The middle part of this story is the best known. In 1869, a one-armed Civil War major named John Wesley Powell led a ragtag expedition of ten mountain men and ex-soldiers in four wooden rowboats down 1000 miles on the Green and Colorado Rivers. The crew became the first Americans to pass through what was then called Big Canyon. While camped at the Little Colorado River, Powell described it as the “great unknown,” and he later renamed it Grand Canyon.
The three-month trip came with many hardships and exhausting portages. By the time the expedition emerged from the Grand Wash Cliffs, near present-day Lake Mead, there were only six emaciated men in two boats. The three who left the expedition and hiked overland, a few days before, would never be seen again. And the story of this first descent soon became an American legend.
The basics of this adventurous story were all that I knew when I became a raft guide in California at age 20. The details remained scant (other than recognizing Powell really enjoyed topographic descriptions), when I put down his book after 50 dull pages. At the time, running whitewater seemed way more interesting. Years later, I was a transplanted teacher living in St. Louis. When some friends and I began exploring the Powell route with kayaks and rafts, I decided it was time to learn the full story.
Along the way, I discovered a few things. First, if you skip the opening 100 pages of Powell’s book, it gets pretty interesting. Second, Powell had an eventful latter life. After the 1869 river trip, Powell returned for another expedition in 1871-72. He later managed several geographic surveys of the west. He became the second director of the U.S. Geological Survey. He started the Bureau of American Ethnology and recorded many aspects about Native American cultures and languages before the destruction from forced relocation by the U.S. Government. But other than a few books—like Powell of the Colorado by Darrah, Across the Hundredth Meridian by Stegner, and A River Running West by Worster—the early part of Powell’s story is commonly forgotten, despite containing some of his most adventurous episodes.
Fourteen years before plunging into the depths of the great unknown, Powell was a 21-year-old schoolteacher living near Decatur in Central Illinois. He was a transplant from western New York State, by way of southern Wisconsin, where his family had abandoned a 5-year stint as wheat farmers.