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Powell Geographic Expedition of 1869

Powell Geographic Expedition of 1869

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The Powell Geographic Expedition was a groundbreaking 19th century U.S.
United States
The United States of America is a federal constitutional republic comprising fifty states and a federal district...

 exploratory expedition of the American West, led by John Wesley Powell
John Wesley Powell
John Wesley Powell was a U.S. soldier, geologist, explorer of the American West, and director of major scientific and cultural institutions...

 in 1869, that provided the first-ever thorough investigation of the Green
Green River (Utah)
The Green River, located in the western United States, is the chief tributary of the Colorado River. The watershed of the river, known as the Green River Basin, covers parts of Wyoming, Utah, and Colorado. The Green River is long, beginning in the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming and flowing...

 and Colorado rivers, including the first known passage through the Grand Canyon
Grand Canyon
The Grand Canyon is a steep-sided canyon carved by the Colorado River in the United States in the state of Arizona. It is largely contained within the Grand Canyon National Park, the 15th national park in the United States...

. 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
The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons
The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons by John Wesley Powell is a classic of American exploration literature. It is about the Powell Geographic Expedition of 1869 which was the first trip down the Colorado River by boat, including the first trip through the Grand Canyon.Powell's...



Powell, a veteran of the American Civil War
American Civil War
The American Civil War was a civil war fought in the United States of America. In response to the election of Abraham Lincoln as President of the United States, 11 southern slave states declared their secession from the United States and formed the Confederate States of America ; the other 25...

, had spent much of his youth rafting on the Mississippi River
Mississippi River
The Mississippi River is the largest river system in North America. Flowing entirely in the United States, this river rises in western Minnesota and meanders slowly southwards for to the Mississippi River Delta at the Gulf of Mexico. With its many tributaries, the Mississippi's watershed drains...

 and its tributaries in the upper Midwest
Upper Midwest
The Upper Midwest is a region in the northern portion of the U.S. Census Bureau's Midwestern United States. It is largely a sub-region of the midwest. Although there are no uniformly agreed-upon boundaries, the region is most commonly used to refer to the states of Minnesota, Wisconsin, and...

. He had lost his right arm to amputation
Amputation is the removal of a body extremity by trauma, prolonged constriction, or surgery. As a surgical measure, it is used to control pain or a disease process in the affected limb, such as malignancy or gangrene. In some cases, it is carried out on individuals as a preventative surgery for...

 after taking a musket ball in the Battle of Shiloh
Battle of Shiloh
The Battle of Shiloh, also known as the Battle of Pittsburg Landing, was a major battle in the Western Theater of the American Civil War, fought April 6–7, 1862, in southwestern Tennessee. A Union army under Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant had moved via the Tennessee River deep into Tennessee and...

. Prior to coming west, Powell had been a professor of geology
Geology is the science comprising the study of solid Earth, the rocks of which it is composed, and the processes by which it evolves. Geology gives insight into the history of the Earth, as it provides the primary evidence for plate tectonics, the evolutionary history of life, and past climates...

 in Illinois and established the Illinois Museum of Natural History.

The expedition set out from Green River Station, Wyoming Territory (now Green River, Wyoming
Green River, Wyoming
Green River is a city in and the county seat of Sweetwater County, Wyoming, United States, in the southwestern part of the state. The population was 11,808 at the 2000 census....

) 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
Mountain man
Mountain men were trappers and explorers who roamed the North American Rocky Mountains from about 1810 through the 1880s where they were instrumental in opening up the various Emigrant Trails allowing Americans in the east to settle the new territories of the far west by organized wagon trains...

 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
    England is a country that is part of the United Kingdom. It shares land borders with Scotland to the north and Wales to the west; the Irish Sea is to the north west, the Celtic Sea to the south west, with the North Sea to the east and the English Channel to the south separating it from continental...

     who had come west looking for adventure, a skilled boat handler
  • Andy Hall, an 18-year-old whose skills as an oarsman impressed Powell.
  • George Bradley, a soldier at Fort Bridger
    Fort Bridger
    Fort Bridger was originally a 19th century fur trading outpost established in 1842 on Blacks Fork of the Green River and later a vital resupply point for wagon trains on the Oregon Trail, California Trail and Mormon Trail. The Army established a military post here in 1858 during the Utah War until...

     that agreed to accompany Powell in an exchange for a discharge from the United States Army
    United States Army
    The United States Army is the main branch of the United States Armed Forces responsible for land-based military operations. It is the largest and oldest established branch of the U.S. military, and is one of seven U.S. uniformed services...

     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
Gates of Lodore
The Gates of Lodore is a canyon on the Green River in Colorado, United States. Also known as the Canyon of Lodore, it was named by the Powell Expedition after the English poem Cataract of Lodore. It is located in Dinosaur National Monument....


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
Vernal, Utah
Vernal, Uintah County's largest city, is located in eastern Utah near the Colorado State Line, and 175 miles east of Salt Lake City. It is bordered on the north by the Uinta Mountains, one of the few mountains ranges in the world which lie in an east-west rather than the usual north to south...

, 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
Virgin River
The Virgin River is a tributary of the Colorado River in the U.S. states of Utah, Nevada, and Arizona. The river is about long. It was designated Utah's first wild and scenic river in 2009, during the centennial celebration of Zion National Park.-Course:...

 and safety.

External links

  • The American Experience: Lost in the Grand Canyon - Companion site to the PBS
    Public Broadcasting Service
    The Public Broadcasting Service is an American non-profit public broadcasting television network with 354 member TV stations in the United States which hold collective ownership. Its headquarters is in Arlington, Virginia....

     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
    Internet Archive
    The Internet Archive is a non-profit digital library with the stated mission of "universal access to all knowledge". It offers permanent storage and access to collections of digitized materials, including websites, music, moving images, and nearly 3 million public domain books. The 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