No name is more easily associated with The Grand Canyon than John Wesley Powell. Two trips through the Canyon by boat, one in 1869 the second in 1871 brought the world’s attention to this magnificent geologic landmark and the forces of nature that formed it. As the leader of both expeditions and the scientist who brought the story of The Grand Canyon to the American public, Powell secured his connection to the place forever.
Born in Mount Morris, NY in 1834, John Wesley Powell showed an early interest in the natural world. As a young man he set off on his own to explore his surroundings collecting specimens and learning the basics of zoology, botany and geology on his own. He attended Wheaton, Illinois and Oberlin Colleges. At the age of 22 in 1856 he is purported to have traveled the Mississippi river all the way to its mouth by boat. In 1857 he rowed the length of the Ohio River. In 1859 he was elected to the Illinois Natural History Society.
When the Civil War began, Powell enlisted in the 20th Illinois as a second lieutenant. He fought at Shiloh but unfortunately lost his right arm at Pittsburg Landing. Limited as he was, he returned to the fighting as soon as he was healed with only one arm but this time with his wife Emma Dean to look after some of his needs. He was later made major.
When he left the army in 1865 he became a professor of geology at Illinois Wesleyan University, lectured at Illinois State Normal University and helped found and became curator of the Illinois Museum of Natural History.
By 1867 he was anxious to get back into the field. He explored some of the Rockies and the area of Wyoming around the Green River formulating a plan to explore the Grand Canyon by boat. In 1869 with funding from the Smithsonian Institution he gathered 9 men who would travel with him on this wild and unexplored river and provisioned the expedition for a 10 month trip. They left Green River, WY in May and ran heavy rapids full of spring runoff to the confluence with the Grand River (today called the Colorado). Filled with silt from gouging the gorge, the Grand was in those days described by some as “too thick to drink and too thin to plow”.
One month into the trip they had lost one boat and most of their supplies in a series of over-turnings in the rapids. One member of the group, Frank Goodman, decided to leave the expedition and walk out at a settlement saying he had enough excitement for a lifetime. Three others left the expedition a short time later at Separation Canyon and were not heard from again. Many have speculated about their fate but no conclusive evidence has led to understanding of what happened to them. Only two days later the remaining party of five arrived at the Virgin River (now flooded by Lake Meade) and met settlers who fished there.
When Powell returned to Illinois, he went around the State lecturing on his journey and what they had discovered. He earned enough to fund a second expedition in 1871-72 bringing back photographs by John K. Hillers and producing a map of the route.
In 1881 Powell became the second director of the United States Geological Survey and also the director of the Bureau of Ethnology at the Smithsonian. He had become interested in North American Native Languages and published in this area until his retirement in 1894. He died in1902 at his summer home in Maine and is buried with honors in Arlington National Cemetery.