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Powell's Grand Ambition – Rafting Through the Grand Canyon

Running the treacherous Colorado River in 1869 would be one of many historic firsts for explorer and scientist John Wesley Powell.

It was a brutally hot day on August 13, 1869, when John Wesley Powell and his nine-man crew reached what he called the foot of the Grand Canyon. At this spot where the Little Colorado River flowed into the Colorado and the towering rock walls radiated the desert sun like a convection oven, the explorers entered a world unlike anything they or any other European-Americans had ever seen.

“We are now ready to start on our way down the Great Unknown,” Powell wrote in a journal that was later published as the popular book The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons. “Our boats, tied to a common stake, chafe each other as they are tossed by the fretful river… What falls there are, we know not; what rocks beset the channel, we know not; what walls rise over the river, we know not… With some eagerness and some anxiety and some misgiving we enter the canyon below and are carried away by the swift water through walls which rise from its very edge.”

The Grand Canyon has called to artists, eccentrics, and adventurers through the years, but no single person is more identified with the exploration of the natural wonder than John Wesley Powell.

In 1869, very little of the Colorado River drainage had been explored and, at the age of 35, Powell was determined to complete the first scientific survey of the region. A Civil War hero who was bored with his college teaching job in the Midwest, “Powell wanted to make a name for himself as a Western explorer, and the Colorado River basin was the best place to do that,” according to historian and Powell biographer Donald Worster. Six decades after the expedition of Lewis and Clark, Powell would pick up where they left off, venturing into the last big blank spot on the map and captivating the nation.

Some three centuries earlier, soldiers with conquistador Francisco Coronado had peered over the edge of Grand Canyon and deemed it impassable, and since that time European immigrants had stayed away from a place that was viewed as inhospitable. The only way to penetrate the wilderness was by boat but, until Powell, no one was willing to take on such a perilous challenge with little promise of reward.

Not only would the 1869 expedition eventually go down in history as the last great land exploration in the United States, it was Powell’s eloquent descriptions that would introduce the Grand Canyon to the world. After Powell’s adventure was widely publicized in newspapers and magazines with accompanying spectacular images, Grand Canyon suddenly became viewed as a world-class natural wonder, a place to be visited rather than avoided. Yet, the trip was no cake walk, and Powell would only wax poetic in hindsight. As he and his crew entered Grand Canyon that day in August, some 700 river miles from where they had pushed off at Green River, Wyoming, the expedition would soon devolve into mutiny– and not all of the men would live to tell about it.

Powell Expedition
Second Expedition in flat waters of Marble Canyon before entering Grand Canyon. Photo by the Grand Canyon National Park Collection
Powell Expedition of the Grand Canyon
Powell’s second Expedition in 1871, pictured here pushing off from Green River, was comprised of a 10 member crew that included two photographers and a cartographer. Photo by the Grand Canyon National Park Collection

Historians have described Powell as a heroic frontiersman driven by the exploration of the unknown, or alternatively, as a horrific leader whose men refused to recognize his authority. Either way, he was obsessed with personal ambition and a love of the outdoors.

Born in Mount Morris, New York, in 1834, Powell’s rural upbringing was one of constant moves as his parents, both English immigrants, struggled to maintain small farms. His father was an evangelical Methodist preacher who was strict and inflexible with his children.

Young Wesley was a voracious reader who would borrow any book he could get his hands on, immersing himself in learning about science, natural history and literature. Although he was expected by his father to join the Methodist ministry, Powell had found his own form of religion in the wild. He often wandered from home on excursions into the fields and woods, collecting everything from fossils to flowers.

Powell was also an adventurer from an early age. At 21, he walked across the state of Wisconsin. The next year, he rowed the entire Mississippi River and later made trips down the Ohio and Illinois Rivers.

After a brief stint as a school teacher, Powell’s views against slavery pushed him to enlist in the Union Army, where he quickly advanced to artillery captain. Six months into his service, his right arm was blown off by a minie ball at the Battle of Shiloh. By all accounts, the wound had little effect on his life. After recovering from an amputation below the elbow, he returned to the battlefield to serve three more years and was promoted to the rank of major.

“Losing one’s right arm is a misfortune; to some it would be a disaster, to others an excuse,” writes Powell biographer, Wallace Stegner, in his book Beyond the Hundredth Meridian. “It affected Wes Powell about as much as a stone fallen into a swift stream affects the course of the river.”

After the war, Powell became a professor of geology at Illinois Wesleyan University and later at Illinois State Normal University. The post helped him secure grants for field research and form the Illinois State Historical Society. Powell began taking trips to Colorado to explore the Rocky Mountains for the Historical Society, and in 1867 he met a guide who spoke of the vast, unknown canyonlands of the Colorado River. From that conversation, Powell hatched a plan to explore a territory that existed more in frontier mythology than in known fact.

Powell sought to get backing from the U.S. government for his 1869 expedition, but there was no interest in supporting such a venture in the name of science. As far as Congress was concerned, the land had no known commercial value and was not worth exploring. The Colorado River, with its many rapids, was thought to be unnavigable; the steep, rocky desert could not be farmed, and the region was still largely the domain of Native American tribes.

A determined Powell did get some funding from the Illinois Historical Society in exchange for his promise to bring back scientific specimens and data. The U.S. Army donated military rations (flour, bacon, dried apples, and coffee), and the Union Pacific railroad donated shipment of four wooden boats from Chicago to Green River. Powell’s nine-man crew was all volunteer, mostly Civil War veterans, trappers, and wannabe frontiersmen who knew how to hunt and camp but had no experience running rapids. Also going along was Powell’s brother William, a former captain for the Union Army who was a prisoner of war for 10 months. “He is silent, moody and sarcastic,” wrote Powell in his journal. We call him “Old Shady”.

