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The Powell Expedition

Map showing route of 1869 Powell Expedition The Powell Expedition began its momentous journey in Green River City in Wyoming on May 24, 1869. Assembled there were the crew, the boats and all of the supplies necessary for a three month trip down the Green and Colorado Rivers and through the then unknown depths of the Grand Canyon.

Powell had four boats specially built for the trip in Chicago and had them transported to Green River by way of the Union Pacific Railroad. Three of the boats were constructed of oak, "stanch and firm" as Powell would say. They were constructed such that each had three separate compartments, with the fore and aft compartments being sealed so as to make them watertight. These compartments would be used to stow all of the equipment and provisions needed for the journey and would also provide additional buoyancy in rough water. The middle compartment would be used by the crew. The fourth boat, which would actually be the lead boat commanded by Powell himself, was made of pine and speciydesigned to be light and fast. It was also composed of three separate compartments, for gear and crew.

The equipment that was brought along on the trip consisted of ammunition and traps, tools for repairing the boats, and a number of scientific instruments such as sextants, chronometers, barometers, thermometers and compasses. All of the food and most of the equipment was divided equally among the three oak boats so that in the event a boat was lost, no singular item would be gone with it. The lead boat, which would be used for advance exploration, did not contain any of the food.

The following table lists the boats and their occupants:

"Emma Dean"John Wesley PowellExpedition leader, had become Major during Civil War, lost right arm in Battle of Shilo
J. C. SummerSoldier during Civil War, hunter, traveller of Mississippi Valley and Rocky Mountains
William H. DunnHunter/trapper from Colorado
"Kitty Clyde's Sister"W. H. PowellCaptain in army during Civil War
G.Y. BradleyLieutenant during Civil War
"No Name"O. G. HowlandPrinter, editor, hunter
Seneca HowlandDescribed as being "quiet and pensive" by the Major
Frank GoodmanStranger, Englishman, looking forward to a grand journey
"Maid of the Canyon"W. R. HawkinsExpedition cook, soldier during Civil War
Andrew HallScottish, 19 years old, hunter/trapper

Below I have summarized some of the more important events of the voyage. All of this information was obtained from Major Powell's book, The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons, which was written shortly after completion of the trip and contains a complete record of this journey as well as some of his other explorations in the area.

May 26:The party enters the first canyon, naming it Flaming Gorge. They camp in the area for a number of days to explore and gather data.
May 30:The party breaks camp and runs the rapids through Flaming Gorge.
May 31 - June 2:Encountered serious rapids which the boats had to be roped down through. On June 2 an inscription reading "Ashley 18-5" is discovered chiseled into a rock high above the river. One of the crew remembers a tale of another party that attempted to go down the river a number of years back but never made it. A number of the party were killed but Ashley and one other member of this party survived.
June 3:The party rests and explores the southern region of Flaming Gorge near a spot named Beehive Point. Beehive Point is about midway between Flaming Gorge and the valley of Brown's Park which is in northwestern Colorado.
June 4:The party runs through to Brown's Park.
June 5 - 7:Exploration of Brown's Park.
June 8:The party enters Lodore Canyon which is just south of Brown's Park. A number of rapids are encountered in which Powell says "over which our boats have to be taken". It is unclear whether they were taken by running the rapids or lowered through with ropes, but I suspect the latter.

Today the Gates of the Lodore mark the northern boundary of Dinosaur National Monument.

June 9:The name "Canyon of Lodore" is given to the location. In Powell's journal he states "One of the party suggests we call it the Canyon of Lodore, and the name is adopted." He does not specify who of the party suggested this name or why.

This day marks the first major calamity for the journey as the "No Name" is wrecked by a set of rapids in Lodore Canyon. Apparently the boat was sucked into the rapid while trying to make its way to the shoreline just above it. Major Powell was on shore scouting the rapid as the boat and its crew descended the rapid. The crew is washed onto an island in the middle of the river and needs to be rescued by one of the other boats. The aft section of the boat is discovered about a half mile downstream. It is stranded midstream against the side of a rock and Powell decides that it is too tricky to attempt to retrieve its contents. The party is now only two weeks into its three month journey and one boat and 1/3 of the provisions and instruments have been lost.

