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John Wesley Powell's Exploration of the Colorado River

Until Powell's exploration, little was known of the Grand Canyon, its surrounding plateaus, or the long reaches of river above it. Legends told of expeditions that had tried to pass through the canyon only to perish in unknown rapids or on lonely rock shores. If any of these early expeditions did get through, they left no record behind. Even the official view of the United States Government was discouraging. Lieutenant Joseph C. Ives, who in 1857 was sent by the War Department to explore the river, traveled by steamer from the mouth of the river as far upstream as Black Canyon. In his report he said:

Ours has been the first, and will doubtless be the last party of whites to visit this profitless locality . . . It seems intended by nature that the Colorado, along the greater part of its lonely and majestic way, shall be forever unvisited and undisturbed.

The steamer "Explorer U. S." in which Lieutenant Ives ascended the Colorado River.

But neither legends, Indian warnings, nor the Ives report discouraged Powell. In his own report on the expedition, published in 1870, Powell wrote:

For two or three years I have been engaged in making some geographical studies in the mountains to the east and north of the Colorado Basin, and while pursuing them the thought grew into my mind that the canyons of this region would be a Book of Revelations in the rock-leaved Bible of geology. The thought fructified, and I determined to read the book; so I sought for all the available information with regard to the canyon land. I talked with Indians and hunters, I went among the Mormons to learn what they knew of this country adjacent to the "Kingdom of God," the home of the "Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints." I read the reports of the United States Survey, and I explored canyons of the tributary streams that I thought would represent somewhat the nature of the Grand Canyon, on account of similar geological and physical features. From the fabulous stories, the facts, and the reports, and from the knowledge of other canyons, I came to the belief that the "Grand Canyon of the Colorado" could be explored by descending the river in small boats.

Major Powell's lead boat with his chair lashed to the deck.
Typical equipment of a river explorer—gun, pick, mapcase, and canteen.

By spring of 1869, Powell was ready to start. The Illinois Natural History Society and Illinois Industrial University supplied funds. Congress authorized Powell to draw rations from Army posts for a party of 25 men and the Smithsonian Institution provided him with scientific instruments. Personal expenses were borne by the individual members of the party.

The four boats for the trip, the Emma Dean, the Kitty Clyde's Sister, the No Name, and the Maid of the Canyon, waited at Green River Station, Wyoming Territory, where the party was to embark. The boats had been built according to Powell's specifications. Three were made of oak, were 21 feet long, and were equipped with compartments for storing food, ammunition, tools, and scientific instruments. The fourth was of identical design but only 16 feet long and of white pine. Being lighter "with a sharp cutwater and every way built for fast rowing," it served as the lead boat.

Four men of the party had served as guides and assistants to Powell the year before: Jack Sumner, O. G. Howland, Bill Dunn, and Billy Hawkins. Sumner was a Civil War veteran who operated a small trading post in Middle Park, west of Denver. Abandoning the trading post, he joined Powell and enlisted the services of Howland, Dunn, and Hawkins. Howland was a printer and editor from Denver, and Hawkins was a Union Army veteran who was suspected by Powell's party of being a fugitive from justice. Little is known of Dunn. In addition, there were Seneca Howland, a Civil War veteran and brother of O. G. Howland; Captain Walter H. Powell, the Major's brother, who had been imprisoned during the war; G. Y. Bradley, a veteran of the Civil War and later a sergeant in the Regular Army, who had been discharged to accompany Powell on the trip; Frank Goodman, a young English adventurer; and Andy Hall, an 18-year-old mule driver and Indian scout.

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Last Updated: 28-Mar-2006