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John Wesley Powell’s Colorado River Exploring Expedition completed its rapids-defying Grand Canyon passage 140 years ago, but the disappearance of three members remains a mystery.

The explorers were in rough shape on August 27, 1869, when they reached the rapid where Precambrian Vishnu schist flanked the lowest thousand feet of the twisting, mile-deep canyon wall. The nine exhausted men knew from hard experience that the dense black rock meant trouble, though the immense rapid marking its reappearance made that clear enough. While scouting the rapid, their one-armed leader, Major John Wesley Powell, again got himself “rimmed”—a bad omen. Four hundred feet above the torrent he stepped too far out on a ledge and could “neither advance nor retreat.” The men dropped him a rope, but he could “not let go of the rock long enough to take hold of it.” Finally, they had to haul up two of the largest oars, pinning him against the wall with one and creating a foothold with the other to extricate him. Earlier in the journey, desert rains had soaked the party for almost three weeks. Ten days prior they had thrown away the last of their spoiled bacon, and even the major confided in his journal they might have to give up. Now the flour, dried apples and tobacco were running out. The good news? They still had plenty of coffee.

Powell and his small crew had begun the private Colorado River Exploring Expedition on May 24 with four boats and little fanfare. The energetic Civil War veteran sought to determine the course of the Colorado River. Postwar government maps of the river’s course through Utah and Arizona contained a great blank space some 500 miles long and 150 miles wide marked “Unknown Territory.” It may as well have been marked with a dragon. After all, medieval cartographers had marked such voids on their maps with the mythical beasts and the Latin phrase Hic sunt dracones (“Here be dragons”).

In 1859 difficult terrain had prevented topographical engineer Captain John Macomb from finding the confluence of the Green and Grand rivers, and no man (except Indians and perhaps French trapper Denis Julien in 1836) had yet visited the spot where the two rivers became the Colorado. Now it was Powell’s turn to do that and far more. But just over three months into his grand adventure, it became clear that before he could slay the Colorado River dragon, he would have to weather not only the rapids but also a vote of no confidence. The latter would lead to an enduring and controversial mystery, though nothing that detracts from Powell’s 1869 milestone or his ranking as one of the great 19th-century explorers.

At noon on August 27, the three remaining battered boats (one had been lost back in June) came to “the worst rappid [sic] yet seen,” according to George Young Bradley, a hardy expedition member who had taken a bullet in the thigh during the Union Army’s frontal assault on the entrenched Confederate Army line at Fredericksburg. “The water dashes against the left bank and then is thrown furiously back against the right. The billows are huge, and I fear our boats could not ride them if we could keep them off the rocks. The spectical [sic] is appalling to us.”

The prospect left several men shaken. “There is discontent in camp tonight,” wrote Bradley, “and I fear some of the party will take to the mountains but hope not. This is decidedly the darkest day of the trip, but I don’t dispair [sic] yet.”

For Oramel Howland, however, the sight of this next rapid was enough. After supper he quietly took Powell aside and tried to persuade him “we had better abandon the river here.” The men had encountered countless terrifying challenges on their venture into the Unknown Territory, but now they could not see far enough downriver to tell whether the torrential rapid ended in a waterfall that would drown them all or a sheer-walled gorge that would trap them in the canyon’s depths. A thought Powell had recorded two weeks earlier now resonated: “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 know not.”

Unable to persuade his leader and friend to abandon his dream, Howland told the major that he, his younger brother Seneca, and William Dunn had “determined to go no farther in the boats.” On returning to camp, neither Howland nor Powell spoke of their discussion.

