Note To Dkos Readers: If you are just joining me for this series of diaries on, please read the introduction in yesterday’s diary (http://www.dailykos.com/...), if not the entire diary itself. It will help explain the essence of both the adventure and the social politics behind same.
The Quest Of Young Wes: Why did Major Powell take on this prodigious challenge that turned out to entail two separate expeditions? What were his credentials and life experiences to think he could even succeed? First, he didn’t have the credentials and experience. Second, no one before Powell had ever accomplished what seemed to burn in his brain, as a novel idea worth pursuing. Unquestionably, there were parts of the Green and Colorado River country previously explored in the early part of the nineteenth century, though not to the extent he had in mind to explore that region. When the major first proposed his enterprising notions to key players who could help achieve his goals, he didn’t have a tough time selling the idea to the men he recruited to go along with him. Neither did he have too much difficulty selling the scheme, a dream really, to the historical society and universities that had initially backed him in his warm-up exercise to launch a much more entailed venture. It turns out his overland Rocky Mountain West excursions in 1867 and 1868 whet his appetite for the down-river phase of his ambitious plans. But Major Powell had a difficult time convincing Congress he truly was the right man for the job; also, the exploration of the canyon country of the aforementioned two rivers was of vital importance to the Nation.
To get a better understanding of why Major Powell didn’t entirely win the money lenders over, nor succeed in getting their approval, as confidence for his proposal, we have to step back into history and drop some names. The major was up against laudable others, who all had credentials and life experiences. Some even had formal education to do the tasks they were assigned to. It was thought by some congressional sources these men were well established in their fields, while the major had proved himself in other ways, though not as an all-out explorer. Besides, there were already surveyors and engineers in the West and doing some of what Powell had proposed. Ergo, why fund another adventurer who really wasn’t of their caliber?
In the early part of the 19th Century, the New Americans began to move beyond the Great Plains in greater numbers. Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, William Ashley—these men were all self-made and they moved into the frontier and carved a name for themselves out of sheer determination and courage. One might also say these explorers and frontiersmen pursued a path of bold individualism that most men in cities and towns simply did not have. Mostly, it was curiosity and to find a way to make a living that spurred these men, who generally all headed toward the West.
At that time, America’s frontier was many times larger than what its people already occupied in the East and partway into the Midwest. Generally, California, considered the Far West, was still under the influence of Spanish rule. Much of the plains and mountains and deserts beyond the 100th Meridian (a line drawn down from North Dakota all the way to Texas) was home to sundry Indian tribes. Americans lived up and down the east coast and most of them scarcely knew what was beyond the back door of the nation at that time. However, by the mid-19th century the decrees of Manifest Destiny and Expansionism would spur thousands of people to leave their homes and venture beyond their cities and towns that defined so much of the homogeneous nature of American society. These people were the New Americans and the exodus to the undeveloped territory could not be stopped once it began.
The mountain men, who collectively could be construed as trappers and hunters, were the men who ventured into the frontier and took their chances with both the elements and the Indians. It was risky business, yet the profits for pelts was worth the danger for these willing gamblers. In addition to the frontiersmen, others came to the West and advanced their trade and skills in a hostile country that, at that time, seemed only fit for savages. Andrew Henry, Jim Bridger, Étienne Provost, William Sublette, Jedediah Smith, Jim Beckwourth, Michel and Antoine Robidoux, Denis Julien, Thomas Fitzpatrick, and John Colter. This roll call is just part of a long list of similar others who were the first serious-minded New Americans to forge a life and living out of the virgin wilderness. The fur and beaver pelt trade led the way. For the most part these men got along well with the Indians, for this spirited contest would become the main trading partner of the mountain men and entrepreneurs who were eager to do business with the Indians. (The net result would also nearly decimate species populations that were targeted for such wonton commercialism by way of trading with the Native American expense. . ultimately undermining their own security and needs due to the loss of pelage sources.)
Business and its luring opportunities were booming early into the 19th Century. The West and Northwest territory was no longer a dream or a place to fear. It was an opportunity to make a living for those who dared to do it. It was also a time for trail blazers to point the way for other professionals to begin mapping the terrain, so that more New Americans could relieve the stress on crowded Eastern towns and cities and migrate West and Northwest.
