It was 1869. Ten men in four boats were about to embark on a journey that would cover almost
1,000 miles through uncharted canyons, and change the west forever. Three months later only five of the original company plus their one
-arm Civil War hero-leader would emerge from the depths of the Grand Canyon at the mouth of the Virgin River.
Thirty-five-year-old John Wesley Powell was that expedition's leader.
From early childhood Powell manifested deep interest in all natural phenomena. Original and self-reliant to a remarkable degree, he
undertook collecting and exploring trips that were quite unusual for a youth of his age. He studied botany, zoology and geology wholly without the aid of a teacher.
He traversed various portions of Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa and then the Iron Mountain regions of
Missouri making collections of shells, minerals and general natural history object. This led to
his election in 1859 to the secretaryship of the Illinois Natural History Society. It is said that in
1856 when but 22 years old, he descended the Mississippi alone in a row boat from the Falls
of St. Anthony to its mouth, making collections on the way. Again in 1857 he rowed the entire
length of the Ohio River from Pittsburg to its mouth, and in 1858 made a like trip down the Illinois River to its mouth and then up the Des Moines.
With the outbreak of the Civil War in 1860, Powell enlisted in the 20th Illinois volunteers and
was mustered in as second lieutenant. For a time he was stationed at Cape Girardeau and as
captain of Battery F of the 2nd Illinois Artillery. He took part in the battle of Shiloh, losing his
right arm at Pittsburg Landing. He returned to the service as soon as his wound healed, and
took part in the battles of Champion Hill and Black River Bridge. His wife Emma Dean received permission from General Grant to accompany her husband on the battlefield to take
care of him.
At the close of operations about Vicksburg he was obliged to submit to a
second operation on his arm, but returned to his post in season to take part in the Meridian raid. Later he was made major and chief of artillery; first of the
17th army corps and then of the department of Tennessee, taking part in the operations before Atlanta and in the battle of Franklin.
He was mustered out of the service at the end of the Civil War as a "major" in
1865 and accepted the position of professor of geology and curator of the museum of the Illinois Wesleyan University at Bloomington, from which institution he had
previously received the degrees of bachelor of arts and master of arts. (Although not a college
graduate, Powell did receive the degree of Ph.D. from Heidelberg, Germany in 1886 and that
of LL.D. from Harvard.) He also became connected with the Illinois Normal University and was
widely know throughout the state by his lectures and addresses on scientific subjects.
It was on field trips out west that Powell began to formulate his idea of exploring the Grand Canyon.
On May 24, 1869 Powell and nine men he recruited for a truly monumental journey pushed their
boats from shore and headed down the Green River from Green River Station, WY amidst shouts and cheers from onlookers who must have thought they would never see those ten men
Less than one month later one of the ten, an Englishman named Frank Goodman, approached
the Major and said, "I have had more excitement than a man deserves in a lifetime. I am
leaving." At that point in the trip they had already lost one boat to the rapids and most of the ten
-month supply of provisions. Goodman was able to walk to a nearby settlement though history has lost track of what happened to him.
The 1869 expedition continued down the Green to the confluence of the Grand River flowing
west into Utah. The two mighty rivers then merged into the Colorado, Spanish for "red river".
During the next two months on the river the men encountered many more rapids that could not be run safely in Powell's estimation. He was ever
cautious, fearful they would lose the rest of the supplies and perhaps even their lives. So they lined the boats down the side of the rapids, or portaged
boats and supplies through the rocks along the shoreline. However, there were times when they had to run the swollen river through rapids that surely made them pray.
At a place now called Separation Canyon, O.G. Howland, his brother Seneca and Bill Dunn
came to the Major and spoke of "how we surely will all die if we continue on this journey." They
could only see more danger ahead. Try as they might, they could not convince Powell to abandon the river.
The next morning, the three men bid farewell to Powell and the remaining five adventurers.
Powell left his boat, the Emma Dean, at the head of Separation Rapids in case they changed
their minds. With the other five men Powell ran what would turn out to be the first of the two
remaining major rapids. The Howlands and Dunn climbed out of the canyon walking toward
civilization only to meet their death at the hands of Shivwits Indians who mistook them for
miners that had killed a Hualapai woman on the south side of the river. At least that was the
story Powell heard the next year when he visited the Shivwits area with Mormon Scout Jacob Hamlin.
Two days later on August 29 Powell and his men reached the mouth of the Virgin River (now
under Lake Mead) and were met by settlers fishing from the river bank. The adventurers had not been heard from in three months and were presumed dead.
Powell had completed what he had sought to do -- explore and confirm his theory on the Grand
Canyon of the Colorado, a region up to that time almost entirely unknown and concerning
which there were many vague and often wild rumors. His theory was that the river preceded the canyons and then cut them as the Plateau rose.
Returning a national hero to Illinois, Powell promptly hit the lecture circuit raising funds for a
second expedition in 1871 which would produce what the first did not -- a map and scientific publications.
Powell's active work as a geologist eventually gave way to a new career in government. In
March 1881, he assumed the directorship of the U.S. Geological survey when the first director
Clarence King resigned. He served for 13 years, until he retired in 1894. Powell also served
as director of the Smithsonian's Bureau of Ethnology from 1880 until his death in 1902.
Between 1894 and 1902, Powell spent increasingly less time running the Bureau and more time on his philosophical/ethnographic writing.
Powell died from a cerebral hemmorage at his summer home in Haven, Maine on September
23, 1902. His wife Emma Dean, whom he married in 1862, and their only child, Mary Dean,
survived him. With the honors bestowed to a Civil War Veteran, Powell was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.