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The Powell Colorado River Expedition of 1869

Utah Historical Quarterly

Vol XV, 1947, Nos. 1-4


On May 24, 1869, Major John Wesley Powell and nine companions launched their four boats into the Green River at Green River Station, Wyoming Territory. They had packed provisions and equipment for a ten-month exploration of the canyons of the Green and Colorado rivers. Many minor mishaps and a score of near disasters so reduced their supplies that the voyage through the hitherto untraversed canyons became a race against starvation and death. Three of the men deserted the party, not knowing that in one day more, achievement of their goal was at hand. For sheer bravery, daring, and resourcefulness, the canyon voyage has been inscribed in the annals of American exploration. The Major, who had lost one arm in the battle of Shiloh, and his loyal companions had gambled against odds which seemed unbeatable, but they had won. The canyon passage is justly famous. It marked the last great exploration through unknown country in continental United States.

The exploration of the canyons of the Colorado River was a carefully planned enterprise, not a sudden blind dash through the canyons. Sometime in 1867 Major Powell considered the possibility of ascending the Colorado River from Callville, which is approximately 150 miles above Fort Yuma, and working his way up to the junction of the Grand and Green rivers. However, preliminary exploration and greater familiarity with the country through which he would have to pass convinced Powell that the plan was impractical. It would have been too difficult and tedious to carry the provisions up the river.

A few months later, early in 1868, the Major reversed his plan and decided to descend the Green and the Grand as soon as the necessary arrangements could be completed.

In June of 1868, with a party of 20 persons, Powell left Omaha for an exploration of the upper Colorado River. With the support of Illinois Normal University, Illinois Wesleyan, and various scientific organizations, and with the support of a number of friends, he hoped to make his dream a reality. The survey was to begin near Grand City in the Middle Park, Colorado. The original intent was to spend sixteen months in the field, making an eightor nine-month exploration of the country east of the Green and Colorado rivers, and then descending the canyons during the spring of 1869.

The 1868 party spent four months exploring the Park regions of Colorado, making natural history collections and surveying some of the prominent mountain peaks of the state. In November most of the men, including three students from Illinois Wesleyan, returned east, while Major Powell, Mrs. Powell, Captain Walter Powell, and a few of the men remained behind to prepare for a winter camp. The party wintered on the White River. The following March the Major struck across country to Fort Bridger, and from there returned to the States.

By way of preparation during this year, the Major, with a small party of volunteers, had explored the sources of the Grand, White, and Yampa rivers, and had examined numerous small canyons through which these streams coursed. Powell familiarized himself with the topography of the entire Green River country, obtaining maps and survey reports published by the Federal Government, copying manuscripts and sketch maps loaned to him by Mormon missionaries, and talking with Indians, settlers, and trappers. From these varied sources and accounts Powell sifted such information as seemed usable.

The Major interviewed James White, who, it was reported, came through the canyons from the San Juan River to Callville on a raft in fourteen days, but the fellow's story seemed too vague to credit. Another fellow boasted to Powell how he, with several friends, had laid out an entire town at the junction of the San Juan, only to be driven away by hostile Indians.

Powell next attempted to gain official support for his canyon expedition. Mrs. Powell left her husband at Chicago to remain with her family in Detroit while the Major proceeded to Washington, where he hoped to induce Congress to pass joint resolutions offering financial support. Meanwhile, he secured from General U. S. Grant an endorsement again authorizing him to draw rations from western army posts at cost'for a party of twelve men while engaged in making scientific collections for public institutions. Congress refused to make an appropriation although it did pass a resolution confirming the privilege of drawing upon the army posts for supplies. This constituted the only official recognition of the expedition.

