From Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

John Wesley Powell, a professor of geology, was fascinated by the system of rivers that flow into the Colorado River, as well as the Colorado itself. Just two years into his teaching career, he traveled to Wyoming to begin the first in a series of exploratory river trips, with the most famous being the second one in which he and his team successfully floated through the Grand Canyon. This document, published more than twenty-years after that famous second journey, contained excerpts from the journals he kept during the first two expeditions. These passages from Canyons of the Colorado are from the book's preface and fifth chapter, which focused on the first leg of the journey, from the city of Green River, Wyoming, to the Flaming Gorge canyon. As can be seen from the introductory passage, there had been many misconceptions about Powell's explorations, so he published material from his journals to provide an accurate account of the expedition and its scientific findings.

Summary Overview

John Wesley Powell, a professor of geology, was fascinated by the system of rivers that flow into the Colorado River, as well as the Colorado itself. Just two years into his teaching career, he traveled to Wyoming to begin the first in a series of exploratory river trips, with the most famous being the second one in which he and his team successfully floated through the Grand Canyon. This document, published more than twenty-years after that famous second journey, contained excerpts from the journals he kept during the first two expeditions. These passages from Canyons of the Colorado are from the book's preface and fifth chapter, which focused on the first leg of the journey, from the city of Green River, Wyoming, to the Flaming Gorge canyon. As can be seen from the introductory passage, there had been many misconceptions about Powell's explorations, so he published material from his journals to provide an accurate account of the expedition and its scientific findings.

Defining Moment

When the 1890 census was compiled, the Census Bureau declared that the American frontier no longer existed. The settlement of the West, while not as dense as settlement east of the Mississippi River, had created a region throughout which people of Euroamerican descent could now be found. While the doctrine of Manifest Destiny and overly optimistic reports about the resources of the West had lured people across the continent to bring “order” to the wilderness (or so it was thought), many people felt a sense of loss as the wilderness areas continued to shrink. The western forests were the focus of much of the work to conserve wilderness areas, including the creation of Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks and the passing of the Forest Reserve Act (the predecessor to the creation of the National Forests). Under this act, the Grand Canyon was designated a forest reserve in 1893, reigniting interest in the land and the river. Other pivotal leaders of the conservation movement were publishing well-received books on their earlier expeditions into the wilderness. Having recently retired from the United States Geological Survey, John Wesley Powell had the time to create a new edition of his travel journals, in what he called “popular form,” with the addition of illustrations based on photographs, as well as some photographs from the 1871–72 trip.

Accounts of this trip had previously been published in 1875, as alluded to in the text, in the form of four magazine articles and then a book. However, Powell had never taken the time to create a full picture of not just what he and his associates had experienced, but also of the Native American peoples they encountered and the geological formations that had created these scenic wonders. The general public was eager to vicariously experience what was seen as the heroic actions of those who had challenged the wilderness in previous decades. Powell's journey into the unknown reaches of the Colorado River and the Grand Canyon more than fulfilled the general population's desires. In addition, over the prior few years, several individuals had begun developing tourist facilities on the south rim of the canyon, increasing the desire to learn about it for those considering travel to what was then a remote area. Thus, the time was right both for Powell to share his experiences and views, and for the public to receive them.

Author Biography

John Wesley Powell (1834–1902) was born in New York and died in Maine. However, the work for which he was best known was in the western United States on the Colorado River and its tributaries. His family ended up in Illinois, from where he undertook several trips on the Mississippi and its tributaries. After studying the natural sciences in college, he served in the Civil War, where he lost his right arm. Afterwards, he served as a geology professor at Illinois Wesleyan, the Illinois Normal School, and became the head of the US Geological Survey (USGS) from 1881 to 1894. He was the director of the Bureau of American Ethnology (BAE) at the Smithsonian Institution until his death. While he made great contributions to science and general knowledge by his transformation of the USGS and as founder of the BAE, his best known exploits were his exploratory trips down the Green and Colorado Rivers between 1867 and 1872.

Historical Document


On my return from the first exploration of the canyons of the Colorado, I found that our journey had been the theme of much newspaper writing. A story of disaster had been circulated, with many particulars of hardship and tragedy, so that it was currently believed throughout the United States that all the members of the party were lost save one. A good friend of mine had gathered a great number of obituary notices, and it was interesting and rather flattering to me to discover the high esteem in which I had been held by the people of the United States. In my supposed death I had attained to a glory which I fear my continued life has not fully vindicated.

