A wild ride down the Colorado first mapped the Grand Canyon

Time Before Now – August 1869  Ulysses S. Grant was inaugurated in March, ending the single term of President Andrew Johnson, impeached but acquitted by a single vote.   After 200 years the Hudson Bay Company finally ceded it’s territory known as “Rupert’s Land” to Canada, resolving a real estate bidding war between England and America.  The Central Pacific and the Union Pacific met at Promontory Summit, Utah, driving a “Golden Spike” that signaled the completion of the nation’s first transcontinental railroad.  And Philadelphia pharmacist, Charles E. Hires began selling “root tea” at his Spruce Street drug store.  It became“Hires Root Beer” in 1876, (above) when it was introduced at Philadelphia’s 1876 Centennial Exposition and renamed to make it more appealing to men.  

August 1, 1869

On this day John Wesley Powell and a handful of intrepid explorers were set to challenge the Colorado River on it’s descent through the Grand Canyon. 

Powell and his dapper explorers

Known as the Geographic Expedition, 70 days after leaving Green River, Wyoming Territory, the party’s four boats and nine men had already lost one of the boats, survived dangerous rapids, and parted company with their tenth member, English adventurer, John Goodman, even before they reached the Colorado.

Powell, a former major in the Union Army who had lost his right arm at Shiloh, managed to recruit five fellow Civil War Veterans, his brother, Walter; Union sharpshooters, John Colton “Jack” Sumner; George Y. Bradley, lieutenant in the Union Army and expedition chronicler; Seneca Howland, wounded at Gettysburg and Civil War cook, W.R. Hawkins.

The expedition was rounded out by Colorado hunter and trapper, William H. Dunn, Seneca Howland’s brother, Oramel,  and the 21-year-old Scot, Andrew Hall.  He’d been too young to join his brother in the Union Army and went west on a wagon train instead.  Along with Sumner, he was a master boatman.  All were experienced hunters and frontiersmen

Powell, a man perfectly suited for the mission had walked across Wisconsin by the age of 24, rowed down the Mississippi River from St. Anthony Falls, Minnesota to  New Orleans, explored the Ohio River from Pittsburgh to St. Louis as well as the length of the Illinois and Des Moines Rivers.

Born in Mount Morris, New York in 1834 to an English immigrant preacher and his wife, Powell’s boyhood was spent along the river banks in Ohio, Wisconsin and Illinois.

Studying the natural sciences and teaching at Illinois College, Illinois Institute and Oberlin, he had a working knowledge of Ancient Greek and Latin.  When a war between the states seemed inevitable, Powell prepared for service to the Union Army, studying military science and engineering. Enlisting at the age of 27, he lost his right arm at the Battle of Shiloh, returning to active duty as a topographer and cartographer despite his injury.

Powell resumed teaching after the war but his passion for exploration kept him from accepting permanent positions.  On an initial foray into the Rockies in 1867, he and his wife, Emma Dean Powell (right) along with a group of geology students collected specimens along the Green and Colorado Rivers, setting the stage for the major expedition two years later.

As well positioned as Powell was to lead the epic adventure, not everything went well. The first and perhaps most consequential mishap occurred 16 days out at the aptly named Disaster Falls.  In addition to food and gear, the craft carried all the expedition’s barometers, crucial to Powell’s ability to determine altitude.  Luckily, several were able to be recovered. 

Powell’s no-frills camp site on the Colorado 

The party was not even half way into their three month odyssey when camped at the mouth of the Colorado.  The Englishman Bradley had already gone, saying he’d had “quite enough adventure.”  Three more would leave, never to be heard from again.

The Howland brothers along with Bill Dunn climbed out of the canyon August 28, telling Powell they feared that none would survive the journey.  It was a somber parting, each believing the other was making a dangerous choice.  Dividing what precious rations remained, along with the guns and ammunition, Powell entrusted he Howlands with a letter to Emma and Sumner gave them his watch to mail to his sister.

Neither got delivered. Just two days after their defection, the remaining members of the party emerged from the canyon, reaching the safety of the Virgin River.  Powell later wrote the three had reportedly been killed by Shivwits tribesmen who mistook them for encroaching miners who had attacked one of the women.  A small band of Paiutes in southwestern Utah, the Shivwits were historically vulnerable to raids by the Utes and Navajo and faced displacement from European settlement in the 1850s.

Not satisfied with the results of the 1869 expedition, Powell went on to lead another down the Colorado in 1871 before settling in as the second director of the U.S. Geological Survey a decade later. He served in that capacity until 1894.  In addition, he held the post  as head of  the Bureau of Ethnology at the Smithsonian Institution until his death in 1902 at the age of 66.  He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery along with his wife, who died in 1924 at the age of 88 or 89.

It didn’t end as well for others.  Jack Sumner, (left) became “persona non grata” some three decades later.  Following Powell’s death, perhaps feeling overshadowed by the famous explorer, Sumner wrote a Denver newspaper detailing a list of missteps he believed Powell had taken.

 Returning to the Grand Canyon, on the 33rd anniversary of the expedition Sumner barely survived an apparent self-inflicted casteration.  He died five years later at 67, survived by his wife, Jennie, and two sons.

And Scotsman Andrew Hall, (left) having lived through the perilous run down the Colorado, became a messenger for Wells Fargo.  He died 13 years later in 1882 trying to foil a robbery of a mine payroll.  He was 34. 

A number of Western landmarks bear Powell’s name including Lake Powell, Colorado, and Powell Plateau on the north rim of the Grand Canyon.   The explorer was honored with a commemorative stamp in 1969 and  the expedition was the subject of the 1960 Disney movie “Ten Who Dared.”

John Wesley Powell River History Museum, 1765 Main Street, Green River, Utah, has assembled a memorable collection of information and artifacts  regarding explorer John Wesley Powell and the history of Western exploration.  Founded in 1990 exhibits feature the boats of the expedition which predated the rubber raft as well as items related to the region’s early cultures and the period of early European settlement. 

Bank cliffs river view from the Museum

Small but inclusive, in addition to Powell’s expedition, the museum covers the history, geology and cartography of the Plateau, some of the last American real estate to be explored.  Currently open 9 to 5 Monday through Saturday, admission is $7 for adults, $5 for children 5 to 12, $6 for seniors and members of the military and $15 for families.  For more information go to johnwesleypowell.com, e-mail museum[at]greenriverutah.com, call 435-564-3427 or write, John Wesley Powell River History Museum, 1765 Main Street, Green River, UT 84525.

In addition, Green River is in easy driving distance from three national parks; Arches, Canyonlands, and Capitol Reef, (nps.gov) plus Goblin Valley State Park, (above) home to some of the world’s  sandstone “hoodoos” and the unique geologic San Rafael Swell. For more information go to stateparks.utah.gov/parks