It is seldom realized that Powell's 1869 Colorado River Expedition was under the auspices of the Illinois State Natural History Society. Many other organizations subsequently claimed that honor. The trustees of the Illinois State Normal University granted $500 toward the work and the trustees of. Illinois Industrial University (later University of Illinois) contributed another $500. The Chicago Academy of Sciences through the influence of Dr. Andrews, its curator, gave $100. A few personal friends contributed additional small amounts. Major Powell put in nearly $2,000 of his own funds. The Union Pacific Railroad and the Burlington Railroad issued passes for the men and supplies and spared Powell this very considerable item of expense. None of the members received, or expected to receive, any remuneration. A joint resolution by Congress authorized army posts to issue rations and certain supplies. The Smithsonian Institution, through its secretary, Joseph Henry, loaned various scientific instruments. It was an ambitious undertaking, with limited means but with unlimited courage.

The most important equipment which would be needed for the trip were the boats. Tools had been brought out with the 1868 party to build boats on the spot, but the swift waters of the White River and the Grand gave ample evidence that such craft could not survive the battering to which they would be subjected. As a second alternative Major Powell had made arrangements with the college authorities at Normal to purchase sturdy boats and send them out by train. The longer he studied the rivers, the more uncertain he was that any ready-made boat would survive the trip. By now Powell had hit upon a design of his own invention. He canceled plans for purchasing boats and returned to Chicago where he engaged a competent boatbuilder to construct four boats to his specifications. Three of the four boats were 21 feet long, 4 feet wide, and 22 inches deep, double-ribbed, and with double stem and stern posts. There were large bulkheads at each end to give greater buoyancy and to allow the storage of. food and supplies so that they would be protected against frequent immersion or soaking. The fourth boat was of similar design, but was constructed of white pine instead of oak and was only 16 feet long. This lighter construction, especially with a sharper outwater, would permit greater maneuverability.

The Major intended to use the light pine boat as a leader which could be rowed ahead and from which he could signal tothe larger boats at points of danger or difficulty. It should be noted that all of the pictures of the boats in Major Powell's official report of the expeditions illustrate the type used in 1871-72. No picture of the earlier design has been preserved.

Many river men have said that Major Powell has not received sufficient credit for designing a boat to contend with the Colorado River. Actually Powell had had extensive experience in rowboats and skiffs on the Ohio, Mississippi, Illinois, and Missouri rivers. He had made hazardous journeys as a young man and was as fearless of the river as he was of personal danger.

Reconnaissance along the rim of the canyons had proved how impractical it would be to haul supplies down to the river along the route. Below the Uinta Basin, moreover, there was no possibility of obtaining new supplies until the party should emerge from the canyons. Powell considered the possibility that the party might be imprisoned in the canyons if during the winter ice jammed the river. It was assumed, of course, that their larder could be augmented from time to time with game and fish and the men were well equipped with tackle and guns for this purpose.

The party was supplied with provisions considered to be sufficient for ten months, though Powell did not believe that the trip would take more than half that time. The food consisted of the usual army rations—flour, sugar, beans, dried apples, salt pork, coffee and a little tea. They had obtained also a couple of sides of bacon and some rice. The rations were divided into three equal portions, one to be stored in each of the three oaken boats. The tools, axes, augers, hammers, saws, and small pieces, were divided in like manner. The light pine boat carried as little baggage as possible, only a few instruments, three guns, and one change of clothing.

Although the boats were successful and supported the men safely through the canyons, they had many structural defects. Despite the care taken, the food supplies were constantly wet and the spoilage which resulted caused great hardship and near starvation before the exploration had been completed.

The published accounts of the 1869 expedition are numerous but so widely scattered that, for practical purposes, only Major Powell's official report printed in 1875 has been accessible. This report, as will be explained later, is, to a certain extent, a compilation of records of both the 1869 and the 1871-72 expeditions.

Thus, the scattered and fragmentary nature of the documented history of the exploration has left several puzzling questions which have never been answered. Most serious of these is the reason for the defection of the three men who deserted within hours of deliverance from the harrowing experience of the trip. There are those who claimed, after the Major's death, that he, literally, had ordered the trio to leave. This is a serious charge because the men who climbed out of the canyon were ambushed and slain by Shivwit Indians, shortly after their successful ascent to the plateau above the rim of the canyon. A more sentimental reason for weighing the evidence in this case is that the names of the Howland brothers and William Dunn were not placed on the memorial which now stands on the brink of the Grand Canyon as a tribute to the intrepid men who first explored the Grand Canyon of the Colorado. They deserved, perhaps, as much credit as the six members of the 1871-72 party whose names are given on the tablet, yet who had abandoned the river before completing a passage; thus it was an appropriate honor paid them when Julius F. Stone and Dr. Russell G. Frazier, on August 28, 1939, affixed to the canyon wall at the point where they separated from Powell, a bronze plaque in their memory.

