Lewis and Clark are household names, but there’s another explorer whose historic journeys place him right up there in the pantheon of American adventurers. His name is John Wesley Powell.
Powell was born in 1834, and right from the start he was fascinated with nature and outdoor adventure. As a young man he studied botany and zoology; traveled all over Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Missouri; and rowed down some of the countries biggest and most dangerous rivers. He fought in the Civil War—losing his right arm in the Battle of Shiloh—and when it was over he became a professor of geology in Illinois.
It was during his years as professor, in 1869, that Powell set out on a bold mission: to travel down the mighty Colorado River on the first recorded successful passage through what we now call the Grand Canyon. The Colorado was known to have huge rapids and waterfalls—no one had ever successfully mapped it, because no one had ever made it all the way down and lived to tell about it.
With a team of nine men, four boats and food for 10 months, Powell’s expedition set out in May of 1869. One of his men quit after the first month, and another three abandoned the mission three months in, but Powell and the rest of his team made it to the Colorado and braved the rapids all the way through the Grand Canyon. They returned home in triumph, with detailed descriptions of what they saw. But they did not have the item Powell most wanted to create: a map.
In 1871, Powell went back, retracing the same route. This time, he returned with photographs, notes, and yes, the first map of the passage. It was during this expedition that Powell coined the name Grand Canyon. Before that, it had been known simply as Big Canyon. No doubt, Grand does it a bit more justice. Take a student trip to the Grand Canyon, and I’m sure you’ll agree.
We are ready to start our way down the great unknown… We are three-quarters of a mile in the depths of the earth and the great river shrinks into insignificance as it dashes its angry waves against the walls and cliffs that rise to the world above… We have an unknown distance yet to run, an unknown river to explore. What falls there are, we know not. What rocks beset the channel, we know not. What walls rise over the river, we know not.
– Excerpt form Powell’s journal (August 13, 1869)