nothing is said to the other men.
For the last two days, our course has not been plotted. I sit down and do this now, for the purpose of finding where we are. We must be about forty-five miles from the mouth of the Rio Virgen. If we can reach that point, we know that there are settlements up that river about twenty miles.
All night long, I pace up and down a little path, on a few yards of sand beach. Is it wise to go on? I go to the boats again, to look at our rations. I feel satisfied that we can get over the danger immediately before us; what there may be below I know not. From our outlook yesterday, on the cliffs, the canyon seemed to make another great bend to the south, and this, from our experience heretofore, means more and higher granite walls. I am not sure that we can climb out of the canyon here, and, when at the top of the wall, I know enough of the country to be certain that it is a desert of rock and sand, between this and the nearest Mormon town, which, on the most direct line, must be seventy-five miles away. For years I have been contemplating this trip. To leave the exploration unfinished, to say that there is a part of the canyon which I cannot explore, having already almost accomplished it, is more than I am willing to acknowledge, and I determine to go on.
AUGUST 28— At last daylight comes, and we have breakfast, without a word being said about the future. The meal is as solemn as a funeral. I ask the three men if they still think it best to leave us. The elder Howland thinks it is, and Dunn agrees with him. Two rifles and a shotgun are given to the men who are going out. I ask them to help themselves to the rations, and take what they think to be a fair share. This they refuse to do, saying they have no fear but that they can get something to eat.
The three men help us lift our boats over a rock twenty-five or thirty feet high, and then down again over the first fall, and now we are all ready to start. The last thing before leaving, I write a letter to my wife, and give it to Howland. Sumner gives me his watch, directing that it be sent to his sister, should he not be heard from again. The records of the expedition have been kept in duplicate. One set of these is given to Howland. For the last time, they entreat us not to go on, and tell us that it is madness to set out in this place; that we can never get safely through it. It is rather solemn parting; each party thinks the other is taking the dangerous course.
And now we have a succession of rapids and falls until noon. All of which we run in safety. Just after dinner we come to another bad place. There is a bed of basalt on this northern side of the canyon, with a bold escarpment, that seems to be a hundred feet high. We can climb it, and walk along its summit to a point where we are just at the head of the fall. I direct the men to take a line to the top of the cliff, and let the boats down along the wall. One man remains in the boat, to keep her clear of the rocks. I climb the cliff, and find that the break of the fall is above the break of the wall, so that we cannot land; and that still below the river is very bad, and that there is no possibility of a portage. Without waiting further to determine what shall be done, I hasten back to the top of the cliff, to stop the boats from coming down. When I arrive, I find the men have let one of them down. She is in swift water, and they are not able to pull her back. Bradley is standing in the open compartment, holding out his oar to prevent her from striking against the foot of the cliff. Now she shoots out into the stream, and then, wheeling, drives headlong against the rock, then out and back again, now straining on the line, now striking against the rock. He does not see that we are passing [a] line to him. I stand on a projecting rock, waving my hat, for my voice is drowned by the roaring of the falls. Just at this moment, I see him take his knife from its sheath, and step forward to cut the line. The boat sheers again into the stream, the stem post breaks away, and she is loose. With perfect composure Bradley seizes the great scull oar, places it in the stern rowlock, and pulls with all his power, for he wishes to go bow down, rather than to drift broadside on. One, two strokes he makes, and a third just as she goes over, and the boat is fairly turned, and she goes down almost beyond our sight, though we are more than a hundred feet above the river. Then she comes up again, on a great wave, and down and up, then around behind some great rocks, and is lost in the mad, white foam below.
We stand frozen with fear, for we see no boat. Bradley is gone, so it seems. But now, away below, we see something coming out of the waves. It is evidently a boat. A moment more, and we see Bradley standing on deck, swinging his hat to show that he is all right. Rhodes, Hall, and myself run to the other boat, jump aboard, push out, and away we go over the falls. A wave rolls over us, and our boat is unmanageable. Another great wave strikes us, the boat rolls over, and tumbles and tosses. We soon have all right again, and row to the cliff.
AUGUST 29— Tonight we camp on the left bank. The relief from danger, and the joy of success, are great. When he who has been chained by wounds to a hospital cot, until his canvas tent seems like a dungeon cell, until the groans of those who lie about, tortured with probe and knife, are piled up, a weight of horror on his ears that he cannot throw off, cannot forget, and until the stench of festering wounds and anesthetic drugs has filled the air with its loathsome burthern, at last goes out into the open field, what a world he sees! How beautiful the sky; how bright the sunshine; what “floods of delirious music” pour from the throats of birds; how sweet the fragrance of the earth, and tree, and blossom.
Something like this are the feelings we experience tonight. Ever before us has been an unknown danger, heavier than immediate peril. Every waking hour passed in the Grand Canyon has been one of toil. We have watched with deep solicitude the steady disappearance of our scant supply of rations.
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, but chiefly talking of the three men who left us. Are they wandering in those depths, unable to find a way out? Are they searching over the desert lands above for water? Or are they nearing the settlements?
Originally published in the April 2012 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.