The first exploration of the Grand Canyon

Posted on History

Prologue: A one armed former Major of the US Army would command the first exploration of what would later be called the Grand Canyon. Although a Brevet Lt. Colonel, Powell preferred to simply be called Major Powell.

(c) National Army Museum; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

John Wesley Powell and his intrepid band would float down the Green River to its junction with the Colorado River, through the Grand Canyon and exit the river three months later at the junction of the Colorado and Virgin rivers. A party of ten men started down the river and six would make the entire trip; this is the story of that historic journey.

The expedition began nearly two years previous (1867-68) to the actual journey as Powell explored the western slopes of the Rocky Mountains and the rise of the Green and Grand Rivers; above its juncture with the Green the Colorado was known as the Grand at the time of  Powell’s expedition. He explored and mapped many of the canyons of the upper Grand and Green but knowledge of what lay between where the Colorado joined the Green River and its junction with the Virgin River was for all intent and purpose, nil.

Powell ordered the construction of four boats, three 21 feet in length of oak and one 16 feet in length of pine. The boats were built in Chicago and shipped by rail on the newly opened Trans Continental Rail Road to Powell at Green River, Wyoming in May 1869. The boats were compartmentalized in order to store provisions and gear necessary for the expedition.

Into the compartments of the three larger boats they store the expedition’s food supply, provisions for 10 months, along with tools, traps, and part of the guns and scientific instruments. Into the lighter pine craft, the scout boat they placed the rest of the scientific instruments, 3 guns and three bundles of dry clothes, one for each of the men aboard. Powell’s companions on the expedition: George Y. Bradley, expedition chronicler; William H. Dunn, hunter and trapper; Frank Goodman, Eng. adventurer; Andrew Hall, young Scotsman; William R. Hawkins, cook; Oramel G. Howland, editor, hunter; Seneca Howland, younger brother of Oramel Howland; Walter H. Powell, expedition leaders brother and John Colton (Jack) Sumner, hunter and trapper.

The scout craft, named the “Emma Dean” carries expedition leader Powell and boatmen William Dunn and John Sumner followed by “Kitty Clyde’s Sister” manned by William Powell and George Bradley. Next in line the “No Name” with Oramel Howland, Seneca Howland and Frank Goodman followed by the “Maid of the Canyon” manned by W. R. (Willy) Hawkins and Andrew Hall.
The date is May 23, 1869, the adventure starts tomorrow…

Weekly updates begin, composed from notes via Powell’s own journal…

by Walter Mow