The exploration was not made for adventure, but purely for scientific purposes, geographic and geologic, and I had no intention of writing an account of it, but only of recording the scientific results. Immediately on my return I was interviewed a number of times, and these interviews were published in the daily press; and here I supposed all interest in the exploration ended. But in 1874 the editors of Scribner's Monthly requested me to publish a popular account of the Colorado exploration in that journal. To this I acceded and prepared four short articles, which were elaborately illustrated from photographs in my possession.

In the same year—1874—at the instance of Professor Henry of the Smithsonian Institution, I was called before an appropriations committee of the House of Representatives to explain certain estimates made by the Professor for funds to continue scientific work which had been in progress from the date of the original exploration. Mr. Garfield was chairman of the committee, and after listening to my account of the progress of the geographic and geologic work, he asked me why no history of the original exploration of the canyons had been published. I informed him that I had no interest in that work as an adventure, but was interested only in the scientific results, and that these results had in part been published and in part were in course of publication.

Thereupon Mr. Garfield, in a pleasant manner, insisted that the history of the exploration should be published by the government, and that I must understand that my scientific work would be continued by additional appropriations only upon my promise that I would publish an account of the exploration. I made the promise, and the task was immediately undertaken.

My daily journal had been kept on long and narrow strips of brown paper, which were gathered into little volumes that were bound in sole leather in camp as they were completed. After some deliberation I decided to publish this journal, with only such emendations and corrections as its hasty writing in camp necessitated. It chanced that the journal was written in the present tense, so that the first account of my trip appeared in that tense. The journal thus published was not a lengthy paper, constituting but a part of a report entitled “Exploration of the Colorado River of the West and its Tributaries. Explored in 1869, 1870, 1871, and 1872, under the direction of the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution.” The other papers published with it relate to the geography, geology, and natural history of the country. And here again I supposed all account of the exploration ended. But from that time until the present I have received many letters urging that a popular account of the exploration and a description of that wonderful land should be published by me. This call has been voiced occasionally in the daily press and sometimes in the magazines, until at last I have concluded to publish a fuller account in popular form. In doing this I have revised and enlarged the original journal of exploration, and have added several new chapters descriptive of the region and of the people who inhabit it.

Realizing the difficulty of painting in word colors a land so strange, so wonderful, and so vast in its features, in the weakness of my descriptive powers I have sought refuge in graphic illustration, and for this purpose have gathered from the magazines and from various scientific reports an abundance of material. All of this illustrative material originated in my work, but it has already been used elsewhere.

Many years have passed since the exploration, and those who were boys with me in the enterprise are—ah, most of them are dead, and the living are gray with age. Their bronzed, hardy, brave faces come before me as they appeared in the vigor of life; their lithe but powerful forms seem to move around me; and the memory of the men and their heroic deeds, the men and their generous acts, overwhelms me with a joy that seems almost a grief, for it starts a fountain of tears. I was a maimed man; my right arm was gone; and these brave men, these good men, never forgot it. In every danger my safety was their first care, and in every waking hour some kind service was rendered me, and they transfigured my misfortune into a boon….



In the summer of 1867, with a small party of naturalists, students, and amateurs like myself, I visited the mountain region of Colorado Territory. While in Middle Park I explored a little canyon through which the Grand River runs, immediately below the now well-known watering place, Middle Park Hot Springs. Later in the fall I passed through Cedar Canyon, the gorge by which the Grand leaves the park. A result of the summer's study was to kindle a desire to explore the canyons of the Grand, Green, and Colorado rivers, and the next summer I organized an expedition with the intention of penetrating still farther into that canyon country.

As soon as the snows were melted, so that the main range could be crossed, I went over into Middle Park, and proceeded thence down the Grand to the head of Cedar Canyon, then across the Park Range by Gore's Pass, and in October found myself and party encamped on the White River, about 120 miles above its mouth. At that point I built cabins and established winter quarters, intending to occupy the cold season, as far as possible, in exploring the adjacent country. The winter of 1868–69 proved favorable to my purposes, and several excursions were made, southward to the Grand, down the White to the Green, northward to the Yampa, and around the Uinta Mountains. During these several excursions I seized every opportunity to study the canyons through which these upper streams run, and while thus engaged formed plans for the exploration of the canyons of the Colorado. Since that time I have been engaged in executing these plans, sometimes employed in the field, sometimes in the office. Begun originally as an exploration, the work was finally developed into a survey, embracing the geography, geology, ethnography, and natural history of the country, and a number of gentlemen have, from time to time, assisted me in the work.

