Posted on Leave a comment

The Literature of Exploration: John Wesley Powell’s 1869 Expedition

Colorado River
At Horseshoe Bend, the Colorado River takes a dramatic turn. (Photo by Omer Salom on Unsplash)


Imagine being the first person to go down the Colorado River and explore the Grand Canyon. That feat was accomplished by John Wesley Powell, a one-armed, former Civil War general. This article by New Mexico author Rich Holzin first appeared in The Daily Kos

For those who are interested in late 19th Century Western history, today begins an abridged account of one of America’s most outstanding explorers of the Colorado Plateau’s canyon country, and with the proviso a man who certainly was ensnarled with allegations of duplicity given his role in his surveys of the canyon country defined by the Green and Colorado rivers. I am not a typical Powell biographer in the sense I defend the man’s character by turning a blind eye to the charges that were later levied against him by some of his 1869 crew members and the public who, some of them, felt betrayed by his writings. Still, I rise to his defense in some ways, while acknowledging, as he did in his later years, some rather glaring mistakes that he made.

Let me also state I admire Major Powell for his great accomplishments at all odds, and despite the proven blunders in his wake through history. When you write about a person, you tend to get inside their head. Thus a tendency to see through the smoke or cut through the literary collusion that, otherwise, might be glossed over by other written sources, and some with a predetermined bias. In a much larger work that I wrote many years ago, and still seeking its publication, I was therefore able to get a better sense and feel of what Major Powell (an honorary and well deserved Civil War title of rank he preferred to his dying day) was like, both as a person and commander of his two celebrated expeditions. Likewise, I had a better understanding why he did what he did, though not to say or suggest I condoned his actions, machinations, and methods that led to his ultimate success. Rather, I considered the Gestalt of his situation as the recognized leader of the expedition compared to those under his command. Arguably, I think he was also the only person who could have pulled off the impossible, that is, asserting how none of the others under his command could have done similarly.

This larger, and more comprehensive, tome that I wrote led me in more recent years (POWELL ––Confessions, Secrets & Revelations From Beyond The Grave), my idea was to present an innovative way to tell a still popular story to an audience. Namely, a faux play with Major Powell in the center stage and the two so-called diarists respectively on his left and right. Additionally, there is another person overseeing the performance, something akin to a Chorus as was popular in Greek tragedies. It’s not the case I consider the Powell saga a tragedy, so much as there was a tragic outcome given the first expedition’s loss of three crew members, as well as the drama created by that expedition certainly warrants such a place in American History.

About the diarists. . .all three members of the expedition had authored their accounts of the 1869 expedition, though Major Powell’s chronicle would eventually serve as the sole tome. One of the diarists even went to his grave with his secret diary. This diary is also the most important of the three, an explanation deferred until a later essay.

Following Major Powell’s inaugural and intrepid run down the Colorado and Green rivers, there was another, and longer, expedition, which began in 1871. That odyssey, too, was revealed in the same book authored by Major Powell (published in 1875, the first such publication of two). Herein lies one of the more glaring snags that haunted Major Powell for the rest of his celebrated life. This contentious matter also amounts to his avid and supportive readers assuming what transpired in the descriptive prose of Major Powell’s expert account was actually one long expedition that began in 1869 and ended in 1872! When factoring in Major Powell’s prior Rocky Mountain excursion, in 1868, which was intended to explore some sector of the West (i.e., at the time he did not know exactly where to begin), readers merely assumed the excursion was even longer.

This teasing opening will all be revealed in this lengthy and historical account, a true account, of Major John Wesley Powell’s exploration of a huge geographical region that was mostly deemed terra incognita––the “unknown land.” The text accounting for series of diaries also comes from the aforementioned larger work of some 900 pages (sans graphics, photos or illustrations) written under the title: GRAND CANYON RIM-TO-RIVER ANTHOLOGY: A Comprehensive Field Guide. The segment of this tome written expressly for Major Powell, who was the first explorer that literally put this sector of the canyon country on a map (and who bequeaths to us the designate we all know today, the Grand Canyon), is entitled POWELL, THE IMPERIOUS EXPLORER (presented in two parts). The use of this strong adjective, imperious, is also intentional.

