“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… What falls there are, we know not; what rocks beset the channel, we know not; what walls rise over the river, we know not… With some eagerness and some anxiety and some misgiving we enter the canyon below and are carried away by the swift water through walls which rise from its very edge.” – John Wesley Powell| The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons| 1895


The notion that Powell and his party had met an unfortunate end during their 1869 expedition did not strain the imagination. They had undertaken what is now considered one of America’s great adventure stories. The mighty Colorado River’s course had 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. It was a brutally hot day on August 13, 1869, when John Wesley Powell and his nine-man crew reached what he called the foot of the Grand Canyon. At this spot where the Little Colorado River flowed into the Colorado and the towering rock walls radiated the desert sun like a convection oven, the explorers entered a world unlike anything they or any other European-Americans had ever seen.

Historians have described Powell as a heroic frontiersman driven by the exploration of the unknown, or alternatively, as a horrific leader whose men refused to recognize his authority. Either way, he was obsessed with personal ambition and a love of the outdoors. Born in Mount Morris, New York, in 1834, Powell’s rural upbringing was one of constant moves as his parents, both English immigrants, struggled to maintain small farms. Young Wesley was a voracious reader who would borrow any book he could get his hands on, immersing himself in learning about science, natural history and literature. Although he was expected by his father to join the Methodist ministry, Powell had found his own form of religion in the wild. He often wandered from home on excursions into the fields and woods, collecting everything from fossils to flowers. Powell was also an adventurer from an early age. At 21, he walked across the state of Wisconsin. The next year, he rowed the entire Mississippi River and later made trips down the Ohio and Illinois Rivers. After a brief stint as a school teacher, Powell’s views against slavery pushed him to enlist in the Union Army, where he quickly advanced to artillery captain. Six months into his service, his right arm was blown off by a mine ball at the Battle of Shiloh. By all accounts, the wound had little effect on his life. After recovering from an amputation below the elbow, he returned to the battlefield to serve three more years and was promoted to the rank of major.


In 1869, very little of the Colorado River drainage had been explored and, at the age of 35, Powell was determined to complete the first scientific survey of the region. A Civil War hero who was bored with his college teaching job in the Midwest, “Powell wanted to make a name for himself as a Western explorer, and the Colorado River basin was the best place to do that,” according to historian and Powell biographer Donald Worster. Six decades after the expedition of Lewis and Clark, Powell would pick up where they left off, venturing into the last big blank spot on the map and captivating the nation. Some three centuries earlier, soldiers with conquistador Francisco Coronado had peered over the edge of Grand Canyon and deemed it impassable, and since that time European immigrants had stayed away from a place that was viewed as inhospitable. The only way to penetrate the wilderness was by boat but, until Powell, no one was willing to take on such a perilous challenge with little promise of reward. Not only would the 1869 expedition eventually go down in history as the last great land exploration in the United States, it was Powell’s eloquent descriptions that would introduce the Grand Canyon to the world. After Powell’s adventure was widely publicized in newspapers and magazines with accompanying spectacular images, Grand Canyon suddenly became viewed as a world-class natural wonder, a place to be visited rather than avoided. Yet, the trip was no cake walk, and Powell would only wax poetic in hindsight. As he and his crew entered Grand Canyon that day in August, some 700 river miles from where they had pushed off at Green River, Wyoming, the expedition would soon devolve into mutiny– and not all of the men would live to tell about it.


The expedition’s route traveled through the Utah canyons of the Colorado River, which Powell described in his published diary as having “wonderful features—carved walls, royal arches, glens, alcove gulches, mounds and monuments. From which of these features shall we select a name? We decide to call it Glen Canyon.”

One man quit after the first month, and another three left at Separation Canyon in the third. This was just two days before the group reached the mouth of the Virgin River on August 30, after traversing almost 930 miles. Powell retraced part of the 1869 route in 1871–1872 with another expedition that traveled the Colorado River from Green River, Wyoming to Kanab Creek in the Grand Canyon. This trip resulted in photographs an accurate map and various papers. In planning this expedition, he employed the services of Jacob Hamblin, a Mormon missionary in southern Utah and northern Arizona, who had cultivated excellent relationships with Native Americans. Before setting out, Powell used Hamblin as a negotiator to ensure the safety of his expedition from local Indian groups. In the 1870s, Powell became the man of the decade. He traveled the country giving speeches and eventually founded and then directed the United States Geological Survey. He went on to promote protection and appreciation of the Grand Canyon landscape and Southwest native cultures with evangelical zeal in much the same way his father had preached the Bible. “The Canyon is a book of revelations in the rock- leaved Bible of geology,” he wrote. “All around me are interesting records, and I can read as I run.”


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