The Powell Geographic Expedition of 1869, led by American naturalist John Wesley Powell, was the first thorough cartographic and scientific investigation of long segments of the Green and Colorado rivers in the southwestern United States, including the first recorded passage of white men through the entirety of the Grand Canyon. The expedition, which lasted approximately three months during the summer of 1869, embarked from Green River Station, Wyoming Territory and traveled downstream through parts of the present-day states of Colorado, Utah, and Arizona before reaching the confluence of the Colorado and Virgin rivers in present-day Nevada. Despite a series of hardships, including losses of boats and supplies, near-drownings, and the eventual departures of several crew members, the voyage produced the first detailed descriptions of much of the previously unexplored canyon country of the Colorado Plateau.
Powell retraced part of the 1869 route on a second expedition in the winter of 1871–72. In 1875, he published a classic account of the first expedition (interspersed with elements from the second) called Report on the Exploration of the Colorado River of the West and Its Tributaries, which was revised and reissued in 1895 as The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons.
Powell had spent much of his youth rafting the Mississippi River and its tributaries in the Upper Midwest. A Union major during the American Civil War, he lost his right arm to amputation in 1862 after he was hit by an unspent minie ball at the Battle of Shiloh. Prior to coming west, Powell had been a professor of geology at the Illinois State Normal School and a curator of the Illinois Museum of Natural History.
The expedition set out from Green River Station (now Green River, Wyoming) on May 24, 1869, with a company of ten men including Powell. Green River Station's convenient location on the Transcontinental Railroad, which had been completed in Utah Territory just two weeks earlier, allowed Powell to ship the expedition's four boats directly from Chicago to the launching point. The company included Powell's brother Walter, as well as a group of seasoned mountain men and war veterans that Powell had recruited on his way to Wyoming. The complete roster included:
- John Wesley Powell (leader of trip)
- Walter H. Powell, a captain in the Civil War and John's brother
- John C. Sumner, a professional guide and outfitter who had guided Powell, his wife, and his students through the Rocky Mountains on previous trips to the West
- Oramel G. Howland, a printer, editor, and hunter
- Seneca Howland, a mountain man and Oramel's brother
- William H. Dunn, a hunter and trapper from Colorado
- William "Billy" Robert Wesley Hawkins, a mountain man, possible ex-fugitive, and the expedition's cook
- Frank Goodman, an Englishman and skilled boat handler who had come west looking for adventure
- Andrew Hall, a 19-year-old mule driver whose skills as an oarsman impressed Powell
- George Y. Bradley, a soldier at Fort Bridger who agreed to accompany Powell in exchange for a discharge from the United States Army that Powell arranged
All of the expedition members had considerable wilderness know-how, and seven were veterans of the Civil War, all of whom had fought for the Union.:12 None of them, however, had any significant whitewater experience on the rivers of the West. Only four of the men were paid for their participation; three at a wage of $25 per man per month for making maps and using scientific instruments, and Billy Hawkins at $1.50 per day for his services as camp cook.
Powell purchased four modified, round-bottomed Whitehall rowboats for the expedition. The three "freight boats" - the Maid of the Cañon, the Kitty Clyde's Sister, and the No Name - were identical in design: twenty-one feet long and four feet wide, built of sturdy but heavy oak, with a decked-over bulkhead at each end for storage space. Nearly seven thousand pounds of food and supplies, enough to last ten months, were divided equally between these three boats. The fourth boat, the Emma Dean, was smaller and lighter, only sixteen feet long and built of pine. This was Powell's personal boat, and was rigged with a strap that Powell could clutch with his left hand to keep his balance while standing on deck.:26–29 Each boat would be rowed by two oarsmen, with only Powell and Oramel Howland, the expedition's official mapmaker, excused from rowing duties.
Early on the Green River, the Powell Expedition lost one of their large freight boats, the No Name, at a rapids they named Disaster Falls, washing up on Disaster Island. No one was killed, but many crucial supplies were lost, including all of the expedition's barometers. Powell and his men managed to recover some of the barometers - they were the only means Powell had at his disposal to determine altitude. Knowing the altitude was essential for producing good maps, and it allowed Powell to estimate how much vertical drop remained before the journey's endpoint, which had a known elevation. The Powell expedition named many of the landmarks and geological features along the Green and Colorado rivers, including the Flaming Gorge, the Gates of Lodore (in what is now Dinosaur National Monument), and Glen Canyon.
Of the ten men that started out from Green River Station, six completed the entire journey. Frank Goodman left the expedition on July 6 during the resupply at the Uinta River Indian Agency, claiming he’d had more than enough adventure. He walked away and lived for some years with the Paiutes of eastern Utah. Eventually, he settled in Vernal, Utah, where he married and raised a family. The other three adventurers to leave the expedition fared worse. On August 28, just two days from the expedition's intended destination at the mouth of the Virgin River, Oramel Howland, his brother Seneca, and Bill Dunn left the company, fearing they could not survive the dangers of the river much longer. They hiked out of the canyon and were never seen again. Historians still dispute their fate, but it is often proposed that they were killed by local Shivwits Indians in a case of mistaken identity. Another story suggests that they were executed by Mormons who mistook them for "spies." On August 30, Powell and the five others reached safety at the Mormon settlement of St. Thomas near the mouth of the Virgin River.
The expedition was dramatized in the 1960 Disney film Ten Who Dared and the 2015 play Men on Boats by Jaclyn Backhaus. The graphic novel, "Major Impossible" by author Nathan Hale also dramatizes the expedition.
- Dolnick, Edward (2002). Down the Great Unknown: John Wesley Powell's 1869 Journey of Discovery and Tragedy Through the Grand Canyon. United States of America: Harper Perennial. ISBN 0-06-095586-4.
- Powell, John Wesley (2004). Seeing Things Whole: The Essential John Wesley Powell. Island Press. p. 44. ISBN 978-1-55963-873-9.
- Powell, J. W. (1895). The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons.
- The American Experience: Lost in the Grand Canyon - Companion site to the PBS series about Jown Wesley Powell's Colorado River journey. It includes a timeline, maps, and program information.
- Stereoviews of Indians and the Colorado River from the J.W. Powell Survey, ca. 1869-1874, The Bancroft Library