Before getting started on this saga, this almost impossible adventure that, by some accounts, should never have succeeded, let me also say I have always felt a special rapport with this single-minded, and somewhat autocratic, self-made explorer. First, he was one of the signers of the National Geographic Society that formed in 1888. Second, my late (and great) Uncle Irvin Alleman, worked for National Geographic for some thirty years. He was also one of the head artists and head cartographer of this foundation (whose bailiwick was akin to what Major Powell and his men were tasked with given the intent behind mounting the expedition). Third, I worked for Base Camp I (a part-time summer season position), as a geology, human and natural history interpreter, which was a promo educational facet of the IMAX Theater, at Tusayan (just outside the Grand Canyon’s South Rim entrance). This particular IMAX and Base Camp 1 enterprise was also owned by National Geographic. Fourth, for a time I was a boatmen on the Green and Colorado (and Yampa) rivers (in the 1970s), the same rivers Major Powell and his men explored. Finally, one of my Grand Canyon Field Institute students, a somewhat elderly man, was a second cousin of Frederick Dellenbaugh. Dellenbaugh was a crew member on Powell’s second expedition, who later wrote a peerless account of said expedition and finally set the story straight. When his book was published, only then did readers realize there were TWO expeditions, not one. So begins that part of the intrigue of the John Wesley Powell story (and further along also revealed in this series of diaries). There are also other problems that are revealed in these diaries, mostly messy and personal affairs centered on a few disgruntled crew members of the first expedition; and wouldn’t you just know the dispute was mainly over money!

So, with all the above in mind let us find a place in one of Major Powell’s boats and replay the adventure of long ago as though we are part of that time, reality and the growing consternation that affected most of the crew. Of course, the story begins with an overall historical account. Mainly, what spurred the major to embark on the adventure, while crafting some of the many facets of his character defining his resolute spirits, tenacity, and ability to do what no other had done or even dared to do.

Incidentally, photos will be somewhat sparing in these diary offerings, mainly because there was no photography on the first expedition. That welcomed asset documenting the scenery and expedition came later during the second run down the two rivers coursing through the wilds of a canyon country about to get a more thorough mapping by way of cartography and collected data. But I think the words and imagery used in depicting this series may help paint images in your minds. When possible, I will rely on historical photographs, even though most were taken after the first expedition, and some by E. O. Beaman, the expedition’s photographer. (J.K. Hillers also added some photographs to the tally.)

map of the Powell expedition
Map showing the 1868 pre-expedition scouting location


Who, as a man, specifically his mannerisms, his vagaries, and his passions, could be so resolute in all that he did; to want to be more than what his father wanted him to be (in this case, a Presbyterian minister and a yeoman farmer like himself); to be so single-minded that he tirelessly pushed himself and the men under his military or civilian command? Whether it was for the sake of duty for country, or his post military leadership in mounting the expeditions to explore the Rocky Mountain West and two great rivers beyond this majestic range, he asked no less from his men than he did of himself.

Who was this staunchly dedicated man of fame and daring, who was so driven and compulsive to a fault that he often tended to overlook social protocol from the men he had recruited to go along with him on two dauntless missions he, himself, may not have originally come up with (as an idea) in the first place? Stoical to a fault, even argumentative and autocratic at times, he was singular in many ways. Yet here was a man who accomplished all that he set out to do, with no less credit due the men who served under him. Still, it was his tenacious will and driving force that pushed and prodded his men to step to their own personal edge and risk their lives, just as he did, solely for a rough and tumble adventure many people of his time considered to be impossible to survive much less to succeed.

The Character of John Wesley Powell

The who of this opening is, of course, John Wesley Powell. Although he was a man of small stature and somewhat scrawny in his heyday, some of Powell’s admirers claimed he was larger than life itself. In a way he was Promethean. Let’s not forget he was maimed in the Civil War and had part of his right arm amputated. This impairment still made no difference to him. Indeed, he could climb sheer and scary places (to most people, scary) and find routes to the top where others would be loathe to follow. Powell was just that kind of a man; he had that kind of spunk and determination.

Although Major Powell, a title he preferred after his honorable discharge, is still considered one of the great nineteenth century explorers of the American West, he was overshadowed by his own dubious and luminous portrayal. His fine reputation and personal record captured in the dramatics of his most famous publications caught up with him and Powell was somewhat tarnished. Hence, the answers implied in the above questions are as complicated as Powell was in life, and even more enmeshed after his demise a little over a hundred years ago. As a legendary hero, the major was a born explorer and self-made man. He had the appetite to learn just about anything. Indeed, to read the life and times of John Wesley Powell is to embrace a historical contradiction, for he was also that in many ways—a contradiction.

