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The life of Major John Wesley Powell

The Life of John Wesley Powell

John Wesley Powell was a soldier, scientist, and explorer. He is best known for his daring exploratory trips down the Green and Colorado Rivers in 1869 and 1872, and is credited with leading the first group of white men down the Colorado River through present day Grand Canyon.

It was 1869. Ten men in four boats were about to embark on a journey that would cover almost 1,000 miles through uncharted canyons and change the west forever. Three months later, only five of the original company plus their one-armed Civil War hero leader would emerge from the depths of the Grand Canyon at the mouth of the Virgin River.

Thirty-five-year-old Major John Wesley Powell was that expedition’s leader. From early childhood, Powell manifested deep interest in all natural phenomena. Original and self-reliant to a remarkable degree, he early undertook collection and exploring trips quite unusual for a youth of his age and studied botany, zoology, and geology wholly without the aid of a teacher.

Powell was born in Mount Morris, New York, in 1834. He served in the Civil War, where he lost his right arm at the Battle of Shiloh.

Powell traversed various portions of Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa, and the Iron Mountain regions of Missouri, collecting shells, minerals, and general natural history objects, which led to his election in 1859 to the secretaryship of the Illinois Natural History Society. It is said that, in 1856, when but 22 years old, he descended the Mississippi alone in a rowboat from the Falls of St. Anthony to its mouth, making collections on the way. Again, in 1857, he rowed the whole length of the Ohio River from Pittsburg to its mouth, and in 1858 made a life trip down the Illinois River to its mouth and thence up the Des Moines.

Powell's wife, Emma DeanWith the outbreak of the Civil War in 1860, Powell enlisted in the 20th Illinois volunteers and was mustered in as second lieutenant. He was for a time stationed at Cape Girardeau. As captain of Battery F of the second Illinois artillery, he took part in the battle of Shiloh, losing his right arm at Pittsburg Landing. He returned to the service as soon as his wound healed and fought in the battles of Champion Hill and Black River Bridge. His wife Emma Dean received permission from General Grant to accompany her husband on the battlefield to minister to him.

At the close of operations about Vicksburg, he was obliged to submit to a second operation on his arm but returned to his post in season to participate in the Meridan Raid. Later he was made major and chief of artillery, first, of the 17th army corps and subsequently, of the department of Tennessee, taking part in the operations before Atlanta and in the battle of Franklin.

Soon after leaving the service at the end of the Civil War as a “major” in 1865, he accepted the position of Professor of Geology and Curator of the Museum of the Illinois Wesleyan University at Bloomington, where he had previously received the degrees of AB and AM. (Although not a college graduate, Powell did receive in 1886 the degree of PhD from Heidelberg, Germany, and that of LL.D. from Harvard.) He also became connected with the Illinois Normal University and was widely known throughout the state by his lectures and addresses on scientific subjects.

Postage stamp commemorating Powell's first Colorado River expeditionIt was on field trips out West that Powell began to formulate his idea of exploring the Grand Canyon of the Colorado itself.

On May 24, 1869, Powell and nine men he recruited for a truly monumental journey pushed from shore their boats and headed down the Green River from Green River, Wyoming, amidst shouts and cheers from onlookers who must have thought they would never see these 10 men again. They took provisions for 10 months.

About a month later, one of the men, an Englishman named Frank Goodman, approached the Major saying “I’ve had more excitement than a man deserves in a lifetime. I’m leaving.” At that point in the trip, they had already lost one boat to the rapids and most of their supplies. It must have been rather exciting, as the men knew not what to expect from one day to the next. Goodman was able to walk to a nearby settlement and lived out his life hunting, trapping on and near the Ute Reservation, and later raising a family in Vernal, Utah.

Illustration showing Powell's wooden dories in the Colorado RiverThe 1869 expedition continued down the Green to the confluence of the Grand River flowing west into Utah. The two mighty rivers then merged into the “Colorado” — Spanish for “red river” because when it rained the side tributaries spilled their muddy sediment into the clear green waters of the main channel causing it to run red and thick with silt.