That night, using a sextant and dead reckoning, Powell tried to fix the party’s location. He then woke up Howland and plotted his calculations on the sand, showing they were about 45 miles as the crow flies from the mouth of the Virgin River and safety. “If we can reach that point, we know that there are settlements up that river about 20 miles,” he explained, admitting the actual distance might be 90 miles on the meandering river. Howland listened but apparently said nothing. The major spent the rest of the night pacing the few yards of open sand, wondering if Howland was right. “I feel satisfied that we can get over the danger immediately before us; what there may be below, I know not,” he admitted. The canyon seemed to turn south, which meant “more and higher granite walls”—and perhaps more trouble than his men could survive. But Powell was no quitter. “To leave the exploration unfinished,” he wrote, “to say that there is a part of the canyon which I cannot explore, having already nearly accomplished it, is more than I am willing to acknowledge, and I determine to go on.” The major woke his brother Walter, who promised to remain. So did the other four men.

No one said a word during their miserable breakfast of flour and coffee on August 28. The meal was “as solemn as a funeral,” the major wrote. When they finished, he asked the Howlands and Dunn if they were still determined to leave. Seneca, who had been wounded at Gettysburg, tried to persuade his older brother to press on, but failing that agreed to leave with him. The major gave them two rifles, a shotgun and ammunition, and told them to help themselves to rations. “This they refuse to do, saying they have no fear but that they can get something to eat,” the major wrote, but Billy Hawkins, the cook, left a pan of rolled biscuit dough for them on a rock.

The three men helped their friends lift two boats over a boulder past the first cascade. The major gave Oramel Howland a letter to his wife and partial copies of the expedition’s records. Jack Sumner handed him a silver watch and asked Howland to send it to his sister should he fail to return. “For the last time they entreat us not to go on and tell us that it is madness to set out in this place,” the major recalled. Howland reportedly “begged them not to go on down the river, assuring them that a few miles more of such river as that now ahead of them would consume the last of the scant rations and then it would be too late to try to escape,” Fred Dellenbaugh recalled years later. “They left us with good feelings, though we deeply regret their loss,” George Bradley wrote, “for they are as fine fellows as I ever had the good fortune to meet.”

Powell abandoned his battered light boat, Emma Dean, and he and his five remaining men “got into the two large boats and dashed out into the boiling tide with all the courage we could muster.” The Howland brothers and Dunn watched from a cliff as their former companions made it through the first rapid. They did not, as Powell hoped, reconsider and follow in Emma Dean. Instead, the trio left Separation Rapid below and began the long, hard climb out of the canyon in hopes of reaching the Mormon settlements some 75 desert miles away. Jack Sumner was “positive I saw some years afterwards the silver watch” entrusted to Oramel Howland. But aside from this vague recollection, all three men and their belongings seemingly vanished.

In the summer of 1868, journalist Samuel Bowles (perhaps the secret love who inspired poet Emily Dickinson to write “Wild Nights,” her ode to passion) met John Wesley Powell during the major’s preliminary survey of the country west of the Colorado Rockies. Bowles broke the news that Powell intended “to explore the upper Colorado River and solve the mysteries of its 300-mile canyon.” He asked a hard question: “Is any other nation so ignorant of itself?” All that was known about the Colorado was that for hundreds of miles it cut through a deep canyon “up which no one can climb, down which no one can safely go, and between which in the river, rapids and falls and furious eddies render passage frightful, certainly dangerous, possibly impossible.” The only thing he could report with certainty was the belief among the border population that whoever dared “venture into this canyon will never come out alive.”

The transcontinental railroad had been in operation just two weeks when Major Powell and his men pushed off at Green River, Wyoming Territory, on May 24, 1869. Powell had assembled a remarkable party of frontiersmen, most of them fellow Civil War veterans, to accompany him down the River of the West. John Wesley and brother Walter had arrived only three days earlier, but most of the others—trappers J.C. “Jack” Sumner, Bill Dunn, Andy Hall, the Howland brothers and bullwhacker and now cook Billy Hawkins—had spent weeks of “weary, useless waiting,” Sumner reported, “[trying] to drink all the whiskey there was in town. The result was a failure, as Jake Fields persisted in making it faster than we could drink it.” Powell had helped George Bradley, whom Sumner described as “tough as a badger,” get a discharge from the army, a favor for which Bradley said he “would be willing to explore the River Styx.” English adventurer Frank Goodman rounded out the party but ditched three weeks into the expedition at the Uintah Valley. “I’ve had more excitement that a man deserves in a lifetime,” he told Powell. “I’m leaving.”

