John Wesley Powell’s Grand Canyon Adventure

John Wesley Powell

It’s tough to talk about the Grand Canyon without mentioning John Wesley Powell. In 1869, Powell famously led a three month geographic expedition into the Grand Canyon. It was the first time white men would navigate the entirety of the Canyon and accurately document its geologic, geographic, and anthropological features.


On May 24 1869 Major John Wesley Powell and his nine-man team climbed into their boats and pushed off of the shore at Green River Station in Wyoming. Powell was determined to run the Colorado River, documenting it for future scientists and settlers of the American west. Knowing the river would be an essential resource for thousands (and later millions), Powell and his men floated southward down the Green River to its confluence with the Colorado.

While traveling down the Green River through Utah, Powell took careful notes and observations of the river and surrounding habitats. He and his men collected rock samples and fossils that Powell used for his geologic research into the history of the river system.

On July 17 Powell and his men, after 538 miles of difficult travel, emerged at the confluence of the Green and Colorado Rivers. The route had been difficult: two boats were lost as well as months of supplies. However, spirits were high as they began the next leg of the expedition: The Colorado River.


Grand Canyon Expedition Map


The Colorado River


On July 21, the expedition started down the uncharted Colorado River. Traveling many miles a day Powell was able to quickly record new cartographic and geologic data about regions never before seen by white settlers. The crew’s first obstacle was what they would name Cataract Canyon, a dangerous length of the Colorado river saturated with hazards like rocks and rapids.


The crew fought past Cataract Canyon and eventually arrived at an Anasazi ruin. While not the first humans to live in the canyon, the Anasazi are believed to have arrived circa 500 A.D. They colonized the canyon until 1140 A.D. when lack of rainfall diminished the river and local water sources forcing the Anasazi to abandon the region.


The scenery began to change as the expedition progressed. Fertile glens with trees, ferns and other vegetation replaced the barren cliffs. Awesome rock arches, carved cliffs and mighty buttes welcomed the crew at a site they called Monument Canyon; what we now call Glen Canyon. Finally, on August 13, the crew arrived at the beginning of the Grand Canyon.


The Grand Canyon

Major Powell named the canyon Grand Canyon, astonished by its immense size and rich geology. Powell described the Grand Canyon as the “library of the gods” in reference to the invaluable information “written” in the canyon’s rock layers. The rocks began forming 2 billion years ago and have hosted ancient seas, forests, swamps and glaciers — each period uniquely shaping the canyon and recording its signature. About 40 million years ago the Colorado River shifted its flow westward across the Colorado plateau and began sculpting the Grand Canyon.


Grand Canyon Rock LayersTravel in the Grand Canyon was difficult at best. Supplies were low, and the battered boats and men were constantly exposed to the elements and extreme daytime heat. At this point in the trip, the crew was deep into what is know as the Granite Gorge – a relentless stretch of harrowing rapids, with little reprieve. Thankfully, on August 16 the expedition discovered Silver Creek which Powell later renamed Bright Angel Creek.  On August 27, the expedition encountered a barrier of boulders that had been washed into the Colorado by a side stream. These boulders created the most fearsome water the men had see on their journey. After investigating, Powell decided to run the falls. Three of the anxious crew refused, certain that running the falls was futile. The next morning, Powell and his men successfully made it over the falls, but the three who had abandoned the expedition were never seen again. Today the site is called Separation Rapid.


Three days later on August 30 the expedition floated into the mouth of the Virgin River with the Grand Canyon and its dangerous rapids behind them. The expedition concluded at a Mormon settlement up the river. Powell eventually traveled back to Illinois and was considered a national hero. He mapped vast portions of the Colorado River, began the extensive geological study of the Grand Canyon, and was a forerunner for western settlers. In 1873 Powell became the Commissioner of Indian Affairs and tried to help the natives through their forced assimilation. After studying the western tribes for years, Powell became the director of the Irrigation Survey in 1888. Powell knew what land would be valuable and how the Colorado River would be taxed by settlers for agriculture. Powell’s water management plan was fought by wealthy landowners and interested parties. It wasn’t until President Roosevelt in 1902 created a federal irrigation program that Powell’s ideas were put into practice.


Powell’s appreciation and aptitude for the natural sciences unlocked a national treasure. The Grand Canyon’s beauty and unbelievable size attract over 5 million visitors each year.


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