Historic photo depicting the trend of Western Expansionism:
The Professionals Arrive—Engineers And Surveyors: The Army Corps of Topographical Engineers; The Reclamation Service (later renamed the Bureau of Reclamation; and The United States Coast and Geodetic Survey that spawned the likes of the United States Geological Survey (USGS). They were civilians and military men well-trained in their craft. There were military troops assigned to these expeditions. Beyond the 100th Meridian was the undertaking to explore and map and a new breed of people struck out to make a name for themselves. The established overland routes and railroad tracks laid from one end of the continent to the other were the result of these ongoing surveys. The 32nd, 38th and 40th Parallels all came about because of men like Lewis and Clark, Zebulon Pike, Ferdinand V. Hayden. Lorenzo Sitgreaves, General Stephen Watts Kearny, John Fremont, Clarence King, Captains’ John N. Macomb, John W. Gunnison, and Clarence E. Dutton, Lieutenants George M. Wheeler and Joseph Christmas Ives. The nation would expand its political and business affairs and the Indian culture would quickly be assimilated, as would the Mexican population.
Depending on what race you were and where you lived, the new push to develop the western territory was a boon or a bane. Caravans of wagons, stage coaches, and travelers on or off horseback freely roamed across the country. First, it was the Mormons who fled to the West to escape religious persecution in the East. Hoards of settlers and gold seekers followed. The rails were laid and roads were built. Strategic military posts were set up to protect the nation’s investments, while the Indian nations had to fend for themselves. Towns, cities, and industry sprang up, seemingly overnight. Yet there was a large parcel of land that remained remote, even mysterious. That was the prize John Wesley Powell went after. In time, and with luck, he would add his name to the eminent list of others. Powell would become the nation’s latest hero and daring explorer. He would do for the West and Southwest what Lewis and Clark did for the Northwest. The educator-turned-explorer would also end up doing what no other had done before: he would take on two legendary rivers and the formidable, though majestic, canyon country each river had patiently carved over eons of time. Eventually, the one-armed major would win the biggest unclaimed prize of them all: He and his men would be the first to run the Grand.
Young Wes: John Wesley Powell was slight of feature and looked up to no man, certainly not his peers. In his late 20s he enlisted in the Union Army and probably weighed a mere 130 pounds soaking wet. With his full beard he looked like a stick figure come to life. However, in spite of his slender build, he was strong. Having the use of only one good arm never bothered him, either. He could climb like a monkey and was as fearless as a mountain goat, regardless the impressive and precipitous heights he often scaled. None of which is to liken the sandy-haired, gray-eyed major to an animal. The lively depiction is meant only to suggest he had animal-like qualities when it came to doing the stunts he did while off the river.
He was born in Mount Morrie, New York on March 24, 1834 to Joseph and Mary Powell. John Wesley, whose first and middle names are taken from the founder of the Methodist faith, was the religion he was raised in. Wes, as he was often called in his youth, was the fourth child of eight children and the eldest son. Much was expected of him by his father, who also hoped Wes would eventually become a minister, as was he. The Powells' moved around quite a lot, mostly as farm owners in Ohio, Wisconsin, and Illinois. During his upbringing and constant travel, Wes managed to garner somewhat of an education, mainly from Illinois Wesleyan College, Oberlin College, and Illinois (Wheaton) Institute. But he had dropped out prior to receiving any official degrees. His main interests were in the natural sciences, not the ministry, and he ended up being, first, a school teacher, then later he was hired as a principal. Most of what Wes learned in life came by way of sound experience. Empirical observations were the key and to Wes it only took a discerning mind and eyes to see and study the world around him. He was astute in all that he did and was keen on exploring nature wherever he lived or roamed. He had a special fondness for fossils and geology. There simply weren’t enough books of science in the colleges he attended. For young Wes, life was out there somewhere and his calling was scientific, not theological.
After he was honorably discharged from the Civil War, where Wes Powell had entered the military service as a private, then rose to the rank of a captain, he was quickly promoted to major. He was skilled in his field and commanded the respect of his troops. He was also courageous as one might expect from the major’s character. No doubt his losing part of his right arm in one of the Civil War’s most horrendous and first major battles, Shiloh (the so-called "Hornet's Nest"), helped win him this prestigious rank. It also helped that Powell served for a time on General Grant’s staff. After the war the two men would remain on friendly terms.
Prior to his military service something had helped shape John Wesley Powell’s mind and incite his desire to be a naturalist. For example, in the 1850s he still had the use of both arms and he loved to explore rivers and search for biological specimens of all kinds, albeit he ended up finding a lot of freshwater mollusks and similar fossils. In fact, Powell rowed down the Illinois, Mississippi, Missouri, and Ohio Rivers in search of both himself, his inner man that is, and the kind of things in nature and science that would one day harvest in his mind, then set him on the path of a sanctioned educator. It was his life’s experiences more than the formal and partial academic training (i.e., he never received a degree) that would one day earn him an honorary Master’s degree, and eventually led to a professorship in geology. In those days, it was possible to rise to such academic acclaim, but one would have to know the right people, or be networked by others, in order to secure such an influential title.
