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Who Was John Wesley Powell?

Learn about the soldier, explorer, and scientist.

 

Major John Wesley Powell ​

Born: March 24th, 1834, in Mount Morris, NY, USA

Died:  September 23rd, 1902, at age 68 in Brooklin, Maine

Interred at Arlington National Cemetery

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Young Life and Exploits

John Wesley Powell was born in Mount Morris, New York, USA, in 1834 to Joseph and Mary Powell.  Joseph Powell was a traveling Methodist preacher that had immigrated from England to the United States only three years prior.  

 

The family had nine children--five sisters and four brothers.  Through Joseph's work, the Powell family moved to Jackson, Ohio, then rural Walworth County, Wisconsin, and eventually settled in Boone County, Illinois.   

John Wesley Powell became a school teacher in 1852and immersed himself in studies both in and out of his work.  

Earliest Expeditions

 

Powell traversed various portions of Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa, and the Iron Mountain regions of Missouri, collecting shells, minerals, and general natural history objects.  In 1856, at age 22 years old, he descended the Mississippi alone in a rowboat from the Falls of St. Anthony to its mouth, making collections on the way. Subsequently in 1857, he rowed the whole length of the Ohio River from Pittsburg to its mouth, and in 1858 made a life trip down the Illinois River to its mouth and thence up the Des Moines.  His sharp observations and expeditions  led to his election in 1859 to the secretaryship of the Illinois Natural History Society.

Civil War Service

 

With the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1860, Powell enlisted in the Union forces with the 20th Illinois volunteers and was mustered in as second lieutenant.

 

He was for a time stationed at Cape Girardeau, Missouri, and served captain of Battery F of the second Illinois artillery.  On April 6th and 7th, 1962, Powell took part in the battle of Shiloh in Hardin County, Tennessee.  He was wounded during battle and his severely-injured right arm was amputated below the elbow.  The wound pained Powell for the rest of his life.   

 

He returned to the service as soon as his arm healed and fought in the battles of Champion Hill and Black River Bridge in Hinds County, Mississippi. 

 

His wife Emma Dean received permission from General Ulysses S. Grant to accompany her husband to battlefield camps to tend to him.

Towards the close of operations on the siege of Vicksburg, Mississippi, he was obliged to undergo a second operation on his arm but returned to his post once more to participate in the Meridian Raid. Later he was promoted to major and chief of artillery--the first of the 17th army corps to be elevated to the rank before taking part in the campaigns at Atlanta, Georgia, and in the battle of Franklin, Tennessee.

Antebellum Professor Powell

 

Major Powell submitted a request for discharge from the United States Army in January of 1965, citing physical disability from the injury and subsequent amputation of his arm from the Battle of Shiloh.  His honorable discharge and pension were granted the following month.  

President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth on April 14th, 1865.  Major Powell traveled to Chicago, Illinois, to greet President Lincoln's funeral train on May 1st.  Shortly afterward he accepted a position with Illinois Wesleyan University as a professor of geology.  

In March of 1867, Powell was elevated to the position of Curator of the Illinois Natural History Society.  Three months later he and his wife, Emma Dean Powell, set off on Powell's first scientific expedition to Colorado.  On this trip, Emma Dean Powell became the first recorded woman to climb Pikes Peak, Colorado, with a summit of 14,115' or 4,302 meters.  

Powell returned to the Colorado Rockies one year later, again with his wife as well as his brother Walter and 28 members of the crew.  

The 1869 Expedition

 

It was on field trips out West that Powell began to formulate his idea of exploring the Grand Canyon of the Colorado itself.

On May 24, 1869, Powell and nine expedition members he recruited for a truly monumental journey pushed from shore, their boats and headed down the Green River from Green River, Wyoming, amidst shouts and cheers from onlookers who must have thought they would never see these 10 men again. They took provisions for 10 months.

About a month later, one of the men, an Englishman named Frank Goodman, approached the Major saying “I’ve had more excitement than a man deserves in a lifetime. I’m leaving.” At that point in the trip, they had already lost one boat to the rapids and most of their supplies. The trip was sure to have been exiting and full of frightening uncertainty, as the men knew not what to expect from one day to the next. Goodman was able to walk to a nearby settlement and lived out his life hunting, trapping on and near the Ute Reservation, and later raising a family in Vernal, Utah.

The 1869 expedition continued down the Green to the confluence of the Grand River (later renamed to the Colorado River, its present-day name) flowing west into Utah. The two mighty rivers then merged into the “Colorado” — Spanish for “red river” because when it rained the side tributaries spilled their muddy sediment into the clear green waters of the main channel causing it to run red and thick with silt.

River runners described the Colorado in the days before Glen Canyon Dam as “too thick to drink and too thin to plow.”  This highly turbid water feature carries immense loads of sediment in solution.  

During the next 2 months on the river, the men encountered many more rapids that could not be run safely in Powell’s estimation. He was ever cautious, fearful they would lose the rest of the supplies and perhaps even their lives. So they lined the boats down the side of the rapids, or portaged boats and supplies through the rocks along the shoreline. However, there were times when they had to run the swollen river through rapids.

The Incident at

Separation Canyon

 

At a place now called Separation Canyon, O.G. Howland, his brother Seneca, and Bill Dunn came to the Major and spoke of “how we surely will all die if we continue on this journey.” They could only see more danger ahead. They could not convince Powell to abandon the river.