The men had loaded 10 months’ provisions and their scientific equipment (basically sextants and barometers) into the watertight compartments of their “stanch and firm” boats, custom built in Chicago by Thomas Bagley. Three were heavy 21-foot oak freight boats, while the pine-built Emma Dean, named for the major’s wife, was 5 feet shorter and much lighter. “With a sharp cutwater, and every way built for fast rowing,” as Powell described it, Emma Dean served as his flagship. The Stars and Stripes flapped proudly from its prow as the hungover men of the Colorado River Exploring Expedition cast off at 2 p.m. on the 24th to the cheers of a small crowd. In the swift spring current, the flotilla quickly disappeared amid the high bluffs of the Green River Gorge.

“We knew nothing about a boat,” Billy Hawkins admitted. The heavily loaded boats rode so low in the water it took the utmost care to prevent shipping water even in a mild current. Only a mile or two below town, the men ran aground and broke an oar trying to avoid a rock; two went overboard in the confusion. None of them were boatmen. The closest most had been to whitewater was when they had peered over the rim of the Yampa River the previous summer and seen rapids.

The Colorado was itself “almost unknown,” Powell wrote. “Yet enough had been seen in the earlier days to foment rumor, and many wonderful stories were told in the hunter’s cabin and prospector’s camp—stories of parties…being carried down with fearful velocity into whirlpools, where all were overwhelmed in the abyss of waters, and stories of underground passages for the great river into which boats had passed never to be seen again. It was currently believed that the river was lost under the rocks for several hundred miles. There were other accounts of great falls, whose roaring music could be heard on the distant mountain summits.” If the Green or Colorado had falls like the ones on the Yellowstone, it would mark the end of the expedition.

On July 2, 1869, five weeks after the explorers set out, the Omaha Republican reported that “the Napoleonic Major, with his brave band of faithful companions” had “entered death’s portals—the awful, treacherous portals of Hell’s Gate …[and] died as they had lived—heroes all.” Not to be outdone, the following day the Chicago Tribune trumpeted the headlines: FEARFUL DISASTER / REPORTED LOSS OF THE POWELL EXPLORING EXPEDITION CONFIRMED / TWENTY-ONE MEN ENGULFED IN A MOMENT. Even Illinois Governor John Palmer bought the story, which was all the work of a horse thief named John A. Risdon (alias Miller, alias Clark).

By early July, the explorers were actually camped at the mouth of the Uintah River, about 175 river miles from the railroad, exploring the valley and recovering from a series of harrowing adventures. They had lost one heavy boat and a third of their provisions on June 9 in the Canyon of Lodore at the rapid now named Disaster Falls. Though they lacked the most basic skills of modern experts, by the time they reached the Grand Canyon, the men had learned something about whitewater boating. They devised a cautious strategy of either portaging around rapids or “lining” the boats through them with ropes. But they still faced a daunting challenge. Wallace Stegner described the Colorado gorge as “an almost continuous string of canyons more than a thousand miles long, with walls anywhere from a few hundred feet to 6,000 feet high, with few points of access or escape, with only an empty, blistered, uninhabited and unvisited wilderness for scores or hundreds of miles on both sides of the river.”

What happened to the Howland brothers and William Dunn after they left the river on  August 28, 1869? In 1931 three young men searching for a friend’s body wrecked their boat at Separation Rapid and climbed out, ascending Separation Canyon to three forks. Two forks proved impassible, but the east fork allowed an easy ascent to the Shivwits Plateau. They found water at Kelly Tanks and hiked back to civilization, proving such an egress possible. In 1978 Michael Belshaw and three men retraced the most likely 1869 escape route and found the inscriptions DUNN, 1869 and WATER with an arrow pointing north on volcanic rock atop Mount Dellenbaugh, which provides a sweeping view of the terrain. If authentic (many experts have their doubts), it proves the three men made it at least that far. If they did follow the arrow, they would have found plenty of water at Log Spring. What happened next is a matter of speculation.