June 10: All of the barometers are discovered to have been in the "No Name" and Powell decides that it is necessary to attempt to recover at least one of them. The barometers are required in order to determine the altitude of the river at given points along its course, which was one of the major objectives of the expedition. During the night the boat has been carried 50 or so feet further down the river and Powell thinks that it is now safe to make the attempt. Sumner and Dunn take the smaller boat out to make the attempt and are successful. When the small boat returns to shore Powell discovers that all of the barometers, a package of thermometers and a three-gallon keg of whiskey have been recovered from the wreck.

The rest of the day is spent portaging the remaining boats and all of their contents around the rapids.

Near the evening campsite the contents of another wreck are discovered and the men determine that this must be the remains of the Ashley expedition.

June 11: The remaining contents of the boats are brought down to the campsite.
June 12: Three sacks of flour and some oars are recovered from the river. There is no room in the remaining boats to take the flour and so it is left behind.

Because both the Ahsley and Powell expeditions encountered such serious misfortune with this set of rapids they are aptly named Disaster Falls.

June 13 - 14:More rapids, more rocks and even more portages.
June 15 - 16:A really nasty section of river is encountered where it drops over 100 feet in a distance of one half mile. This section is named "Hell's Half-Mile". The "Maid of the Canyon" is lost but then recovered undamaged.
June 17: The party arrives at the confluence of the Green's confluence with the Yampa River.

In spite of the perils encountered in Lodore Canyon Powell describes it as follows:

"This has been a chapter of disasters and toils, notwithstanding which the Canyon of the Lodore was not devoid of scenic interest, even beyond the power of pen to tell. The roar of its waters was heard unceasingly from the hour we entered it until we landed here. No quiet in all that time. But its walls and cliffs, its peaks and crags, its amphitheatres and alcoves tell a story of beauty and grandeur that I hear yet - and shall hear."

This location today is in the southern portion of Dinosaur National Park at a place called Echo Park.

June 18 - 20: The region of Echo Park and short stretch of the Yampa River are explored.

On June 18 Powell gets himself into a predicament while climbing some cliffs. He manages to get himself to a point where he can go neither up nor down and is in great danger of losing his life or at least being serious mangled by a very nasty fall. Bradly manages to rescue him by climbing to ledge above, taking off his pants, and lowering an end of them down to Major Powell to use as a rope.

June 21 - 22: The party leaves Echo Park and proceeds down the Green River. A number of difficult rapids are encountered and many short portages are required.
June 23: The party makes camp for a day to do some much needed repair work on the boats, which are beginning to leak from all of the banging around they have been taking. Measurements are taken, Powell and Bradley collect fossils.

The party names the section between Echo Park and their current location Whirlpool Canyon.

June 24 - 26: The party runs a section of canyon which passes through a ridge of the Unita Mountains for about 6 miles. They name it Split Mountain Canyon.
June 27 - 28: The party relaxes on a particularly calm section of the river as it flows through the Unita Valley. Meadows exist along both sides of the river and herds of antelope are seen feeding there. After dinner on the 28th the party reaches the mouth of the Unita River, near where they make camp for an extended stay. The valley is named Antelope Valley.
June 29 - July 5: The party spends a goodly amount of time in the area. Powell explores a ways up the White River which enters the Green from the west, 1 3/4 miles below the mouth of the Unita. Calculations of longitude and latitude are made using astronomical observations.

Powell and two other men pay a visit to the Unita Indian Reservation in hopes of replenishing some of the party's supplies. Powell discovers fountains of some ancient indian ruins but the Unita claim to know nothing of the people who once occupied the area. Powell spends a couple of days studying the language of the Unita and in collecting some articles made by them.

On July 5, Frank Goodman informs Major Powell that he has had enough of the adventure and will be dropping out here.

