Powell Geographic Expedition of 1869
The Powell Geographic Expedition was a groundbreaking 19th century U.S. exploratory expedition of the American West, led by John Wesley Powell in 1869, that provided the first-ever thorough investigation of the Green and Colorado rivers, including the first known passage through the Grand Canyon. The expedition, which lasted approximately three months during the summer of 1869, endured hardships and dangers down the river but resulted in the discoveries of many new natural features in the Colorado Basin. In 1875, Powell published a classic account of the expedition (combined with elements from later expeditions in 1871-72) called Report on the Exploration of the Colorado River of the West and Its Tributaries, re-issued and revised in 1895 as The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons.
Powell, a veteran of the American Civil War, had spent much of his youth rafting on the Mississippi River and its tributaries in the upper Midwest. He had lost his right arm to amputation after taking a musket ball in the Battle of Shiloh. Prior to coming west, Powell had been a professor of geology in Illinois and established the Illinois Museum of Natural History.
The expedition set out from Green River Station, Wyoming Territory (now Green River, Wyoming) on May 24 with a company of ten men led by Powell. In addition to Powell, the company included his brother Walter, as well as a group of seasoned mountain men that Powell had recruited on his way to western Wyoming. The company consisted of
- John Wesley Powell
- Walter Powell, John's brother
- Oramel G. Howland, printer, editor, hunter
- Seneca Howland, mountain man and brother of O.G.
- Bill Dunn, mountain man
- Bill Hawkins, mountain man, the expedition's cook
- Jack Sumner, mountain man
- Frank Goodman, an Englishman who had come west looking for adventure, a skilled boat handler
- Andy Hall, a 19-year-old whose skills as an oarsman impressed Powell.
- George Bradley, a soldier at Fort Bridger who agreed to accompany Powell in an exchange for a discharge from the United States Army that Powell arranged for him.
Early on the Green River, the Powell Expedition lost one of their large gear-carrying boats, the No Name, at a rapids they named Disaster Falls, washing up on Disaster Island. No one was killed, but many crucial supplies were lost, including all of the expedition's barometers. Fortunately, Powell and his men managed to recover some of the barometers - they were the only means Powell had at his disposal to determine his elevation. Knowing the elevation was essential for producing good maps, and it let the expedition know how much vertical drop remained before they reached sea level. The Powell expedition named many of the features along the Green and Colorado rivers, including the Gates of Lodore.
Of the ten men to start, six would make the entire journey. Four would abandon the expedition. Goodman, the Englishman, left the expedition on July 6, claiming he’d had more than enough adventure. He walked away and lived for some years with the Paiutes of eastern Utah. Eventually, he settled in Vernal, Utah, where he was married and raised a family. The other three adventurers to leave the expedition fared worse. On August 28, O. G. Howland, his brother Seneca, and Bill Dunn left the company, fearing they could not survive the dangers of the river much longer. They hiked out of the canyon and were killed, it is generally believed, by local Shivwits Indians in a case of mistaken identity. Another story puts it that they were executed by Mormons who mistook them for "spies." Only two days later, Powell and the five others reached the mouth of the Virgin River and safety.
The expedition was dramatized in the 1960 Disney film Ten Who Dared.
- Powell, John Wesley (2004). Seeing Things Whole: The Essential John Wesley Powell. Island Press. p. 44. ISBN 978-1-55963-873-9.
- Powell, John Wesley (2004). Seeing Things Whole: The Essential John Wesley Powell. Island Press.
- Powell, J. W. (1875). The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons.
- The American Experience: Lost in the Grand Canyon - Companion site to the PBS series about Jown Wesley Powell's Colorado River journey. It includes a timeline, maps, and program information.
- The Exploration of the Colorado River, by John Wesley Powell, 1875, via Internet Archive (scanned books original editions color illustrated)
- Stereoviews of Indians and the Colorado River from the J.W. Powell Survey, ca. 1869-1874, The Bancroft Library