The three men Powell supporters later damned as “deserters” had no way of knowing it, but they had made the wrong bet. Back on the Colorado, the expedition now faced “a race for life,” as George Bradley put it, as the increasingly fierce river compelled the men to run the rapids straight on. Ironically, they emerged from the depths of the Grand Canyon only 24 hours after the Howlands and Dunn left. Two days after the drama at Separation Rapid, the voyagers encountered Mormon settlers. They were dragging the river for the bodies of the explorers, long presumed dead.

On the morning of September 1, the party split, with Sumner, Bradley, Hawkins and Hall continuing down the Colorado, while John and Walter Powell headed for the Mormon settlements. As the brothers trekked toward Salt Lake, on September 8 the Deseret News, the newspaper of the Church of Latter-day Saints, broke a startling story. Five days earlier, a “friendly Indian” claimed, three men had approached “peaceable Indians of the Shebett [Shivwits] tribe very hungry.” The Paiute band fed the men and put them on the trail to the settlements. “On their journey, they saw a squaw gathering seed and shot her; whereupon they were followed by three Shebetts and killed,” the paper claimed. “A friendly Indian has been sent out to secure their papers.” Rumors later added rape to the charges against the dead explorers.

John Wesley Powell had mixed emotions about the men who had abandoned his expedition, but he dismissed the charges in the story. The peaceful Shivwits were unlikely avengers, and the major knew Oramel Howland was no killer. “I have no hesitation in pronouncing this part of the story as a libel,” he said. But while Powell defended his dead comrades’ honor, he did little to investigate what had happened to them, even after Mormon authorities reported finding their lifeless bodies. Powell knew “bad feelings, not bad water, was the real cause of their separation,” author Don Worster observed. “Although publicly he would say nothing harsh against them, he was manifestly not torn with anguish about their fate.”

A year later, when Powell returned to southern Utah to study its geography and Indians, he learned more about the reported murders. His guide, the noted Mormon scout Jacob Hamblin, spoke Paiute well and was respected by Indians in the region. The two men held a council with several Shivwits. “Last year we killed three white men,” a chief confessed, calling it a case of mistaken identify. “Bad men said they were our enemies” who had killed a woman south of the Grand Canyon. The Paiutes “followed, surrounded the men in ambush, and filled them full of arrows,” he admitted. “We are very sorry. Do not think of them, it is done; let us be friends.” The major accepted the offer.

“That night I slept in peace,” wrote Powell, “although these murderers of my men, and their friends, the U-in-ka-rets, were sleeping not 500 yards away.”

For more than a century, historians and biographers accepted Powell’s account at face value, though expedition veteran Jack Sumner said he doubted “the red devils would make open attack on three armed men,” while “grapevine reports” had convinced him “the double-dyed white devils that infested that part of the country” (i.e., the Mormons) had killed the men. Sumner shared his views in 1907 with Robert Brewster Stanton, who also picked up an odd story from Billy Hawkins. The former cook claimed that he had helped bury the bones of the Howlands and Dunn “in the Shewits [sic] Mountains, below Kanab Wash.” Sumner earlier levied his accusation in a 1906 letter, recently discovered by Colorado River historian Don Lago: “The two howlands and Dunn were killed. Powell states by Indians & I Say Killed by the Mormons, Part of the Same old ‘Mountain Meadows’ massacre gang.” Sumner added that Hawkins had joined the Mormons, taken multiple wives and had, when he saw him on the Gila River about 1903, “a good sized Kindergarten of his own, which he has doubtless increased since.”

The “Mormons did it” case reopened in 1993 when Wesley Pratt “Peachpit” Larsen, a retired professor and former president of the Cedar City (Utah) Rotary Club, published an explosive article, “The ‘Letter,’ or Were the Powell Men Really Killed by Indians?” Based on an 1883 letter by pioneer William Leany to a fellow Mormon, the document described “deeds of blood from the day the picket fence was broke on my head to the day those three were murdered in our ward & the murderer killed to stop the shedding of more blood.” William Dame, the Mormon militia colonel who ordered the September 11, 1857, Mountain Meadows Massacre, had indeed had Leany’s head cracked in 1857 for sharing onions with a member of the doomed Fancher Party. But the heart of the sentence—“the day those three were murdered in our ward”—drew Larsen’s attention.