July 6: The party leaves the Unita and continues southward on the Green. Late in the day they enter another canyon and the walls rise up around them.
July 7 - 9: The river begins its run through the canyon in long, wide meanders but gradually picks up speed and becomes rougher and rougher as the days progress. Finally the party is forced to again enlist the aid of ropes in getting the boats safely through some of the more dangerous sections of river. After dinner on July 9 the party enters an extremely desolate and dangerous section of the canyon, which is decided should be named Desolation Canyon.
July 10: The party lays over for the day. Sumner is attempting to learn how to use the sextant stays in camp to practice. Powell and Howland attempt to make their way to the tops of the cliffs for altitude readings. They reach the tops of the cliffs, make their reading and determine the cliffs and the plateau of which they are part o be 8000 feet above sea level. The do not arrive back in camp until well after dark.
July 11: Rapids are encountered early in the day and an oar belonging to the "Emma Dean" is broken and another lost. The next rapid does even more damage as the lead boat is flipped and the crew thrown into the river. The crew's blankets, two guns and a barometer are lost, having been in the open compartment when the boat went over. Powell manages to recover one of the blankets as it floats past him. The party builds a big fire to dry their belongings and locates some driftwood from which some new oars may be fashioned.
July 12: After one other almost disasterous mishap, in which Bradley rides through a rapid while stuck beneath a flipped boat, the party emerges from Desolation Canyon. After a very brief distance in open country the party enters yet another canyon, the walls rise up and the river fills the available channel from cliff face to cliff face. A very nasty rapid is encountered which is made more dangerous by the fact that there is no place to land the boats from which to lower them down. The party is forced to lower the boats down while standing on rocks in the channel and they manage to do this without a mishap.
July 13: After running some very swift yet smooth rapids the party emerges from the canyon. The party has named the canyon, Gray Canyon, for the gray sandstone of which its walls are composed.
July 14: The party passes the mouth of the San Rafael River and they stop to explore it for a short distance. Numerous indian articles are discovered in the area. After dinner they continue on and enter another canyon. The river widens, slows and has many meanders.
July 15 - 16: The party continues on at a leisurely pass caused by the slow river. The walls of the canyon continue to rise. The party chooses to name the canyon Labyrinth Canyon.
July 17: The party enters an area called "Rock Land" or "Land of Standing Rock" by the local indians. The main surface of the land is composed of a gradually undulating, red sandstone which is topped with many buttes. Late in the day the party reaches the confluence of the Green and Grand Rivers, which after joining are known as the Colorado River.
July 18 - 20: The party spends the day catching up on domestic chores. The remaining flour is sifted using mosquito netting to remove clumps that have formed by its getting wet so many times. The boats are dragged out of the water and inspected and minor repairs are made to the hulls.

Some exploration of the region are also done Powell and Bradley, climbing the cliffs to obtain altitude readings and to scout the river ahead of them.

July 21: The party sets out on the Colorado River and immediately encounters difficulty with bad rapids. Three more oars are lost and three very hard portages are required.
July 22: The party continues on and is in search of wood for oars. A pile of driftwood is finally found and the men set to work on remaking the oars. The boats are leaking again and are recalked before recaulked for the evening.
July 23: Cataract Canyon, some of the most difficult rapids Powell has seen on the river so far, are encountered and run through without mishap.
July 24 - 26:More rapids are encountered. On the 26th the party stops again to make oars and repair the boats and barometers. The walls of the canyon are now over 2000 feet above the river. High-water marks on the canyon walls can be observed from 40 to 100 feet above the present level of the river.

While exploring the area Major Powell is caught up in a side canyon when a flash flood occurs and manages to run ahead of all the way back to camp.

July 27: More rapids. Late in the afternoon the party comes upon a flock of mountain sheep and manages to kill two. They stop early for the day and prepare a feast.
July 28: After a couple of early portages and a very swift run in the early afternoon the party finally emerges from Cataract Canyon. Later in the day the party encounters a stream entering the Colorado that is very muddy and has a very unpleasant smell. Dunn names it the Dirty Devil.
July 29: Another canyon is entered and some interesting indian ruins are discovered. Arrowheads and pottery fragments are numerous in the area and some petroglyphs are also found. Later in the day, about 15 miles further down the river, another ruin is discovered.
July 31: The party passes the mouth of the San Juan River and stops to camp.
August 1 - 2: The party runs a short distance on the river and then lays over for a day to rest and explore.
August 3: The party names Glen Canyon after the oak glens that are discovered growing alongside the meanders in the river.
August 4: The canyon walls get higher and the river narrows. The mouth of the Paria River is passed.
August 5: thumbnail image The party enters a new canyon that Powell does not like the looks of. The rock is hard and similar to that found in Cataract Canyon and he expects to find plenty of rapids and falls. He is soon proved to be correct in his belief as numerous rapids and falls, one of 16 feet, are encountered.