When the men pushed off May 25 from Green River, Wyoming, their expectations and spirits were high. They would paddle down the Green and then the Colorado wherever it took them, perhaps all the way to Mexico. Their rations were intended to last up to 10 months in the event they decided to spend the winter along the Colorado. Powell also expected they would supplement their rations with big game they would hunt along the way. The boats were made of oak and pine and designed to shelter contents from the splashing water. They were also loaded with scientific instruments and tools, along with guns, ammunition, and traps. Powell thought he had prepared for every possible condition, but he was wrong.

Just two weeks and 80 miles into the journey, the crew learned how rough negotiating the rapids would be. In a place that Powell would name Disaster Falls, one of the boats hit a rock-filled cataract, overturned, and split apart. No one was killed but a full third of the group’s rations along with the boat was destroyed. After that, Powell required that the men perform back-breaking portages around many rapids, what would amount to hundreds of times over the course of the trip and would take a heavy toll on morale. The boats were no match for the increasingly numerous and large rapids, which constantly drenched the rations and other supplies, and caused the food to mildew in the summer heat. Adding to the food stress and low morale was the fact that big game was very hard to come by in the arid canyon country.

By the time the expedition entered Grand Canyon, the journey had turned into a rush
for survival. The inner gorge closed in, and Powell observed it was more than 1,000 feet tall. A lack of beaches offered few places to camp and made it nearly impossible to portage around violent rapids. We can neither land nor run as we please, wrote Powell on August 15. “The boats are entirely unmanageable; no order in their running can be preserved.”

On August 27, the group reached a place that Powell would later name Separation Canyon. Towering walls of blackened granite rose straight up from the river, leaving the party without an inch of beach for refuge. It was the most violent-looking stretch of river they had seen since setting out from Wyoming three months earlier. All that remained of their food was dried fruit, moldy, unleavened bread, and coffee. The party’s three remaining boats were badly beaten up and taking on water.

That night, after scouting the rapids and making camp on a wet stretch of rocks, Oramel Howland, the man tasked with mapping the river, begged Powell to call it quits. Howland proposed a massive climb to the rim and then a 75-mile hike to the nearest Mormon settlement. But Powell was unwilling to surrender his goal so close to what he estimated was the river’s end. If just one man would go with him, he told the others, he would continue on.

“I done what I could to knock such notions [of quitting] out of their heads, but as I was not sure of my side of the argument I fear I did not make the case very strong,” Powell’s friend and the man in charge of the lead boat, Jack Sumner, would write in a letter many years later. “Howland had fully made up his mind to quit. As the rapids had become a holy terror to him I saw that farther talk was useless.”

Both groups thought the other was taking the dangerous route, but Howland ultimately left, taking his brother, Seneca, and another crew member, William Dunn. Though none of the expedition members knew it at the time, they were only days from calmer waters waiting down-river. Howland and the others had surrendered 239 miles into the 277-mile Grand Canyon, dwindling the expedition crew to six.

As Powell and his remaining men shoved off for Separation’s rapids, they piled into the two boats they thought river-worthy and left the third behind with some rations and ammunition for the men hiking out.

They made it past the first rapid with ease, but later that day, one of the men, George Bradley, nearly drowned when a rope broke loose as they tried to lower the vessel around the rapids. The boat was sucked under a massive wave at the Lava Cliffs Rapid, then thrown back out again over and over until it disappeared from their view. Finally, Bradley reemerged in a whirlpool, waving his hat and yelling.

The next day, on August 29, 1869, Powell and his men passed Grand Wash and knew they had emerged safely at the end of Grand Canyon and their historic journey.

As a testament to how difficult running the Colorado through Grand Canyon is, it would take 80 years from that first expedition for the next 100 people to complete the journey. Now, nearly 20,000 people each year take a professionally outfitted river trip through the national park. While Powell and his crew completed the journey without life jackets and in wooden boats designed primarily as water taxis, modern river trips most often use large inflatable rubber boats that are motorized and able to complete the journey in only one to two weeks.

Even more remarkably, because the rapids of Separation Canyon and those down-river have been buried beneath Lake Mead since the 1930s, few ever experienced the most extreme waters of the Grand Canyon as the Powell expedition did.

When Powell and his crew made it back to civilization, they would find that the world thought they were dead, thanks to a wide array of news articles proclaiming various tragic ends for the party. One fraud named John Risdon (not on the trip) told the Chicago Tribune that he was the only surviving member of the expedition. The paper later retracted the story, but the lack of contact from Powell after leaving Green River fed wild speculation in the press.

Meanwhile, the three deserters would never be heard from again. Newspapers at the time reported the men were killed by members of a local Native American tribe, but more recent accounts indicate they might have been murdered by Mormon settlers. In his book Under the Banner of Heaven, Jon Krakauer asserts that the settlers might have mistaken the men for government agents on the hunt for criminals from a sect of religious fundamentalists.

Despite the media fascination with the expedition, the rushed trip produced little of scientific value. Powell’s book and most historical accounts are actually pulled from a better-prepared 1871-72 trip that received support from the U.S. government. The second time through Grand Canyon, Powell brought photographers and carefully mapped the area.

“It was certainly better planned in terms of supplies and communication with the outside world so that the risks experienced on the first trip were minimized,” says Worster. “Powell was trying to avoid the heroics and focus more on results that would be important to Washington the second time around.”

In the 1870s, Powell became the man of the decade. He traveled the country giving speeches and eventually founded and then directed the United States Geological Survey. He went on to promote protection and appreciation of the Grand Canyon landscape and Southwest native cultures with evangelical zeal in much the same way his father had preached the Bible. “The Canyon is a book of revelations in the rock- leaved Bible of geology,” he wrote. “All around me are interesting records, and I can read as I run.”