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John Wesley Powell

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 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 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 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.  Ah, well! we may conjecture many things."


Green River, Wyoming. May 24, 1869. A few men step blinking into the bright morning from the station eating house, where they have stuffed themselves with Ah Chug's canned-apple pie. They troop down to four boats' tied below the railroad bridge. Ten men get in and with little ceremony throw off the ropes. As the current pulls them into the main channel, they wave their hats. On shore the onlookers wave back; some shake their heads. The tiny craft bob around the first bend and are gone. One of America's last great explorations has begun.

The odds for success — even of coming out alive ~ aren't good. Ahead lies one of the few blank spots left on the map of the continent, the untraveled gorges of the Green and Colorado Rivers. Where the only way out is the other end of the Grand Canyon, three states away. Where, they have been told, the canyon walls are so sheer there wiU be no places to beach their boats. Where they will plunge over waterfalls more furious than Niagara. According to the wisdom of the day, they might as well be casting off for Hades.

Worse, John Wesley Powell, the five-foot-six man in the lead boat, already is missing one arm, smashed by a minnie ball in the battle of Shiloh Church. Worse, the expedition is short on equipment. What it has was begged from a variety of government agencies and private institutions, which looked upon Professor Powell from obscure Illinois Wesleyan University as a crackpot. But worst of all, no one seems to care, "No one was willing to spend much time listening to a college professor who wanted to float off, probably to his death, on some Western river."

August 30, 1869, a hundred days later. Four men, an Indian, a Mormon named Asa, and his two sons, are fishing at the confluence of the Virgin and Colorado Rivers. Months earlier John Risdon caught the public's attention by claiming to be the sole survivor of Powell's abortive adventure. The Governor of lUinois wept as Risdon choked out the story of how he left the group to hunt, only to see the four boats shoot over a mammoth waterfall into a whirlpool. From his vantage point he stood helpless as hundreds of yards below him the maelstrom ground men and boats to bits, while — Risdon always tearfully added — the noble Powell stood at the helm with jaw set, a brave sailor to the last. The morbid account is picked up by newspapers and electrifies the nation, then after a few weeks Powll is forgotten.

Meanwhile, out West in Salt Lake City, Brigham Young, perspicacious leader of the Mormon Church, has instructed Asa to look for any "reUcs" of the party that might come floating out of the lower end of the Grand Canyon. Instead, Asa sees six battered but cheering men rowing toward him. Risdon was a fraud.

Just two days earlier, however, fearing the maws of the last cataracts, four men left the expedition in an attempt to scale the walls and reach the nearest Mormon village. Unknown to Powell, they lie bloated in the sun, riddled with Shivwit arrows. In addition to the men, Powell is short one boat, the flagship Emma Dean, shaken beyond repair in the rapids below the Little Colorado River. But for that, the     ', expedition is a total success.

Asa sends the Indian trotting off to the Httle town of St. Thomas, which flashes the news to the world via the Desert Telegraph. The newspapers go wild. Powell has entered the labyrinths of the Grand Canyon of the Colorado, a 35-year-old unknown, a  -maimed, self-educated farm boy from the Midwest.. He has emerged triumphant over all handicaps — the stereotypic hero of the 19th century.

As sensational and scientifically useful as his venture proved to be, the trip was the beginning of a reform campaign, not the end of a career, an early high point that would become symptomatic both of Powell's accomplishments and his personality throughout his next 25 years of public service. As even his enemies would later admit, Powell was a gentle, noncompetitive man. Typically, when the four men deserted his party on the Colorado, he offered words of encouragement and a generous share of the meager supplies. As a measure of his character, in the years ahead he never accepted military escorts for his small survey crews, preferring to befriend the various tribes, winning their trust by showing deep respect for their cultures. An instant celebrity after the canyon adventure, he carried the fame with dignity.

Furthermore, he was a realist. He knew that his planned studies would depend on further knowledge, and that the massive amount of information he needed about the West — the kind that would support the conclusions of his Arid Lands volume — could be gotten only by financial aid from the government. He shrewdly divided the next 10 years between exploration of the Rocky Mountains and lobbying forays to Washington, D.C., to support them. He made 30 trips to Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah, mapping, documenting the water and mineral resources, recording Indian cultures, sending back crates of plants, animals, and artifacts to the Smithsonian. He was discovering a country that most Westerners, viewing their new land through exploiters' eyes, never saw.

His successes made enemies. Other scientists resented his acclaim. More debilitating, Western Congressmen representing the banks, railroads, and land speculators began to look askance at the appropriations for expeditions whose leader went around informing the public that its Western treasure house was being rifled by special interests. They began to see the political implications of a science that refused to obey their commands to speak only when asked how to extract riches from the Rockies as quickly and as efficiently as possible.

Nevertheless, Powell himself was a supreme politician. He knew how to consolidate gains. He had the ear of President Grant, his commanding officer during the Civil War. Riding the wave of apprehension created by his Arid Lands report of 1878, Powell persuaded Congress to establish the United States Geological Survey (U.S.G.S.), thus uniting several independent studies under one agency. It was a sleight of hand long in the making by the scientist. Instead of rushing in to become its new director, however, he engineered the appointment of a brillant young friend, Clarence King, to the post. The move allowed Powell to sidestep any political furor resulting from the birth of the U.S.G.S. It also allowed him to pursue his studies of native cultures as head of the newly created Bureau of Ethnology, tucked away beyond the reach of politicians in the Smithsonian Institution.

Within a year King resigned — himself a victim of the gold mania — and Powell quite naturally became head of both agencies. His stature grew over the years as both bureaus issued voluminous studies recording the West's unique heritage. William Henry Holmes referred to the Bureau of Ethnology publications as, ". . .  among the most important contributions to human history ever made by an individual, an    institution, or a state."

Yet Powell never was able to drive the exploiters from the field. Regrouping in order to protect their monopolistic practices, they launched attack after attack on Powell through slashing various appropriation bills. For two decades he had sat with patience and dignity through similar battles, infuriating his adversaries with his candor.

Now he was 60, and the stump of Ms amputated arm kept him in constant pain. He longed for time to write, to stroll the beaches and poke around in the shell heaps left by Indians. Because the battle focused largely on him as a reform personality, in 1894 he quit, thus saving the causes he supported from further reductions in funds