Editor’s note: This story was originally published in the summer edition of “Havasu: Arizona’s Coastal Life” magazine, which can be purchased in stores around Lake Havasu City or at the Today’s News-Herald office at 2225 W. Acoma Blvd.
Long before the Colorado River was tamed, Native Americans told stories of great waterfalls and bucking rapids throughout Southwest. Navigating those waters was a dangerous endeavor — but John Powell saw it as a dare.
Powell was among the first men to scale Pikes Peak in Colorado, and as a professor of geology at Illinois Wesleyan University, the promise of exploring the Colorado River was too great to ignore. As a student of Native American languages, religion and customs, his school felt he was the perfect candidate to chart the Colorado River’s territory, as well as the still-mysterious Grand Canyon.
Powell set forth on May 24, 1869, in what would become known as the Powell Geological Expedition. He was accompanied by his brother, Walter Powell, Colorado editor Oramel Howland, veterans George Bradley and Jack Sumner; trappers Bill Dunn and Bill Hawkins; adventurer Frank Goodman; and an 18-year-old assistant named Andy Hall.
They started in Green Crossing, Wyoming, and traveled in four row boats built specifically to withstand the potential hazards of the Colorado River’s violent rapids. Powell traveled with a notebook in hand, according to a 1969 account of the expedition, naming each canyon they passed — including Disaster Falls, in Utah, so named after the loss of one of the expedition’s boats in the area, along with 2,000 pounds of the explorers’ provisions.
Powell’s expedition reached the mouth of the Grand Canyon after about 71 treacherous days on the Colorado River.
“We have an unknown distance yet to run, an unknown river yet to explore,” Powell wrote of the experience. “What falls there are, we know not. What rocks beset the channel, we know not. What walls rise over the river, we know not.”
As the walls of the Grand Canyon began to narrow around them, Powell’s expedition entered the 300-mile-long chasm. Only dried apples, flour and coffee remained of the group’s provisions. Their oars were splintered and their boats were badly damaged. It was at this time the expedition reached another landmark, Separation Rapids — so-named by Powell because it was there that three of the expedition’s members chose to abandon the journey.
The remaining six members of Powell’s crew, and his two remaining boats, continued on. They eventually reached the end of the region’s difficult rapids, and found calm waters at the end of their journey. They had traversed the Grand Canyon.
Powell and his brother returned east to discover that he and his men had been assumed lost. He also learned that three of his companions — the Howland brothers and Dunn, had been killed by Paiute Indians in the region. According to Powell’s account, he later learned the three had been killed in a case of mistaken identity, and Powell personally made peace with the tribes’ chiefs.
In 1871, Powell gathered a second expedition, gathering ethnological and anthropological data about the region’s Native American tribes. It was the information he gathered during that second expedition that aided in establishing the Bureau of Ethnology for the Smithsonian Institute. He was appointed as the bureau’s first direct.
Powell died in 1902.