River runners described the Colorado in the days before Glen Canyon Dam as “too thick to drink and too thin to plow.”

During the next 2 months on the river, the men encountered many more rapids that could not be run safely in Powell’s estimation. He was ever cautious, fearful they would lose the rest of the supplies and perhaps even their lives. So they lined the boats down the side of the rapids, or portaged boats and supplies through the rocks along the shoreline. However, there were times when they had to run the swollen river through rapids that surely made them pray.

At a place now called Separation Canyon, O.G. Howland, his brother Seneca, and Bill Dunn came to the Major and spoke of “how we surely will all die if we continue on this journey.” They could only see more danger ahead. Try as they might, they could not convince Powell to abandon the river.

The next morning, the three men bid farewell to Powell and the remaining five adventurers. Powell left his boat the Emma Dean at the head of Separation Rapid in case they changed their minds. With the other five men, Powell ran what would turn out to be the first of two remaining major rapids they would encounter. The Howlands and Dunn climbed out of the canyon walking towards civilization only to meet their death at the hands of Shivwits Indians who mistook them for miners that had killed a Hualapai woman on the south side of the river. At least that was the story Powell heard the next year when he visited the Shivwits area with Mormon Scout Jacob Hamblin.

It was ironic they parted company then, as 2 days later Powell and the other men reached the mouth of the Virgin River (now under Lake Mead) and were met by settlers fishing from the river bank. The adventurers had not been heard from in 3 months and were presumed dead.

Historical photo of Major PowellPowell had completed what he set out to do… explore and confirm his theory on the Grand Canyon of the Colorado, a region up to that time almost wholly unknown and concerning which there were many vague and often wild rumors. His theory was the river preceded the canyons and then cut them as the Plateau rose.

Returning a national hero to Illinois, Powell promptly hit the lecture circuit then raised funds for a second expedition in 1871, which would produce what the first did not — a map and scientific publications.

Powell’s active work as a geologist eventually gave way to a new career in government. In March 1881, he assumed the directorship of the U.S. Geological Survey when the Clarence King resigned. He served for 13 years, proposing policies for development of the arid West that were prescient for his accurate evaluation of conditions. Until his own voluntary retirement from the USGS in 1894, Powell also directed the Bureau of Ethnology at the Smithsonian Institution, where he supported linguistic and sociological research and publications. He ran the Bureau until his death in 1902, despite failing health related mainly to his amputated arm, a great source of periodic pain. Between 1894 and 1902, Powell spent increasingly less time running the Bureau and more time on his philosophical / ethnographic writing.


Powell's grave at ArlingtonPowell died from a cerebral hemorrhage at his summer home in Haven, Maine, on September 23, 1902. His wife Emma Dean, whom he married in 1862, and their only child, a daughter named Mary Dean, survived him. With the honors bestowed to a Civil War Veteran, Powell is buried in Arlington Cemetery.

  • Major Powell
  • Walter Powell, his brother
  • Jack Sumner
  • Andy Hall
  • William Rhodes Hawkins
  • George Bradley
  • Frank Goodman (left after first 3 weeks; first 80 miles)

The following three left at Separation Canyon near the end of the journey and met untimely deaths, allegedly by Shivwits Indians seeking three men who killed an Indian woman:

  • O.G. Howland
  • Seneca Howland, brother to O.G. (Oramel)
  • William H. “Bill” Dunn
  • Major Powell
  • Walter Clement Powell, cousin and assistant photographer
  • Professor A. H. Thompson, Powell’s brother-in-law
  • Frederick S. Dellenbaugh
  • S.V. Jones
  • E.O. Beaman, photographer
  • Jack Hillers, became photographer after Beaman left
  • J.F. Steward
  • F.M. Bishop
  • Frank Richardson
  • Andrew Hattan

Reserve a tour of Lake Powell, Antelope Canyon, or the Colorado River through the Powell Museum

“The wonders of the Grand Canyon cannot be adequately represented in symbols of speech, nor by speech itself. The resources of the graphic art are taxed beyond their powers in attempting to portray its features. Language and illustration combined must fail.”

—John Wesley Powell

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