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Famed Colorado River Expedition Remembered At Sesquicentennial

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A 1969 stamp commemorated the centennial of the John Wesley Powell expedition.

One of the most famous adventures in the Old West ended 150 years ago on the banks of the Virgin River in northern Clark County.

That’s where John Wesley Powell finished his 1869 expedition down the Colorado River and through the Grand Canyon. The one-armed explorer came ashore at the juncture of the Virgin and Colorado rivers, not far from the present Valley of Fire State Park.

In the preceeding 100 days, Powell and his small party traveled downriver in small boats from Wyoming and became the first known people to traverse the Grand Canyon by water.

Powell’s travels are chronicled in “The Powell Expedition: New Discoveries about John Wesley Powell’s 1869 River Journey," by author and historian Don Lago.

Lago said Powell stood apart from other explorers.

“Powell was unique because he was interested in science, he wasn’t serving Manifest Destiny,” he told State of Nevada.

Other explorers were looking for new trade routes, precious metals, railroad passages or other ways to add to the nation's wealth and power, Lago said. Powell instead was a geology professor from Illinois who was interested in studying the Grand Canyon. 

“When he was teaching in Illinois, he realized that the West was mostly unexplored, especially from a geological perspective," Lago explained.

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After studying the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, Powell decided to head down the Colorado River.

“From there, he realized that the Colorado River was the great mystery of the West," Lago said, "Nobody really knew that much about what it held, and it certainly held some fantastic geology. He knew that much, and he was determined to see it, even if he was risking his life.”

Powell and his team were far from prepared. The boats they took were meant for slow moving, straight rivers not the wild white water of the Colorado.

In addition, no one really knew if the river was passible. Some had speculated that it went underground for a while and had large waterfalls. They told Powell that he would end up trapped at the bottom of a canyon between waterfalls.

“Powell was willing the gamble his life on the river being passible,” Lago said.

He was also going on a theory that because the river had flowed for millions of years the major obstructions were worn down. He wasn't entirely correct but they managed to survive.

“As far as preparation went, there really wasn’t very much as far as training goes," Lago said, "No one had ever really deliberately run a white-water river for the adventure of it at that point.”

Now, Powell is considered somewhat of a patron saint of river runners.

The journey had an inauspicious start. They lost one of their boats early on and a third of their food supply along with it.

“It became pretty obvious at that point that this was not going to be a very casual scientific study," he said, "It was going to be an endurance contest. It was going to be a fight for survival and that’s what I pretty much became.”

There wasn't a lot of game at the bottom of the canyons and the edible plants that Native Americans lived on were foreign to the crewmembers so they didn't know what was safe and what was dangerous.

“We think of Lewis and Clark as being a terrible ordeal, but Powell came closer to starving to death than Lewis and Clark ever did,” he said.

Despite the hardship and the crewmembers that abandoned the expedition in Southern Utah, Powell made it.

“He certainly became a national figure because of that not necessarily because people were fascinated by the geology of the Grand Canyon but because Americans have always honored their explorers,” Lago said.

But Powell actually damaged his reputation by telling the American people a truth they did not want to hear then and we're struggling with today, water is scarce in the West.

"Powell saw that the West was very different," Lago said, “He sounded a warning.”

Powell told people that the kind of agriculture and ranching that had worked so well in the Great Plains and Midwest were going to be a problem in the West because of the lack of water and soil issues.

“He was really quite a visionary and saw right up to our day and we’re still really in the next few years facing some of the reckoning that he was predicting back in the 1880s," Lago said, "Clearly, he saw what we would be dealing with.”

Lago said Powell tried to tell people that nature was like the Colorado River- it lives by its own rules and you better play by its rules or it will kill you. Lago believes its a lesson we're still trying to learn.

Lago's book is being re-released as a paperback by University of Nevada Press to mark the Powell expedition’s sesquicentennial.

Guests

Don Lago, historian and author

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