J.W. Powell led first expedition into Grand Canyon

grand canyon

The American West, that vast territory on the other side of the Mississippi River, was obtained by the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 and the Mexican War in 1846-1848. 

Indian warriors, Spanish conquistadors, French trappers, English workers, Irish immigrants, German farmers and hard riding/singing cowboys have explored, civilized and settled the West. 

Frederick Jackson Turner, speaking to the American Historical Association in 1893, declared the frontier West to be closed. But these adventurers had walked by or ignored the vast, mysterious and forbidding area that begged to be explored for its geological beauty — the Grand Canyon. 

A world unto itself

Located in the southwest part of the United States, the landscape is a world unto itself, a geological feature that is the most exalted of all earthly spectacles. The river highway through the Grand Canyon is the Colorado River which is fed by the Green and Grand rivers that drain the rains and snows of the Rocky Mountains. Eventually, this phenomenal river vacates her watery cargo into the Gulf of California. 

The Colorado River is 1,450 miles long, passing through a mountainous section, then a plateau section and finally a desert that extends to its mouth. It is in the plateau section that the Grand Canyon is situated. 

This huge gash in the earth is the work of nature five to six million years ago, uplifting the stratified rock nearly horizontally. The Grand Canyon is still being formed by nature’s weathering and the Colorado River that rushes and brushes the ancient lava flow. The Grand Canyon is about 277 miles long and a mile deep into the earth. 

The Spanish exploring out of Mexico in the 1540s and looking for gold identified the “Big Canyon.” But for 350 years, the inaccessibility of the region discouraged serious exploration. 

Various individuals visited parts of the canyon and made reports regarding the usage of the area to the agencies of the government. But it was not until 1869 that the first serious exploration of the Grand Canyon was undertaken. 

John W. Powell

In that year, Maj. John W. Powell made the complete journey by boat through the Grand Canyon and to the Gulf of California. This hazardous journey ranks as one of the most daring and remarkable explorations undertaken in North American history. 

Powell was the son of a circuit-riding Methodist minister with strong abolitionist ideas in his Welsh blood. Born in 1834, he was named for the founder of the Methodist religion in America, John Wesley.

The father’s preaching brought violence to the family’s doorstep, first in Ohio and later in Wisconsin. The occasional violence by pro-slavery elements made an imprint on Powell for life. His early education was limited to home/neighborhood schooling. 

Later, he enrolled in three colleges: Illinois College, Illinois Institute (Wheaton) and Oberlin, but dropped out of each because of boredom and limited coursework in science, especially geology. 

When the Civil War began, Powell stood five foot six inches in height, had gray eyes and an untidy beard, and sported a shaggy bird’s nest hair-do. Enlisting as a private, he caught the attention of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant for his organizational ability and was promoted to the rank of major in charge of an artillery unit. 

At the Shiloh battle, he lost part of his right arm to a Minie ball, but continued until the war ended. He taught in a one room school for a short time, and he then conducted a series of expeditions to the Rocky Mountains for the government. 

Grand Canyon expedition

In 1869, he made the dash through the Grand Canyon. At 1 p.m. May 24, 1869, John Wesley Powell and nine other daredevils stood on the bank of the Green River in Wyoming “after blowing off gas and the fumes of too much bad whiskey the night before,” waiting to push three puny 16-foot rowboats into the flow of a muddy river. 

The Green would deliver the explorers to the junction of the Grand and Colorado rivers and then into the wonders of the Grand Canyon. The explorers spent three months rowing whirlpools, crashing eddies, portaging rapids and bounding whitewater through the uncharted river of the deep canyon. 

Mental, as well as physical stamina, was tested with the 6,115-foot drop from the point of entry at Green River City in Wyoming to the point the Colorado races out of the Grand Canyon. 

At the end, six men and two boats survived the scientific exploration. The men were half-naked and barely alive having survived on moldy flour and water. 

Valuable information

The expedition gathered valuable information for the field of Geology. The public clamored to hear the stories of the handful of men who battled nature in small rowboats and collected specimens that had not been seen before. The journey stimulated Powell and other scientists to think differently about river formations and to coin new terms like “geomorphology” that examined how the earth’s features formed through geologic processes. 

Powell continued his study of the west until his retirement in 1894. His work contributed to the formation of the U.S. Geological and Geographical Survey to make better use of western lands, and in 1877, he was named director of the agency. 

His report on land and water usage began a national debate about how best to harness the resources of the West when most individuals viewed the land as an endless resource. Had his views been followed, the Dust Bowl experience of the 1930s might have been avoided, and would certainly have been less severe. 

Today, the Arizona Raft Adventure Group rivers the Grand Canyon for recreation and excitement. People stand on the North and South rim and wear out their cameras taking pictures. Some brave souls walk or ride a mule to the Canyon floor and mail a postcard home to prove their adventure. 

But it was John Wesley Powell and his Colorado River Exploring Expedition that made that initial journey through the Grand Canyon and beckoned us to follow. That’s your history!


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Professor Emeritus Hugh Earnhart had a 32-year career in the history department at Youngstown State University, where he specialized in the Civil War and the South. Send suggestions, comments or questions to Hugh Earnhart in care of Farm and Dairy, P.O. Box 38, Salem, OH 44460-0038; or via email to: editorial@farmanddairy.com.



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