“Those three,” Larsen argued, were Oramel and Seneca Howland and William Dunn, while “the murderer killed to stop the shedding of more blood” was Eli Pace, a son-in-law of John D. Lee, mastermind of the massacre. According to Larsen, Pace believed the men were federal agents trying to arrest Lee. After executing Powell’s men, Pace was “bloodatoned” to prevent further violence against the Mormons.

The Leany letter, now in special collections at Brigham Young University, had lain hidden in a trunk for a century but was no secret when Larsen published his article. Others who had read the letter considered Larsen’s thesis a stretch— after all, a lot of people had died violently and mysteriously in southern Utah by 1883. But Larsen had posited an interesting theory. “It is easy to see why Lee’s son-in-law may have assumed that the three strangers he encountered in 1869 may have been federal agents looking for Lee,” journalist Vern Anderson speculated. “Local Mormons must have feared further government investigations and reprisals and decided to take matters into their own hands and kill the murderer.”

Larsen’s analysis also addressed problems with the traditional story. Would the Paiutes so readily have confessed to murdering three white men? Had “Dirty-Fingered Jake” Hamblin translated for Powell precisely what the Paiutes said, or had he lied to protect his neighbors? What happened to the men’s bodies, not to mention their clothing, firearms and the records and letters of the expedition, all of which vanished without a trace? And if, as Hawkins said, the Mormons later found and buried the men’s bodies, why was it kept secret? The story gained added circulation when Jon Krakauer shared it in his bestseller Under the Banner of Heaven.

Compelling as Larsen’s arguments may be, Lago subjected them to “a light more penetrating than a campfire” in 2003. The researcher pointed to another triple murder at Toquerville that better matched the killings described in Leany’s letter. More telling, Larsen himself had published details of Richard Fryer’s 1875 murder of his wife, child and Thomas Batty, and Fryer’s subsequent fatal gunfight with the local sheriff. “If Larsen had related the Fryer/Batty story,” Lago concluded, “his Powell theory probably would have been ignored.” Worster drove a final spike into Larsen’s thesis, suggesting that had Hamblin tried to deliberately mistranslate the Paiute accounts, Powell would have seen through his deceit. Adept at Numic languages, the major had compiled a Ute vocabulary and was able to understand the Paiutes without an interpreter. “He surely could not have missed a confession of murder,” Worster concluded.

“The art of history,” Wallace Stegner wrote, “is the art of recording human lives as they were in fact lived.” No matter how good a tale the facts displace, any good historian will follow them to their simplest logical conclusion. The weight of evidence suggests the Howland brothers and William Dunn had a fatal encounter with a band of Paiutes who could not resist the temptation to take their guns and goods. Someday the men’s bones or other letters buried in other trunks may tell a different story, but until such evidence surfaces, their fate remains a mystery with a plausible solution.

There is no mistaking John Wesley Powell’s accomplishment, and this year marks the 140th anniversary of the Colorado River Exploring Expedition. Powell followed two years later with a second expedition down the Colorado, but his 1869 voyage effectively ended the romantic age of exploration in the American West. The major and his disciples initiated a new era—the systematic and ongoing scientific investigation of the continent beyond the 100th meridian. Powell’s exploration of the Green and Colorado rivers had filled in the final blank spot and slain the last dragon that had prowled the unexplored canyon country since the age of the Conquistadors.


Frequent Wild West contributor and award-winning author Will Bagley writes from Salt Lake City. Suggested for further reading: The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons, by John Wesley Powell; Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West, by Wallace Stegner; A River Running West: The Life of John Wesley Powell, by Donald Worster; and Powell of the Colorado, by William C. Darrah.

Originally published in the August 2009 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here