Major Powell was apparently a quick study. He may not have been a savant in some way. Certainly, he had a discerning mind that could learn anything he needed to know, then teach and demonstrate such knowledge to others. He was also as single-minded as a buzz saw when it came to his determination and wanting to get the job, any job, done. Powell was blunt, charming, somewhat opinionated, and when he was in charge of his men, either under his military or civilian command, he was tough-minded but mostly fair.
Then there was the other side of the major’s personality. He didn’t seem to have the patience to deal with dissent or poor attitudes or grousing of his men. Consequently, Powell seldom took the time to write about such matters in his published works. Instead, he felt or assumed he had more important work to do, as did the men under his command, and that was all there was to it. He was also a perfectionist who was apt to let someone know when he wasn’t pleased about something. When it came to writing about this 1869 expedition, the major was just as apt to gloss over the drama and trauma and write instead something to the effect, Camped beneath beautiful box elders and cottonwoods, ran X number of rapids today, and gained so many miles. All is well. And so on.
By contrast, Bradley, one of the three diarists, might reveal an altogether different disposition among the men. For example, how they were weary, eternally hungry, and anxious to continue on. Bradley also wrote about the private complaints some of the crew men had about having to carry the heavy cargo down the rapids, then the boats, since some of the rapids were too dangerous to run. He might even reveal how the disquiet in the camp was imminent, and possibly mutinous. At times, some of the men complained to each other, but always behind the major’s back, he ran the show like he was still on the battlefield. In short, Bradley, and Sumner to some degree, provided the psychological aspect, while Major Powell was more concerned with science and exploration.
This brief depiction of Powell pretty much sums up his usual mind-set. Powell was an introspective man, an intellectual of sorts, but that part of his life was out of bounds to most people who would try to know the mind behind the man. One could say the major thought of himself as the absent landlord of the canyon country he came to explore, who deeply admired the grandeur of the scenery above more mundane, even practical, concerns shared by his men. Yet the major always wanted to know and do more with his limited formal education and experience with the new topography he was poised to map and investigate. After all, it wasn’t just a bold endeavor to conquer two wild rivers and pass through towering hallways of winding canyons where the sun ruled like an absolute monarch for much of the time. Indeed, he and the others were there to map the terrain and put vital cartographical lines and other relevant information on maps that often were blank in the very places he and his men explored.
There were many questions and concerns percolating in most of the men’s minds before the adventure on the river began. What would they face and find waiting in the repertoire of canyons that gradually grew deeper and larger, or most of them did, from the starting point to the finish? How would the boats Powell designed handle in the turmoil of the rapids? What other dangers lurked in this barren country—barren and isolated to the point civilization could not get a scant foothold, due to those finger-like sheer chasms that were all but impassable. Except for one or two places, the rivers were said to be too deep and wild to attempt a crossing. Yet filling in those blank maps was still deemed essential by the government that wanted to know more about what really was out there. True, there were already surveyors and explorers who combed the region, even to the point they knew quite a lot about the territory beyond the scrimshaw design of the canyon country. But would it really make a difference in what the nation intended to do in out there in the West and Southwest, where it still wasn’t possible to develop its vast province by way of settlement? What would Major Powell’s daunting efforts prove, if successful, by adding those missing lines and data to his scientific exploration?
It was a gamble on calculated odds he would succeed in traversing the canyons. He and his men knew this before they headed to the rendezvous point. But could his command of the expedition really capitalize on the god-like vision he sensed two years earlier when he looked beyond the ramparts of Long’s Peak, overlooking Estes Park, where the headwaters of the Grand River began? Certainly, there was fame, and perhaps a tidy sum of money, to the man who achieved success in this pioneering adventure. No one can fault Major Powell’s ego for thinking along such lines. Even his men would benefit from the victory, or most of them assumed at that time. But he, more than his crew, would reap a greater bounty. Again, if successful.
As this segment of the composition unfolds, we will learn about this very interesting man who had a very curious mind about all sorts of things. For the time being, here is an overview of what took place during the latter part of the 19th century out in the western territories in a large tract of land commonly referred to as terra incognita — the unknown land.
The Volunteer And Frugal Expedition Of 1869: Major Powell rendezvoused with his men in the late spring of 1869. Before long, the ennui some of the men tolerated until he got there soon changed to industry. All the men turned to and made sure the thousands of pounds of supplies were loaded into each of the four boats they had dragged down to the water’s edge. Some of the men knew each other, while others were new to the expedition, including two recent joiners, one of whom Major Powell asked to sign on, while the other most likely talked or bribed his way to come along.