Without knowing it Powell has entered the northernmost section of todays Grand Canyon, that being Marble Canyon.

August 6: The canyon walls get higher and higher. More rapids, more falls. One very large rapid is encountered late in the morning, where there is no place to land on either side of the river above it, and the boats must again be lowered using rocks in the channel as anchors.
August 7: This was a truly unpleasant day for Major Powell. He and another man attempt to make their way to the top of the canyon walls to observe a total eclipse of the sun. Upon reaching the top and setting up the equipment to observe the event the sky clouds over and it begins to rain. No eclipse is seen and being late in the day it soon becomes too dark to find the way back to camp, and they must spend the night among the rocks.
August 8: Powell returns to camp and the party continues downriver. Numerous rapids and falls are encountered and the going is very slow. The party camps for the night in Redwall Cavern, a massive overhang that has been undercut by the river, and according to Powell "if utilized as a theatre, would give seating to 50,000 people."
August 9: [MAP] The walls are now 2,500 feet high and composed of marble of a variety of different colors. Later that morning the expedition passes a spot where a large number of springs come forth from the rock on the right bank. Mosses, ferns and many other types of plants and flowers are growing among the springs. Powell names the spot Vasey's paradise in honor of a botanist who be travelled with in the prior year. Powell decides to name the canyon Marble Canyon.
August 10: [MAP] The party reaches the mouth of the Colorado Chiquito, the Little Colorado, where they make camp and plan to lay over for a couple of days to explore the area and make some measurements. Trails and ruins, pottery fragments and petroglyphs are discovered in the area.
August 13: Friday, the 13th of August, 1869. From the journal of Major John Wesley Powell:

"We have an unknown distance yet to run, an unknown river to explore. What falls there are, we know not; what rocks beset the channel, we know not; what walls rise over the river, we know not. Ah, well! We may conjecture many things. The men talk as cheerfully as ever; jests are bandied about freely this morning; but to me the cheer is somber and the jests are ghastly."

Numerous rapids, many serious and dangerous, are encountered, among these being Lava Canyon Rapids.

August 14: [MAP] thumbnail image The walls get higher, the river narrower and the rapids steeper and longer. No landmarks are named in the text to determine exactly where the party is in the Canyon, but I would estimate that they are just above present day Hance Rapids.
August 15: [MAP] The party enters the beginnings of the Granite Gorge. More difficult rapids are encountered, most of which the party does not even attempt to run but rather lowers the boats down by ropes. A calm section of about 2 miles of river is encountered which gives the men some rest. Early in the afternoon the party comes across a beautiful, clear stream coming down from the north and they stop to camp.
August 16: Powell decides to name the stream the Bright Angel to contrast with one that was named the Dirty Devil. The party spends the day exploring Bright Angel Canyon. A large log is found lodged up in the canyon and the men set to work fashioning new oars from it. More indian ruins are discovered along the river and Powell discovers some artifacts inside.
August 17: [MAP] The party's food situation is becoming desperate. The bacon is spoiled, the flour is musty and only a few dried apples remain. On a higher note there is still plenty of coffee. Powell plans to try to speed things up and get out of the Canyon as soon as possible. There are still many rapids and progress is slow today.
August 18: [MAP] It has been raining for most of the past week and today is no different. The party advances only two miles along the river.
August 19: [MAP] Still raining in the morning. One very long portage is made and then a rapid is run which upsets the "Emma Dean". The crew is thrown overboard and are swept through another rapid while clinging to the sides of the boat. Soon thereafter the clouds break and the party sees the first sunshine in many days. That night driftwood is collected from the other side of the river and a huge fire is built.
August 20: [MAP] The party is still in the granite gorge though the river has now become wider and has swung around to head in a north-northeast direction. The ruins of a sizeable village are discovered today, along with some miscellaneous artifacts, on a terrace above the river. They party makes a little better time today, Major Powell estimating the distance run at 10 miles. The party makes camp just above present day Bass Rapids.
August 21: [MAP] The river is swift and the party makes excellent time today, running almost 20 miles by the Major's reckoning. The first 10 miles are run in the first hour of the day afterwhich the party is forced to stop and portage around a major rapid. The river at first turned towards the west and then southwest and now the granite gorge has given way to more hospitable rocks as the river begins to swing towards the north again.
August 22: [MAP] Rapids are encountered early in the morning and a portage of several hours is required. Major Powell climbs to the cliffs above the river to scout the surrounding area. The river runs from northeast to southwest and Powell can see mountains off in the distance to the west.
August 23: [MAP] The party passes through the Granite Narrows and a portage is required at one of the rapids. Major Powell describes working his way up a stream coming down from the north, which I is suspect is Tapeats Creek. In the afternoon the party passes a stream on the right which "leaps into the Colorado by a fall of more than 100 feet, forming a beautiful cascade." I suspect this is Deer Creek Falls. More rapids are encountered during the afternoon and the party makes excellent time.
August 24: [MAP] The party runs along some very short meanders in a section of river that is much wider. The river is very quick and the party makes another 20 miles, encountering no problems along the way. Most of the food is gone and the party's diet is composed mainly of coffee.
August 25: [MAP] The party has a very good morning, running 12 miles before coming to some very large lava rocks standing in the river. This continues for about three miles before coming to a massive falls. A cinder cone towers above the river on the right bank. The party has reached Lava Falls and the extinct volcano is now known as Vulcan's Throne. Major Powell theorizes that a massive lava dam at one point totally blocked the river at this point, forming a huge reservoir behind it, until at last the river rose above it and broke through.