The second question concerns the appraisal of the scientific knowledge which was gained by the expedition. Some writers— not scientists—have belittled the results of this first exploration, stating bluntly that the scientific results were "nil." True, the trip had to be so hurried that the passage was made in three months instead of ten, the collections were abandoned, observations were limited, and many of the notes were lost. Two years later the Major led a second exploration, this time extending over two years, for the purpose of preparing a map of the Colorado River. Most of the mapping of the Colorado canyons and the course of the river was accomplished by the second party, but they had a preliminary map, field notes, and a journal of the first trip to guide them. The geographic reconnaissance which the first party had made revealed the salient physiographic features of the canyon system and formed, in the Major's mind, the concept of the origin of the canyons.

The method of work used by the 1869 party was described briefly by Major Powell as follows:

On this trip astronomic stations about fifty miles apart were made, and observations taken for latitude with the sextant, and also for longitude by the method of lunar distances. The meandering course of the river was determined by compass observations from point to point with the intervening distances estimated, thus connecting the astronomic stations. For hypsometric data a series of tri-daily barometric observations were recorded, taken at the water's edge, and using this as an ever falling base-line, altitudes on the walls and such adjacent mountain peaks as were visited were determined by synchronous observations. The results of this hypsometry were used in the construction of the geological sections made along the course of the river. The course of the river and the topographic features of the canyons only were mapped. It should be remembered here that a portion of the records of this trip were lost at a time when three men who had them in charge were killed by the Indians.

A considerable body of observations made by these methods are recorded in Major Powell's "Notebook No. 2." So far as is known, these are the only technical notes, made in 1869, which have been preserved. A small selection, which illustrates the nature of these, is reproduced from Major Powell's notebook.

Worthy of mention also is the fact that already, in 1869, the Major had commenced to observe and speculate on the pueblo remains along the Canyon and on the irrigation possibilities of the country he traversed. Dellenbaugh, for instance, wrote that he did not believe Powell had studied irrigation before 1873.

The historian of the Powell Colorado River expedition has been Frederick S. Dellenbaugh, who as a lad of seventeen was a boatman and artist on the second canyon expedition of 1871-72. He became a favorite of the Major, traveled in the same boat, and enjoyed the companionship of his chief so that he, better than any other member of the group, came to know the Major intimately. However, A Canyon Voyage, which is a chronicle of the second expedition and The Romance of the Colorado River, were written many years after the voyages took place. When Dellenbaugh prepared his account of the first expedition he knew only of the Major's incomplete diary and a few notes from an incomplete and brief journal on foolscap kept by Jack Sumner on the first trip. Dellenbaugh wrote that he did not believe that any other member of the 1869 expedition had kept a journal of the events. This erroneous opinion has been repeated by every other writer on the canyon down to the present time.

It is a curious fact that when James M. Chalfant prepared a condemnation of the Major's veracity and character in Colorado River Controversies, he apparently suppressed knowledge of a third diary which had found its way to the Library of Congress in 1915. The existence of this diary was well known to Robert Brewster Stanton, whose manuscripts and notes were used by Chalfant. If Dellenbaugh came to know the third diary, it was after the publication of the revised edition of his A Canyon Voyage (1923).

The third, hitherto unpublished, yet by far the most important diary of the Powell 1869 expedition, was written by George Young Bradley, who had been released from the Army at Powell's request in order to make the trip. The diary, which is here given in entirety, supplies full answers to every one of the questions which have been raised by those who have challenged the accuracy of the Powell and Sumner journals.

Shortly after the completion of the exploration, Major Powell wrote a short sketch of the trip for publication in W. A. Bell's New Tracks in North America (second edition, 1870). This article, of no little importance, has been overlooked by many historians of the Colorado country.