The next morning, the three men bid farewell to Powell and the remaining five members of the expedition. Powell left his boat, the Emma Dean, at the head of Separation Rapid in case they changed their minds. With the other five men, Powell ran what would turn out to be the first of two remaining major rapids they would encounter.

 

The Howlands and Dunn climbed out of the canyon walking towards civilization only to allegedly meet their death at the hands of members of the Shivwits tribe, who mistook them for miners that had killed a Hualapai woman on the south side of the river. At least that was the story Powell heard the next year when he visited the Shivwits area with Mormon Scout Jacob Hamblin.  Their exact fate is unknown to this day.  

Tragically the men parted ways with the company only 2 days before Powell and the other men reached the mouth of the Virgin River (now submerged beneath Lake Mead) and were met by settlers fishing from the river bank. The expedition members had not been heard from in 3 months and were presumed dead by some.  

1871 Expedition

 

At a place now called Separation Canyon, O.G. Howland, his brother Seneca, and Bill Dunn came to the Major and spoke of “how we surely will all die if we continue on this journey.” They could only see more danger ahead. Try as they might, they could not convince Powell to abandon the river.

The next morning, the three men bid farewell to Powell and the remaining five adventurers. Powell left his boat the Emma Dean at the head of Separation Rapid in case they changed their minds. With the other five men, Powell ran what would turn out to be the first of two remaining major rapids they would encounter. The Howlands and Dunn climbed out of the canyon walking towards civilization only to meet their death at the hands of Shivwits Indians who mistook them for miners that had killed a Hualapai woman on the south side of the river. At least that was the story Powell heard the next year when he visited the Shivwits area with Mormon Scout Jacob Hamblin.

It was ironic they parted company then, as 2 days later Powell and the other men reached the mouth of the Virgin River (now under Lake Mead) and were met by settlers fishing from the river bank. The adventurers had not been heard from in 3 months and were presumed dead.

 

Expedition Members

1869 Expedition

  • Major Powell

  • Walter Powell, his brother

  • Jack Sumner

  • Andy Hall

  • William Rhodes Hawkins

  • George Bradley

  • Frank Goodman (left after first 3 weeks; first 80 miles)

 

The following three left at Separation Canyon near the end of the journey and met untimely deaths, their fate isn't completely certain today:

  • O.G. Howland

  • Seneca Howland, brother to O.G. (Oramel)

  • William H. “Bill” Dunn

1871 Expedition

  • Major Powell

  • Walter Clement Powell, cousin and assistant photographer

  • Professor A. H. Thompson, Powell’s brother-in-law

  • Frederick S. Dellenbaugh

  • S.V. Jones

  • E.O. Beaman, photographer

  • Jack Hillers, became photographer after Beaman left

  • J.F. Steward

  • F.M. Bishop

  • Frank Richardson

  • Andrew Hattan

Later Life & Death

 

Following the twin expeditions through the Colorado River and its canyons, Powell resigned from his teaching position in 1872 and moved to Washington, DC.  

Powell penned and mapped an elaborate plan for settlement and expansion in the western United States.  The idea of tempered development during the Manifest Destiny period was poorly received by many, but stands as an early and well-conceived idea of sustainable development in the west.  Powell submitted the plan in which individual watersheds were developed only to their capacity to the Secretary of the Interior though much of it was never enacted.  

 

In 1879, Powell helped establish and directed the Smithsonian's Bureau of Ethnology.  He directed the institution's branch for 23 years.

In 1881, Powell becomes the second director of the United States Geological Survey.

Powell and 33 other men were founding members of the National Geographic Society in 1888.  

Nevada Senator William Stewart and Powell clash over development ideas in the American west, ultimately resulting in Congress slashing Powell's budget for dam sites, irrigation initiatives, and settlement proposals based on water capacity.  

Powell wrote and sent his resignation from the US Geologic Survey to President Grover Cleveland in 1894, exiting public service for the remainder of his live.  

 

Powell died from a cerebral hemorrhage at his summer home in Haven, Maine, on September 23, 1902. His wife Emma Dean, whom he married in 1862, and their only child, a daughter named Mary Dean, survived him.

 

With the honors bestowed to a honorably-discharged veteran, Powell is buried in Arlington Cemetery.

 

Legacy

Named for Powell

  • The John Wesley Powell Memorial Museum, Page, AZ

  • The John Wesley Powell River History Museum, Green River, UT

  • Lake Powell, a reservoir on the Colorado River in Utah and Arizona

  • Powell Peak, UT

  • Powell Plateau, AZ

  • Powell Flats, WY

  • Powell, WY

  • John Wesley Powell Federal Building, Reston, VA

  • John Wesley Powell Middle School, Littleton, CO

  • Powell Junior High, Mesa, AZ

  • Men on Boats, 2015 play

  • Powellite, a rare mineral

  • USGS John Wesley Powell Award

Named by Powell & His Expeditions

  • Flaming Gorge

  • Gates of Lodore

  • Glen Canyon

  • Grand Canyon

  • Music Temple, Glen Canyon

  • Cathedral in the Desert, Glen Canyon

  • Bright Angel Creek

  • Dirty Devil River

 

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Page, Arizona 86040

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Page, Arizona 86040

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