"What a conflict of water and fire there must have been here! Just imagine a river of molten rock running down into a river of melted snow. What a seething and boiling of the waters; what clouds of steam rolled into the heavens." -- Major John Wesley Powell

August 26: The canyon walls are becoming higher again as the party proceeds and evidence of the lava dam the once blocked the river can still be seen. Late in the morning the party comes across an indian garden along the river. Since the corn that is growing is too young to eat the party helps themselves to some squash, which will likely be considered a feast in spite of the fact that it was stolen.

The party has been making wonderful time and Powell estimates that they have gone 35 miles in each of the past two days. "A few days like this and we are out of prison." -- Major John Wesley Powell

August 27: The river has turned south and Major Powell is worried that it may be heading back into the granite. Soon enough it does and some nasty rapids present themselves. Around mid-day the party comes to a section of river that is beset with falls and rapids and they stop to examine the course. The party camps for the day and plans to run the rapids in the morning.

Captain Howland is fed up with the river and thinks that the expedition should be abandoned. After talking with him, Major Powell discovers that Captain Howland, his brother, Seneca, and William Dunn are determined to go no further.

Major Powell plots the party's position and determines that they are still some 45 miles from the Virgin River and the Grand Wash Cliffs. That is as the crow flys, of course, and could be 80 miles or more by way of the river.

August 28: thumbnail image At breakfast Powell tries to talk the men into continuing along with the party, explaining to them that the canyon will not be easy to climb out of here, and that the nearest Mormon settlement may be 75 miles or further away. The younger Howland brother tries to convince his brother to continue but to no avail.

Powell decides to abandon the "Emma Dean" since she has become unseaworthy and will not be necessary given the reduction in size of the party. After getting the boats below the first falls the two groups part company. The group that is leaving is given some personal items to be delivered to relatives of the group that continues the expedition, in the event that they are never heard from again. They also take a copy of the expedition journal which has been kept in duplicate.

The party immediately takes to the river and the rapids are not as bad as they had seemed. In a few minutes they are through and stop to fire a shot to signal the departing members that they have made it. They wait for a couple of hours, hoping that the others will return, and then finally continue on without them. Some difficulty is encountered with a rapid later in the day but no injury is involved

The story goes that the three men that departed were killed by indians upon exiting the canyon. They had been confused with some miners who had raped an indian maiden.

The rapids at which the Howland brothers and William Dunn separated from the main party is later named Separation Rapid and in 1939, in honor of the trip's seventy-fifth anniversary, a plaque was placed at the site in their memory. Separation Rapid is now covered by the eastern end of Lake Mead.

August 29: The party starts early on a very fast river and encounters no difficulty. Around noon they exit the Grand Canyon and shortly thereafter come to the Grand Wash, the landmark western end of the Grand Canyon.

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In 1969 the United States Postal Service commemorated a special stamp to celebrate the Powell Centennial.

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