Powell's Expedition of Colorado River

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Article taken from "Backsights" Magazine published by Surveyors Historical Society


by R. Zimmerman and M. Root

In the Spring of 1869, a one-armed veteran of Shiloh, Major John Wesley Powell, set out with a party of eight men to explore the Colorado River.  Under the direction of the Smithsonian Institution, these men undertook the physical dangers of the unknown in the name of science.  Their goal was to map the river and the bluffs, record geological data, and document the regional Indian tribes.

To accomplish this, rations, tools, instruments and bedding for a ten month journey were divided among their three sturdy boats.  Anticipating rapids, the boats were constructed with double ribs, stem and stern posts, and further strengthened by bulkheads, dividing each into three compartments.  The fore and aft compartments were decked, forming water-tight cabins, and these also served to buoy the boats in rough water.  Into the compartments were stowed their scientific equipment:  2 sextants, 4 chronometers, a number of barometers, thermometers, compasses and drafting tools.  Major Powell wanted to accomplish the above-mentioned goals, but he also wanted to discover the geological riddle of cross axial drainage - how a river can cut through the spine of a mountain instead of flowing down its slope.

The actual surveying consisted chiefly of fixing longitudes and latitudes using the sextants and chronometers, and differences in elevations via the barometers.  Readings were taken at each campsite, at river confluences, and at major geological landmarks.  Along the way, various ruins of Indian cities were mapped as well.

The hardships were many; Powell and his men endured many dunkings in the river, and were constantly having to make new oars, dry out the flour supply, and repair broken barometers.  Ingenuity played a major part in transporting the boats from above or sliding them on skids, in addition to plain, hard portage.  To further their troubles, three of the men decided to leave the expedition (and were subsequently murdered by Indians).  So grave were their doubts of returning home alive, that each man sent letters and mementos back with the unfortunate trio.  But nothing could dissuade Powell from his goals; his determination to succeed was only matched by his rapturous appreciation for the beauty of the canyons.

After ninety-five days of peril, 6 men emerged from the wilderness with invaluable maps, data, fossils and mineral samples, along with accounts and sketches of the Indian cultures they encountered along the way.  John Wesley Powell, who later became the head of the U. S. Geological Survey, wrote a fascinating account of the expedition; his journal is one of the great classics of exploration. 


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