In addition to the on-the-spot diaries by Major Powell, Jack Sumner, and George Bradley, there are several other significant records of the expedition—letters to newspapers which were written by members of the party. In order of importance these are:

(1) Major Powell to the Chicago Tribune 5 letters dated May 24, June 2-6, 7, 18-20, 23, 1869.

(2) Major Powell to his friends 2 letters dated June 29, 1869.

(3) O. G. Howland to the Denver Rocky Mountain News 2 letters dated June 19 (with footnote dated June 30) and July 1, 1869.

(4) Walter H. Powell to the Chicago Evening Journal

1 letter dated July 3, 1869. All of these communications refer to the first lap of the exploration, that is, from the start at Green River Station, May 24, to the mouth of the Uinta (Duchesne) River, June 30, 1869.

There have been other documents pertaining to the 1869 expedition, which, though not written contemporaneously with the expedition, were prepared by two surviving members of the party, John C. Sumner and William Rhodes Hawkins. The value of these later accounts is considerably diminished, not only because of their many obvious inaccuracies, but also because of the rancor which both Sumner and Hawkins felt towards the Major. These accounts have given grounds for some of the suspicions which have been cast upon the Major's leadership of the expedition.

Robert Brewster Stanton, a distinguished civil engineer and himself an explorer of the Grand Canyon, having traversed it in 1890, after a tragic attempt in 1889 during which three members of the Brown party lost their lives, investigated the history of the 1869 expedition carefully. On several attempts to obtain information in preparation for these expeditions, both Brown and Stanton believed that Major Powell had treated them brusquely and had avoided giving them the information they sought. Quite by accident Stanton had met Jack Sumner, who having grown bitter against the Major through the years, related to him incidents which cast doubts upon the truth of the official account of the 1869 trip, published in 1875 (Exploration of the Colorado River of the West, 1869-1872). Pursuing this lead, Stanton located William R. Hawkins who corroborated much of the information which Sumner had given him. By now the Major was gone and it was not easy to obtain information to refute these charges. With much prodding, Sumner and Hawkins prepared statements which ultimately were used by Chalfant in his denunciation of the Major's integrity.

Examination of the correspondence which was gathered over many years by Mr. Stanton reveals that through deliberate distortion many of Stanton's opinions were evaded or suppressed and that the book called Colorado River Controversies does not reflect the sentiments of Stanton, who himself had to discredit much of what Sumner in particular had told him. The Bradley diary speaks for itself, and those who may refuse to accept this evidence against a controversy for which there is no foundation must be allowed to do so.

The Major was not blameless when it comes to deliberate inaccuracy. The only purportedly complete published account of the first canyon expedition is the government document mentioned before. In this well-known report appears a day-to-day account, with dates of the happenings and observations of the trip. A comparison of this account with the diaries of the 1869 and 1871-72 expeditions will show at once that it is a composite of both trips, and some of the occurrences attributed to 1869 actually happened in 1871. In this account, except for A. H. Thompson, the members of the 1871 party received no credit for their work and collaboration. It was a source of some resentment to the unselfish men who followed the Major on this expedition, though for one reason or another none of them ever criticized him openly. There was a reason for the Major's method, yet it cannot be accepted as a justification. When the three men deserted the party on August 28, 1869, they took with them one set of notes. The journals of Major Powell and Jack Sumner had been kept in duplicate, in case of loss or disaster, so that at least one record might be preserved for future use. In the haste and excitement of the hour the notes were not equally divided— rather both sets of the notes taken prior to July 2 were carried out by the elder Howland, and when the men were killed the notes were irretrievably lost. Thus, when the Major came several years later to prepare an account of his trip, which writing, by the way, was urged upon him by Abram S. Hewitt and James A. Garfield, so that it would be easier to obtain appropriations for further explorations, he used information from the later trip to make a continued narrative of the expedition. In this sense the account given by the Major is a literary composition rather than a scientific document. Every incident therein recorded actually happened, though the dates given are in many instances erroneous and ofttimes they are not properly credited.