At the very least, John Wesley Powell was a complicated man throughout his life in some respects. He had a discreet side most people, save for his wife and second cousin, Emma, barely knew. Resolute, singular, and persevering are three of Powell’s main attributes that sum up his personality. He was also a man deeply interested in science and nature who preferred field studies to textbooks.

With respect to the title segment of this composition, “Powell, the Imperious Explorer,” (so named in the aforementioned Anthology tome) it is not meant to be unduly harsh on the major. What follows will explain why some of his more critical admirers have construed in such a way. There is no reason to defame his name or reputation in any way. Rather, it is to reveal more of the real (i.e., true, unembellished, etc.) story that Powell, along with his many admiring biographers (i.e., William Culp Darrah, Wallace Stegner, David Lavender, Donald Worster, Edward Dolnick) have delineated to their readers over the years. It is also too soon to get into a quagmire with respect to what staunch defenders of Powellism favored or considered concoction (i.e., the complaints from some of Major Powell’s men). Nevertheless, to treat the subject fairly, that is the expedition itself and the men who were part of it, requires tolerance with respect to sifting through the facts of the story, as told from various perspectives—not just his. The truth is some of the men under Major Powell’s command, especially the first expedition, did complain. They thought he was too autocratic and too militaristic. Hence, the reason for the title of this composition. Not only do we find these complaints cropping up during his two runs down the rivers, but also years later, even after his demise, the drama continued.

In light of these pronouncements, many Powell biographers missed (or else did not bother) themselves with obvious details when they compiled their respective works. In short, they mistook Powell’s penumbra for the deeper stained umbra he cast when it came time to publishing his account of the expeditions. But these staunch admirers of his may have let their admiration get in the way of being more objective reporters. They also dismissed, as hearsay or tirades of disgruntled men, many (if not all) of the objections a few of them made known to the public through their journals and post expedition interviews. However, when these so-called complainers tell their side of the story, which this composition intends to give them their voice in this matter, then the reader will have to decide for him or herself what is credible and what isn’t. Otherwise, hearing the story only through Powell’s writings is what led to this historical crisis in the first place.

To this day, Major Powell’s biography remains an engaging chronicle for those who admire his adventures. Due to meticulous historical research over the years, modern readers are better able to discern this 5 foot 6 1/2 inch giant of a man who rose to meteoric fame, and later retreated to his own private and somewhat secluded world. Corrected and confirmed historical records now reveal a man who was as much an opportunist who sought recognition for his meritorious achievements, as he was indefatigable in cautioning and counseling the government he served. In short, the Federal Government should not be too hasty in developing the West by Eastern standards. But the conservative views Powell embraced ended up diminishing his once stellar reputation among his peers. The major’s fall from grace and prestige in Washington society began in the mid-1880s when he threw down one gauntlet too many. It was a different kind of a war that he fought, not with guns or cannons, but with verbiage. It was a war of politics and economics and Powell eventually lost that battle to a few Western politicians who simply ran a better campaign than he did. It was around this time that Major Powell was often ostracized and criticized by his counterparts for lacking the kind of aggressive vision others were eager to exploit, almost at any cost.

Nevertheless, Powell’s achievements as a noteworthy explorer and visionary helped push open the Western door and he is deserving of his plaudits. Then again, so are his men who went with him on those two long and demanding river odysseys. Sadly, some of his crew almost didn’t get their rightful recognition for the roles they played. It would take many decades after the major’s demise for all of the facts and details to surface and straighten out the tangled web of story telling that Powell had published in his memoirs.

Today, all of his men, on both crews, are recognized in a new light. This historical dispensation and honor is especially true of the first crew who rowed down the rivers with him. These men were absolutely essential to Major Powell’s command and helped launch his platform of success and recognition. If, as some of Powell’s biographers claimed only he could have accomplished what he set out to do, then the men he chose to go with him must also share in the glory. Thus this composition’s intent is to share some of the limelight Powell garnered for himself. Doubtless he would object to doing this because there was a side to his character that clearly recognized his latter day atonement. You have only to read the preface of his 1895 revamped publication, Canyons of the Colorado, to know this. He wrote:

Many years have passed since the exploration, and those who were the boys with me in the enterprise are — ah, most of them are dead, and the living are gray with age. Their bronzed, hardy, brave faces come before me as they appeared in the vigor of life; their lithe but powerful forms seem to move around me; and the memory of the men and their heroic deeds, the men and their generous acts, overwhelm me with a joy that seems almost a grief, for it starts a formation of tears. I was a maimed man; my right arm was gone; and these brave men, these good men, never forgot it. In every danger my safety was their first care, and in every waking hour some kind of service was rendered me, and they transfigured my misfortune into a boon.

