Today, running the Grand Canyon in a raft is an adrenaline rush for anyone – several Class V rapids and tons of Class I-III sections. Talk of the more infamous of the 47 rapids along the river from Lee’s Ferry to Lake Mead will make your palms sweat, and that’s when you know they’re coming. And you have a state-of-the-art raft, PFD, maybe even a guide who’s run the river several times before.
In 1869, when John Wesley Powell did the first descent of the Colorado through the Grand Canyon, he had none of those things. He did it in a wooden boat, without a PFD (because they hadn’t been invented yet), and no beta about what the river was like ahead. Also, he only had one arm: Powell was hit by a bullet during the Battle of Shiloh in the Civil War and had his right arm amputated. Then he went back to the war.
In May 1869, Powell and his men began a 101-day journey down the Green River and the Colorado, not for thrills, but a scientific survey and exploration of a region that others had deemed impassable. They put in at Green River Station, Wyoming, with a sendoff from a cheering crowd.
Imagine the feeling of a river trip, plus the feeling of being the first human to walk on the moon. No stops at the cantina at Phantom Ranch. The river was a blank spot on the map of the West. As the men pushed the boats in at Green River, onlookers probably assumed they would never see them alive again – which was true for four of the 10 men.
In the first month of the trip, the party of 10 lost one of the boats and most of their 10-month supply of provisions. One man left, saying, “I have had more excitement than a man deserves in a lifetime.” The party spent three months on the river, cautiously scouting rapids, often portaging through rough spots or lining the boats from shore. Rumors of disaster on the expedition circulated in the nation’s newspapers. Three men left the group just after the three-month mark, climbing out of the canyon into unknown territory. In a tragic case of wrong place, wrong time, they were mistaken for men who had murdered a local Hualapai woman, and were killed by the tribe.
Only two days later, the remaining six members of the party met the confluence of the Virgin River and settlers fishing along its banks. Their nearly 1,000-mile journey was over, proving that the Colorado could be run, despite Native American lore that said the river would destroy anyone who entered the canyon.
Powell returned to further explore the Colorado River, the Colorado Plateau, and to get to know and study the Native American tribes of the Southwest. He became affectionately known as Kapurats, or “One-Arm-Off,” and unlike other white men who explored the area for scientific reasons at the time, he never carried a gun, preferring to learn the languages of different tribes.
JWP’s first descent of the Grand earns him historical badass merit, even without the loss of an arm, but it was after his expeditions in the West where Powell really had impact on the nation. He focused on using what he had seen to help shape U.S. policy in the West, insisting that its arid lands couldn’t be parceled like the land in the Midwest, and presciently wrote about water issues that haunt the region today. He helped found the U.S. Geological Survey and became its second director, pushing the idea of a topographic map system covering the entire country, which took more than 100 years to complete. He was one of the founders of the National Geographic Society, and was director of the Smithsonian’s Bureau of Ethnology for 22 years.
He died in 1902 at the age of 68. Visitors to the Sweetwater County Museum in Green River, Wyoming, today often ask who took the arm off the Powell statue out front.
For more on Powell—and there’s so, so much more—pick up a copy of The Promise of the Grand Canyon: John Wesley Powell’s Perilous Journey and His Vision for the American West.