22 May 2018 Blogs

John Wesley Powell and the Geographic Expedition of 1869

Intro Copy

What would possess a one-armed Civil War veteran to lead nine other men for nearly one thousand miles down the Colorado River on dangerous rapids in row boats? For John Wesley Powell, a former Major for the Union Army who lost his arm at the Battle of Shiloh, and for many who made the trek with him, that answer was a simple love of exploration. But additionally for Powell, it was to advance his scientific and geographical studies of the West. On May 24, 1869, with four twenty-foot row boats and rations for ten months, Powell and his men, including Powell's brother Walter, set off from present-day southwestern Wyoming on the Green River, a tributary of the Colorado, on what is now known as the Geographic Expedition of 1869. Powell, a natural sciences professor and one of the founding members of the National Geographic Society, was interested in two things: mapping the Colorado River and studying the natural history of the surrounding areas. None of the expedition members, including Powell, had any significant whitewater experience. What lay before them were class five rapids, massive cataracts, and large waterfalls that would require long, grueling portages. Their row boats were ill-suited for such a trek. Only 100 miles into the journey, on the Green River, the first boat was lost at Disaster Falls in Lodore Canyon in an area what is now the Dinosaur National Monument in Colorado and Utah. A quarter of their provisions and many scientific instruments were lost, including barometers used to measure elevation. One man, an Englishman who had volunteered for the adventure of the trip, decided that he had enough of the experience and quit the expedition. By the time they were half way through the Grand Canyon, three more men, fearing they could no longer survive the dangers of river, quit the journey and climbed the steep walls out of the canyon. Unknown to them and the rest of the expedition, they only had two days left of the journey; the three men would never be seen again and were presumed to be killed by a tribe of Paiute Indians. When the remaining Powell party arrived at their destination at the confluence of the Colorado and Virgin rivers, the expedition had lost four of the nine men, two boats, and half of their supplies and rations. Educators of science, geography, and history can use eLibrary's Research Topics to help students retrace Powell's trip down the Colorado and the Grand Canyon. They can find out what Powell discovered on his initial trip, and what he subsequently discovered on a follow-up trip two years later. Students can explore the Research Topic (above) about John Wesley Powell and his expedition to better understand the impact of his explorations. Students can also explore the Research Topics below of some of the geographic locations along the Colorado River where Powell and his men traveled.

It was here that Powell and his men lost a boat and a quarter of their supplies, including scientific equipment.


Powell believed they were on the headwaters of the Colorado River when they departed from Wyoming on the Green River. In fact, the Colorado's headwaters begin high in the Colorado Rocky Mountains near Boulder.


In Canyonlands, the expedition finally reaches the confluence of the Colorado River (then known as the Grand River) with Green River.


Now covered by the waters of Lake Powell, the description of Glen Canyon in Powell's memoirs vividly described the geological rock formations and natural area as "carved walls, royal arches, glens, alcove gulches, mounds and monuments ..."


Nearly half way through the Grand Canyon, and only two days from finishing the expedition, three men leave the expedition and climb out of the canyon. They were never seen again.


The expedition finally reached its destination at the confluence of the Colorado and Virgin River, now submerged under Lake Mead's waters.


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