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Grand Canyon Expedition of 1869 by John Wesley Powell

Updated on April 3, 2020

Grand Canyon, Colorado River Expedition

Grand Canyon-Colorado River
Grand Canyon-Colorado River | Source

1869 Expedition to Grand Canyon

Never before had the Grand Canyon been traveled by boat on the Colorado River. But in 1869, John Wesley Powell and his crew of nine were embarking on a dangerous and treacherous trip to the unknown.

John Wesley Powell was an explorer, cartographer, geologist, soldier in the Civil War, and a professor. This expedition was only a small portion of his explorations but would become the one most remembered.

After leaving from Green River, Wyoming, the first boat smashed, losing half of their food stash. Powell now decided to carry the heavy boats and supplies around the rapids. It was back-breaking work and exhausting. Fifty-nine days into the trip, they passed the point where the Green River merged with the Colorado River.

Powell now declared "what falls there are, what rocks beset the channel.. we enter the unknown." By August, they were a mile deep in the earth, hot and close to starvation. They were now in survival mode. On the 97th day, they saw three men and an Indian on the shore. They asked what they were doing, and the trio said searching for debris as the news had the expedition as lost. Two days later, on August 30th, they emerged from the canyon.

Powell did what no man had ever done. He traveled the Grand Canyon by river and allowed the government to see the beauty of the canyon.

Powell became an instant celebrity and was named Director of US Geological Survey, the Bureau of Ethnology and the Smithsonian.

Hazards in the Grand Canyon

Powell Risking Death
Powell Risking Death

Hazards Along The Way

The expedition somehow managed to finish the trip through all the hazards, crushing waterfalls, forever wet, never seeming to dry out, losing equipment and food, yet preserved to accomplish a remarkable feat.

One of the crew was reaching out to save Powell from harm. Many times, the team had to carry the boats over ledges and then relaunch them farther down the river. On one occasion, Powell, who had only one arm, was in a precarious position but was fortunately saved by the crew.

The crew member saving Powell was Bradley. After this expedition, Bradley settled near San Diego and began a fruit ranch. By 1885, and in poor health, he returned to his sister's house in Massachusettes, where he died a few weeks later.

Background of John Wesley Powell

John was born in 1834, New York, his father was a minister and had always presumed to train John as a minister. Jon had other ideas and was still reading, exploring, learning. The family left New York, traveled to Ohio, then to Wisconsin, finally settling in Illinois.

Before the age of 25, John had spent four months hiking across Wiscon, exploring the area, and collecting specimens. He taught school in a one-room schoolhouse while attending Wheaton College. He often took his students on field trips to explore and study the area.

During this time, John was rowing and exploring the Ohio, Illinois, and Mississippi Rivers, and shortly after that, he was elected to the Illinois Historical Society.

He came to realize that the Civil War needed volunteers, and he enlisted as a private. While in the Battle of Shiloh, John had a bullet tear into his arm that unfortunately had to be amputated. For the rest of his life, he suffered from nerve loss. After recuperating, he returned to fight in several other battles, including Vicksburg.

In all his expeditions and mapping the areas and studying the Native Americans, the information he compiled into journals was invaluable to the US government on the west. Powell was never interested in monetary gains. His love of science and exploring was his life's work. He thrived in learning all he could about the unknown.

Powell's Expedition to Pike's Peak

Pike's Peak
Pike's Peak

Pike's Peak

It was in 1867 that Powell led an expedition to the Rocky Mountains, the Green, and Colorado Rivers. He and William Byers, with five other men, began their exploration of the areas around Pike's Peak. They would be the first men to climb the Peak in 1868. Powell's wife, Emma, would also become the first woman to climb Pike's Peak.

Pike's Peak can either be by hiking, or driving, or the trolly car. Call 1-800-525-2250 for information. A usual hike will take 6-10 hours but 2-3 hours by car. The views from Pike's Peak are breathtaking but allow enough time to see it all.

Emma Powell

Emma Powell
Emma Powell

Powell on Expedition

Powell and Native American
Powell and Native American
Powell and Crew
Powell and Crew

Powell's Legacy

The rare mineral, Powellite, was named after Powell.

Lake Powell named in his honor

Powell's Peak named in his honor

USGS National Center in Reston, Virginia dedicated as John Wesley Powell Federal Building in 1974

1984 inducted into National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum

Powell and his wife, Emma, are buried in Arlington National Cemetary.

A movie, Ten Who Dared, 1960 by Walt Disney Productions

Powell Marker Arlington National Cemetary

Powell Marker
Powell Marker

Powell's Caution to Settlement

Powell's explorations about the arid west led him to warn the government of settlement without studying the irrigation problems he found. He couldn't convince them to hold off settling the area. Because of his attempts being pushed aside, he resigned from the US Geological Society.

While attending an 1893 convention in Los Angeles about water rights he told the audience, "I wish to make it clear to you.....there is not enough water to irrigate all the lands...." He continued his argument that farmers would suffer from no water. He was defeated and then that very summer, drought brought misery to the Great Plains. The government wanted to open the land for settlement and argued against Powell.

One of the Best Books on Colorado River

The Grand Canyon: Unseen Beauty: Running the Colorado River by Thomas Blagden, Jr., Roderick F. Nash. The photography in this book by Tom, who is the official photographer for Grand Canyon Expeditions. It is 224 pages with a five-star rating. The color photographs are showing the awesome beauty of the Colorada River.


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