Imagine traveling down the Colorado River from Wyoming all the way down to where the Colorado and Virgin Rivers meet. Now imagine doing it 150 years ago, without today’s transportation, technology, and settlements. That’s what John Wesley Powell and his geographic expedition did.
Powell had fought in the Civil War. A wound at the Battle of Shiloh cost him most of his right arm, but he returned to fight and stayed for the duration of the war. Afterward, he became a geology professor in Illinois and curator of the state’s natural history museum. But, in the spirit of some of those who came before him, he wanted to explore and report on the West.
In 1869, he led his first big expedition. He and nine men left Green River Station in Wyoming Territory in May. Seven of them were Civil War veterans, and knew their business in the wilderness; none of them qualified as an expert on rafting a river. They took the Green River until it met the Colorado, a distance of about 300 miles, then followed the Colorado south to the Grand Canyon, not knowing what they might see. Really. Powell wrote in his journal, “We have an unknown distance yet to run. What falls there are, we know not; what rocks beset the channel, we know not.”
But they found out. Along the way, they named several landmarks, including a beautiful area that Powell called Glen Canyon. They nearly died in the summer heat of the Grand Canyon. Four of the ten men left the expedition; three of them were never heard from again. Finally, that August, the last six reached their destination: St. Thomas, on the Virgin River, a Mormon settlement that later disappeared under the waters of Lake Mead.
But Lake Mead wasn’t there then, nor was Hoover Dam. For his part, Powell got to see the Colorado in its wildest, most pristine form. He saw it again two years later, when he again traveled from Wyoming to the Grand Canyon. This time, he took a photographer, and produced maps and reports. He also planned ahead: he hired Mormon missionary Jacob Hamblin, who had a reputation for getting along well with Native Americans. Three of the members of Powell’s first party may have died at the hands of a band of Southern Paiutes. Powell wanted to make sure relations would be good. They were, and Powell completed his trek.
Powell went on to national fame and prominence. He also was the director of the Bureau of Ethnology at the Smithsonian for more than two decades. He published anthropological studies of Native Americans of the West. Unfortunately, he subscribed to the then-popular view of them as uncivilized. But some of the works he produced still proved highly useful.
Powell published a book about his expeditions. He became director of the U.S. Geological Survey, serving for thirteen years. Interestingly, he succeeded the first USGS director, Clarence King, who had been known for surveying and exploring the Sierra Nevada. Both of the directors had important Nevada connections. And having been in the West, Powell understood the limits imposed by the lack of water. He fought railroad builders and entrepreneurs promoting agriculture. He argued for conservation. At the time, he was largely unsuccessful. Time has proved that they should have listened to him.