To you — J. C. Sumner, William H. Dunn, W. H. Powell, G. Y. Bradley, O. G. Howland, Seneca Howland, Frank Goodman, W. R. Hawkins, and Andrew Hall — my noble and generous companions, dead and alive, I dedicate this book.

A portrait close to the end of Major Powell’s life, seated at his desk in Washington


And to this maudlin apology I say, “Amen and A-Women, too!” Although late in its coming, the major’s remarks denote a sincere apology given some people’s views on the matter.

A Complicated Legacy

As previously mentioned, the primary focus of these successive diaries is an account of the first expedition, in 1869, including relevant historical background. From the above we know there were two expeditions and the second took place during the years 1871-72. Something needs to be mentioned here about the latter expedition in order to help make better sense where the main problems are in Powell’s story.

Conceivably, the second expedition was more thorough and scientific than the first. Even though it was also the longer of the two, the second expedition was aborted midway through the Grand Canyon where Kanab Canyon meets the Colorado River (mile 144). Still, the reason for focusing on the first expedition is intentional, simply because reading Major Powell’s published text and version of this epic feat reads as though there never was a second expedition. Fortunately, that befuddlement has since been straightened out by others, notably one of the more popular crew men on the second expedition who chronicled the second expedition.

On the other oar, the first expedition is still considered by historians as more mythical and unequaled than the second. Besides, the second excursion saw Major Powell more absent than present. Since by that time he truly was a proven trail blazer (by way of two formidable rivers) and a man of proven acclaim, Major Powell found it necessary, if not altogether convenient, to leave his brother-in-law, Professor Almon Harris Thompson, in charge for much of the time. The reason for the major’s absence was because he went to Salt Lake City whenever the opportunity presented itself. Emma was pregnant and about to give birth to their first child. Ergo, Powell made time to go and see her, while his men steadily made their way down river and continued mapping and exploring. The country they rowed through was all new to them, though fairly familiar to him. They also had one of the diarist’s journals to read, John Sumner. Perhaps Powell figured that makeshift guidebook, along with Thompson’s good sense, could suffice for his own absence.

Officially, Major John Wesley Powell and his men were the first to navigate (by river) all of the main canyons of the Green and Colorado rivers. Unofficially, this assembly of (mostly) conscripted men that accompanied and worked for the major was dubbed unlikely to succeed. But they did succeed. As one of the expedition’s crew noted in his secret journal, they were a lucky set, although there was more to their achieving success than just luck. These oarsmen were the kind of hearty men who prevailed against all odds, even to the point the first expedition was the more dramatic and extraordinary of the two runs down both rivers. Actually, the men were providential in many ways. Where many onlookers didn’t think they would make it, the crew and their audacious commander succeeded in that inaugural quest to be the first to attempt the feat. That is, those who lived to tell about it after the expedition was over.

rapids on the Colorado River
One of Beaman’s captured moments on film


As alluded to above, reading this first amazing adventure authored by Major Powell gives the impression there was one overall expedition spread over many years. But it was his poetic license and mixing up facts, dates, and other blunders that eventually got Powell in trouble with his reading audience. Those distortions and myths were corrected in time and the historical facts were set straight. Although the major was, and still is, revered for what he accomplished, in many ways Powell’s former exalted distinction as an exemplary explorer who seemingly did the impossible was, nonetheless, eclipsed by his own debatable reasons for setting himself up on a high pedestal (i.e., his new bureaucratic career after his achievements were recognized by a grateful nation). And what about the men who went with him on those two rough and tumble expeditions? Some of them returned to the kind of lifestyles they were more used to or else found new employment, some resented the major for taking most of the credit, because he was the commander, and some never even got mentioned in his writings that espoused the adventure that was to be the second opening of the West. In fact, no one on the second expedition was ever mentioned until years after the major was dead!

There is much more to the web of intrigue that the major fashioned by way of how he ran and organized his life and affairs. Suffice it to say at this point of the text, the man had faults.





Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.