John Wesley Powell: Journey Down the Green and Colorado Rivers

By Molly   •   April 12, 2018

John Wesley Powell: Journey Down the Green and Colorado Rivers

American naturalist John Wesley Powell, was famous for exploring the southwest United States through his Powell Geographic Expedition of 1869. The expedition was of the first scientific investigations down the Green and Colorado rivers, as well as the first passage through the Grand Canyon.

Edmund Clarence Messer (1842 – 1919)

The journey began in Green River City in Wyoming in the spring of 1869. From there, a crew with boats and all needed supplies prepared for the three-month river trip. The river traveled downstream through the states of Colorado, Utah, and Arizona. Powell had four boats built for this trip each filled with several crew members. All of the members of the expedition had some wilderness experience but none had whitewater river experience. The goal was to create maps and gather scientific information.


The first canyon they went through, they named Flaming Gorge on the Green River. Here, they experienced intense rapids and continued to explore the area. During the next week, the crews continued on through Brown’s Park, in the northeast corner of Utah. Just south of Brown’s Park is Lodore Canyon where again Powell and his crew came across a number of rapids. Lodore Canyon is now on the northern edge of Dinosaur National Monument. As they tackled these rapids, one of the boats is wrecked and left in the canyon, creating the first major hurdle of the trip as many of the supplies were lost. However, they were able to save some of the barometers to determine altitude, which was crucial in making accurate maps.


At the end of July, the crews left the Green River and continued through the Colorado River. They passed through towering walls and magnificent scenery. But as the waters were rough some members were unsure of continuing and stayed behind. At this point, Powell’s boat was no longer watertight and they had lost a most of their scientific gear. It was now more about making it through the gushing rapids in the canyons that no one else had ever done before, and they finally came out of the Grand Canyon successfully.

Although they had lost most of the data they had gathered on the trip and would need a second trip to complete the initial goal, they gained publicity and a sense of accomplishment. The Powell Geographic Expedition named many of the sites we have today including Flaming Gorge, Lodore Canyon, and Glen Canyon. Powell directed the path into these southwest rivers and is acknowledged for his adventurous journeys.


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