The amount of this borrowed material, however, is much less than one is led to believe. The Major had written four letters to the Chicago Tribune covering the first lap of their journey to the junction of the Uinta. Major Powell used much of these letters verbatim in his 1875 account. Typical examples are the entries, May 24, June 1, 7, 9, 10, 14. In other cases, as for June 8, he paraphrased from his letters.

To return now to the Bradley journal, this diary was compiled by a man who had served nearly six years in the Army. He understood military discipline, and he had the attribute of the enlisted soldier—"grousing." Although Bradley left school at the sixth grade, he continued to have an interest in learning so that there are the unmistakable indications of intelligent reading, a good vocabulary, and sound judgment of people and events in his diary entries.

Powell's journal, covering the period July 2 to August 28, 1869, amounts to less than thirty pages of brief notes, in some cases mere enumerations or phrases. The original Sumner diary is lost, as is also the copy which Sumner made at Fort Yuma for Major Powell. A somewhat mutilated copy (of Sumner's copy transcribed at Fort Yuma), made many years after the time of the expedition, is preserved. The period covered extends from July 6 to August 31. It is written in a foreign handwriting and has been copied two or three times. The Bradley diary which is in two parts, May 21 to June 28 and June 29 to August 30, each being numbered independently (pages 1-12, pages 1-28), is therefore the only complete day-to-day record of the expedition from the day it left Green River until its termination near Callville. It is written in literary style, and, despite the brevity of many of the entries, they are sensitively suggestive of the temper of the men and the river.

It is worthy of note that the three extant journals, so far as they can be compared, are in striking agreement, recording the same events with only trifling discrepancies in dates, apparently due to the difficulties of keeping account of the days of the week as the weeks passed by.

Bradley's manuscript journal of the Powell 1869 expedition was presented to the Library of Congress in September, 1915, by his nephew, Mr. Charles H. Morss. Mrs. C. H. Morss and her son, Mr. E. L. Morss, have graciously granted permission for the preparation and publication of Bradley's diary and have provided genealogical information about Mr. Bradley. Mr. St. George L. Sioussat, Chief of the Division of Manuscripts of the Library of Congress, has made the manuscript journal available and enabled me to obtain a photostat copy of the original.

For other materials pertaining to the 1869 Powell expedition, I am indebted to the Bureau of American Ethnology, Smithsonian Institution, in whose care Major Powell's incomplete journal is preserved, and to the New York Public Library, where the incomplete and at times poorly transcribed copy of Jack Sumner's diary is preserved in the Robert Brewster Stanton Collection. I have examined also the copy of this copy of Sumner's journal, which is in the Bureau of American Ethnology. In order to distinguish the work of the 1869 and 1871 explorations I have examined source materials for the second expedition, found principally in the Dellenbaugh Collection in the Manuscript Division of the New York Public Library.

Mrs. L. S. Burchard, the daughter of R. B. Stanton, has generously given me access to her father's collection. The extensive correspondence between Mr. Stanton and Jack Sumner and William Rhodes Hawkins is indispensable for a fair interpretation and appraisal of the three 1869 diaries and especially of the accounts written many years later by Sumner and Hawkins.

I am also grateful to Mrs. Lester W. Bradley for permission to use the diaries of her father, W. Clement Powell, a cousin of the Major, which are to be printed in Vol. XVI of this Quarterly.

Miss Louise Bradley has assisted me in tracing the movements of George Bradley in Massachusetts. Curiously, Mrs. L. W. Bradley and Miss Louise Bradley are not related to George Y. Bradley or to each other.

Thanks are due to Major General Edward F. Witsell, Adjutant General of the United States, and to the Office of the Adjutant General of Massachusetts for transcripts of the military service records of Sergeant Bradley. Miss Katherine M. Kuechle of the Newburyport Library, Mrs. Sarah Bailey of the West Newbury Library, and Miss Grace Arlington Owen of the San Diego Library have aided in the search for documentary materials concerning G. Y. Bradley.


Medford, Massachusetts.

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