When all the tasks were complete, the men took to the boats and were in a joyful spirit. They were ready for the upcoming adventure, or as ready as any man could possibly be under the circumstances. None of them could fully grasp what they had signed on to do, because none of them really had the kind of experience this demanding trip would have in store for them. Nevertheless, Major Powell had assembled what he considered to be a capable outfit that mainly consisted of trappers and hunters. Some of them had prior boating experience to some degree, and most were former enlisted men with the Union Army during the Civil War. At times, Major Powell’s four cockpit crews were more like a burlesque considering how the men had to learn how to row the awkward boats entrusted to their overall safekeeping. From the outset, it seemed the men the major chose for the expedition was more like an afterthought than something he seriously sat down and contemplated before choosing. On the other hand, hindsight is everything, whereas the initial phase of sorting out the crew was lacking something the major could not possibly perceive at that time. Namely, how the men would hold up once they were underway.
So, on May 24, 1869, ten men in four boats rowed into history on one of the West’s most scenic and wild rivers. They were newcomers to the kind of energetic water and lumbering boats they had to work with. Yet these landlubbers, who were more used to handling the reins of horses than oars, would soon turn into bona fide oarsmen. That’s because they had to learn how to read and handle the swift water of the Green River or fail in the attempt.
The starting point for this odyssey was a remote setting in the Wyoming territory called Green River Station (and sometimes Green River City). Later in time it would be known as Green River, Wyoming. Except for its picturesque butte that towers over the smooth plane of landscape covered by sagebrush, a scenic frontier town it wasn’t. It was a conspicuous setting merely by its obvious and utter desolation. About the only characteristic and connection to outlying civilization this isolated part of the West had going for it at that time was its latitude, for the tracks and ties that carried the Union Pacific Railroad had finally been laid down and crossed the Green River. Not too long after that last spike was driven into the ground, at Promontory Summit, Utah, some three hundred miles west of Green River Station, another facet of history was born. That celebrated event took place earlier in the month, on May 10, precisely at 12:32 P.M. on a sun-baked and desolate plain near the Great Salt Lake. The Atlantic and Pacific oceans would at last be joined by thousands of miles of railroad tracks. This lesser celebrated event Major Powell and his men embarked upon would also one day spawn its own eminence. First, these men had to prove themselves and prove something to the country: This epic adventure was worth the risk.
Fortunately for Major Powell, that same railroad that came through here also brought his custom built boats from Chicago to the banks of the Green River, free gratis. It was one of the few perks he ended up receiving. Otherwise, the first expedition was frugally funded and only tentatively backed by the United States Government. It was only moderately backed by the Illinois Natural History Society, of which Major Powell was still secretary at that time, the Illinois Industrial University, and various private sources, including $2,000 of his own salary and savings. The Smithsonian Institution and the Chicago Academy of Science also donated expensive scientific instruments that were invaluable to the science of this expedition. These instruments (for instance, chronometers, barometers, thermometers, sextants, and watches) were also to be returned once the expedition was over. Because the expedition wasn’t federally funded as the major had hoped for such an endorsement and monies, he could still draw on free rations from Western Army posts. This privilege was still in effect from his 1867-68 Rocky Mountain West expeditions. At best, his mostly volunteer crew went for no pay, although some of his men, just three, had signed an agreement with the major to receive some compensation for their extra duties beyond the strenuous work of an oarsman.
When the newly named 1869 Colorado River Exploring Expedition pushed off from an island in the wide, rain-swollen Green River, the purple silhouette and irregular profile of the Uinta Mountains could be seen in the far distance. The crenellated and snow-clad peaks of these heights appeared to lie directly in the path of the river due to their predominant east-west alignment. But the river would bend its way around these ramparts and rush headlong into the Uinta Basin below, then scour its way into the sculpted deep chasms of multicolored sandstones and shales. That ranging country that awaited the expeditioners was a land of naked rocks, glimmering and towering cliffs that sometimes caught the sun’s reflection, and sometimes were darkened by gray skies and hanging shadows. But on the day the expedition was launched, it was fairly bright and sunny. The auspicious weather matched the men’s spirits. By the second day, however, the gray clouds would trade places with the cerulean blue sky and warm, sallow sunshine. Wet and dry. Dry and wet. That would be the general pattern of the weather for what was left of the late spring weather.
Historic picture of the Green River:
Historic O. E. Beaman photo of Red Canyon below Flaming Gorge and Horseshoe Canyon (and just above Lodore Canyon):
As for the Green River and this convenient starting place the major chose the year before, its segment would help to train and prepare the men for the reputable rougher stretches further down the line. Yet it would throw down many boulder-choked passages that formed ornery rapids to hone the mental and physical skills of these tenderfoots-turned-oarsmen.
