John Wesley Powell

Woodcut of John Wesley Powell

Major John Wesley Powell was 35 years old when he led his first expedition through the Canyon. He was a geologist, a teacher, and a one-armed veteran of the Civil War (he lost his right arm in the Battle of Shiloh). His writing style, a little old-fashioned now, still draws you in...

In 1895 he published The Canyons of the Colorado, a somewhat romanticized account of the first expedition through the Grand Canyon. In the preface he wrote:

"In the same year -- 1874 -- at the instance of Professor Henry of the Smithsonian Institution, I was called before an appropriations committee of the House of Representatives to explain certain estimates made by the Professor for funds to continue scientific work which had been in progress from the date of the original exploration. Mr. Garfield was chairman of the committee, and after listening to my account of the progress of the geographic and geologic work, he asked me why no history of the original exploraton of the canyons had been published. I informed him that I had no interest in that work as an adventure, but was interested only in the scientific results, and that these results had in part been published and in part were in course of publication..."
Powell's claim that the trips were undertaken for purely scientific motives was surely disingenuous -- his motives were far more complex. However, the two expeditions returned a great deal of knowledge, and this book is a trove of unique historical information. Powell continues:
"...I have received many letters urging that a popular account of the exploration and a description of that wonderful land should be published by me. This call has been voiced occasionally in the daily press and sometimes in the magazines, until at last I have concluded to publish a fuller account in popular form. In doing this I have revised and enlarged the original journal of exploration, and have added several new chapters descriptive of the region and the people who inhabit it. Realizing the difficulty of painting in word colors a land so strange, so wonderful, and so vast in its features, in the weakness of my descriptive powers I have sought refuge in graphic illustration, and for this purpose have gathered from themagazines and from various scientific reports an abundance of material. All this illustrative material originated in my work, but it has already been used elsewhere.

"Many years have passed since the exploration, and those who were boys with me in the enterprise are -- ah, most of them are dead, and the living are gray with age. Their bronzed, hardy, brave faces come before me as they appeared in the vigor of life; their lithe but powerful forms seem to move around me; and the memory of the men and their heroic deads, the men and their generous acts, overwhelms me with a joy that seems almost a grief, for it starts a fountain of tears. I was a maimed man; my right arm was gone; and these brave men, these good men, never forgot it. In every danger my safety was their first care, and in every waking hour some kind service was rendered me, and they transfigured my misfortune into a boon.

"To you -- J. C. Sumner, William H. Dunn, W. H. Powell, G. Y. Bradley, O. G. Howland, Seneca Howland, Frank Goodman, W. R. Hawkins, and Andrew Hall -- my noble and generous companions, dead and alive, I dedicate this book."

This dedication to the 9 men on the first expedition is especially interesting in light of the fact that 3 of the party -- the Howland brothers and William Dunn -- left the party at Separation Rapid (now submerged in Lake Meade), and were killed, reportedly by Indians.

Indeed, there is a great deal of interesting scientific material in the book. But it is hard to believe that adventure was not a motive:

"August 13 [1869] -- We are now ready to start on our way down the Great Unknown. Our boats, tied to a common stake, chafe each other as they are tossed by the fretful river. They ride high and buoyant, for their loads are lighter than we could desire. We have but a month's rations remaining. The flour has been resifted through the mosquito-net sieve; the spoiled bacon has been dried and the worst of it boiled. the few pounds of dried apples have been spread in the sun and reshrunken to their normal bulk. The sugar has all melted and gone on its way down the river. But we have a large sack of coffee. The lightening of the boats has this advantage: they will ride the waves better and we shall have but little to carry when we make a portage.

"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; the waves are but puny ripples, and we but pigmies, running up and down the sands or lost among the boulders.

"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 ride over the river, we know not. Ah, well! we may conjecture many things. The men talk as cheerfully as ever; but to me the cheer is somber and the jests are ghastly."

Powell was 35 at the time of his first expedition in 1869, and Canyons of the Colorado was published in 1895, when he was in his early 60's. (He lived just past the turn of the century.) From his Canyoneering he went on to a distinguished career, eventually becoming the head of the newly formed United States Geological Survey.

Powell spoke Science to the Government, and Adventure to the Public. But in his heart there was something else:

"The wonders of the Grand Canyon cannot be adequately represented in symbols of speech, nor by speech itself. The resources of the graphic art are taxed beyond their powers in attempting to portray its features. Language and illustration combined must fail. The elements that unite to make the Grand Canyon the most sublime spectacle in nature are multifarious and exceedingly diverse. The Cyclopean forms which result from the sculpture of tempests through ages too long for man to compute, are wrought into endless details, to describe which would be a task equal in magnitude to that of describing the stars of the heavens or the multitudinous beauties of the forest with its traceries of foliage presented by oak and pine and poplar, by beech and linden and hawthorn, by tulip and lily and rose, by fern and moss and lichen. Besids the elements of form, there are elements of color, for here the colors of the heavens are rivaled by the colors of the rocks. The rainbow is not more replete with hues. But form and color do not exhaust all the divine qualities of the Grand Canyon. It is the land of music. The river thunders in perpetual roar, swelling in floods of music when the storm gods play upon the rocks and fading away in soft and low murmurs when the infinite blue of heaven is unveiled. With the melody of the great tide rising and falling, swelling and vanishing forever, other melodies are heard in the gorges of the lateral canyons, while the waters plunge in the rapids among the rocks or leap in great cataracts. Thus the Grand Canyon is a land of song. Mountains of music swell in the rivers, hills of music billow in the creeks, and meadows of music murmur in the rills that ripple over the rocks. Altogether it is a symphony of multitudinous melodies. All this is the music of waters. The adamant foundations of the earth have been wrought into a sublime harp, upon which the clouds of the heavens play with mighty tempests or with gentle showers.

"The glories and the beauties of form, color, and sound unite in the Grand Canyon -- forms unrivaled even by the mountains, colors that vie with sunsets, and sounds that span the diapason from tempest to tinkling raindrop, from cataract to bubbling fountain. But more: it is a vast district of country. Were it a valley plain it would make a state. It can be seen only in parts from hour to hour and from day to day and from week to week and from month to month. A year scarcely suffices to see it all. It has infinite variety, and no part is ever duplicated. Its colors, though many and complex in any instant, change with the ascending and declining sun; lights and shadows appear and vanish with the passing clouds, and the changing seasons mark their passage in changing colors. You cannot see the Grand Canyon in one view, as if it were a changeless spectacle from which a curtain might be lifted, but to see it you have to toil from month to month through its labyrinths. It is a region more difficult to traverse than the Alps or the Himalayas, but if strength and courage are sufficient for the task by a year's toil a concept of sublimity can be obtained never again to be equaled on the hither side of Paradise."

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