Headwaters Of The Green River: Born in the rooftop of the Wind River Range, the Green River begins as a mere trickle. Cold and clear-flowing, it builds its momentum into a rushing, foaming sluice, tumbling down from impressive heights. Down its swift waters flow, twisting and meandering through lush alpine meadows, then flowing onto flat sagebrush plains where the landscape opens up and resembles an expansive, unbroken vista, except where it is punctuated by isolated buttes and mesas. Eventually, the river changes its personality again and winds its way down and into the grandeur of deep-pocket ravines created by its inexorable flow to meet its partner, the Colorado. By that time, the Green River will have given up some 9,000 feet in elevation, it’s 730-mile run finally spent. Linking with, what was called at that time, the Grand River (now the Colorado), has also completed its 400-mile successive drop to the canyon country.
At this famous axis point, the muddy-brown river born in the Rocky Mountains gingerly mixes with the (usually) chartreuse tincture of the Green River. Here the Colorado River begins its 1,450-mile run down to the Gulf of California. Through some of the deepest canyons on Earth the serpentine avenue of water turns into formidable stretches of whitewater that create reciprocal vociferous white noise. Added to the Green River’s volume, some 244,000 square miles of (mostly) arid landscape is drained by these two legendary Western rivers that no one had exhaustively explored prior to Powell’s coming through this part of the canyon-desert country. At least, not the segment where the most scenic grandeur the West is known for — the nexus of high-walled canyons the Powell expedition would soon be hemmed inside, seemingly for an eternity.
Major Powell was in the lead boat, which was the lighter and smaller of the three vessels. The 16-foot scout boat was made out of white pine and was named after his wife, Emma Dean. At the oars were John Colton Sumner and William (Bill) Dunn. In the Maid Of The Canyon, which was one of three heavier 21-foot freight boats were George Young Bradley and the major’s younger brother, Walter Powell. In the next boat, named the Kitty Clyde’s Sister, were William (Billy) Hawkins and Andy Hall. Finally, Oramel and Seneca Howland, along with Frank Goodman, crewed the No Name, with Oramel in charge. However, he was normally engaged in cartography, his ‘paid’ assignment for making the trip. As mentioned, none of these men had any prior experience with whitewater. However, by the time their expedition was over they would have plenty of experience. Verily, they would accrue more than some of them had bargained for. Yet none of these men would ever become veteran whitewater boatmen after this daring episode, save for Major Powell, who would nearly reprise most of the same journey just two years later.
Historic photo of the second Emma Dean (from the 2nd expedition):
Except for the Emma Dean, the freight boats were loaded, and some might say critically overloaded, with rice, flour, beans, coffee, lots of coffee, sugar, bacon, dried apples, and sundry scientific supplies (i.e., sextants, chronometers, barometers, thermometers, and compasses), as well as the crew’s personal and camping gear (i.e., tents, bedrolls, spare clothing and ponchos). The major included in the cargo the necessary tools for their planned ten-month odyssey (i.e., axes and saws, nails and screws, ropes, traps, gold-panning equipment); also rifles, pistols, muskets and plenty of ammunition. The Powell expedition was therefore well-equipped and prepared for just about any contingency. Most of what they took were evenly divided into the three freight boats, while the Emma Dean carried only a few of the scientific instruments, three guns, and three bundles of clothing for each of the three men aboard her. That way, Major Powell’s boat had a greater advantage over the others (i.e., it was more maneuverable). He also intended to keep the lead, a comfortable lead, to forewarn the other boats about the dangerous whitewater, including how best to run it (see below).
Briefly, the names of the three freight boats is interesting to note, especially the No Name. This singular alias for a boat traces its origins to a Confederate officer, Captain John Taylor Wood. Taylor, along with other Confederate soldiers, had fled the country after General Lee surrendered to General Grant. The men ended up hijacking a sloop at gunpoint and soon headed for Cuba. Along the way, they had to fight off pirates but eventually reached their intended destination. When Captain Taylor was asked by the custom authorities in Cuba what the name of his boat was, he told them, the No Name. Hence, the piratic craft remark Sumner made in his journal entry on the 24th of May. The Kitty Clyde’s Sister designate is thought to originate from a refrain in a popular song of that era. The Maid of the Canyon is the more subjective of the three. Perhaps there was some romantic reverie in one or both of the oarsmen to give their boat this name, although history tells us nothing about such musings, especially from Walter and his usual moody and taciturn manner.
To be continued tomorrow (posting in the late afternoon). As always, your thoughtful commentaries are welcomed.
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