Early in the spring of 1869 a party was organized for the exploration of the canyons. Boats were built in Chicago and transported by rail to the point where the Union Pacific Railroad crosses the Green River. With these we were to descend the Green to the Colorado, and the Colorado down to the foot of the Grand Canyon.

May 24, 1869.

—The good people of Green River City turn out to see us start. We raise our little flag, push the boats from shore, and the swift current carries us down.

Our boats are four in number. Three are built of oak; stanch and firm; double-ribbed, with double stem and stern posts, and further strengthened by bulkheads, dividing each into three compartments. Two of these, the fore and aft, are decked, forming water-tight cabins. It is expected these will buoy the boats should the waves roll over them in rough water. The fourth boat is made of pine, very light, but 16 feet in length, with a sharp cutwater, and every way built for fast rowing, and divided into compartments as the others. The little vessels are 21 feet long, and, taking out the cargoes, can be carried by four men.

We take with us rations deemed sufficient to last ten months, for we expect, when winter comes on and the river is filled with ice, to lie over at some point until spring arrives; and so we take with us abundant supplies of clothing, likewise. We have also a large quantity of ammunition and two or three dozen traps. For the purpose of building cabins, repairing boats, and meeting other exigencies, we are supplied with axes, hammers, saws, augers, and other tools, and a quantity of nails and screws. For scientific work, we have two sextants, four chronometers, a number of barometers, thermometers, compasses, and other instruments.

The flour is divided into three equal parts; the meat, and all other articles of our rations, in the same way. Each of the larger boats has an axe, hammer, saw, auger, and other tools, so that all are loaded alike. We distribute the cargoes in this way that we may not be entirely destitute of some important article should any one of the boats be lost. In the small boat we pack a part of the scientific instruments, three guns, and three small bundles of clothing, only; and in this I proceed in advance to explore the channel….

Our boats are heavily loaded, and only with the utmost care is it possible to float in the rough river without shipping water. A mile or two below town we run on a sandbar. The men jump into the stream and thus lighten the vessels, so that they drift over, and on we go.

In trying to avoid a rock an oar is broken on one of the boats, and, thus crippled, she strikes. The current is swift and she is sent reeling and rocking into the eddy. In the confusion two other oars are lost overboard, and the men seem quite discomfited, much to the amusement of the other members of the party. Catching the oars and starting again, the boats are once more borne down the stream, until we land at a small cottonwood grove on the bank and camp for noon.

During the afternoon we run down to a point where the river sweeps the foot of an overhanging cliff, and here we camp for the night. The sun is yet two hours high, so I climb the cliffs and walk back among the strangely carved rocks of the Green River bad lands. These are sandstones and shales, gray and buff, red and brown, blue and black strata in many alternations, lying nearly horizontal, and almost without soil and vegetation. They are very friable, and the rain and streams have carved them into quaint shapes. Barren desolation is stretched before me; and yet there is a beauty in the scene. The fantastic carvings, imitating architectural forms and suggesting rude but weird statuary, with the bright and varied colors of the rocks, conspire to make a scene such as the dweller in verdure-clad hills can scarcely appreciate.

Standing on a high point, I can look off in every direction over a vast landscape, with salient rocks and cliffs glittering in the evening sun. Dark shadows are settling in the valleys and gulches, and the heights are made higher and the depths deeper by the glamour and witchery of light and shade. Away to the south the Uinta Mountains stretch in a long line,—high peaks thrust into the sky, and snow fields glittering like lakes of molten silver, and pine forests in somber green, and rosy clouds playing around the borders of huge, black masses; and heights and clouds and mountains and snow fields and forests and rock-lands are blended into one grand view. Now the sun goes down, and I return to camp.

May 25.

—We start early this morning and run along at a good rate until about nine o'clock, when we are brought up on a gravelly bar. All jump out and help the boats over by main strength. Then a rain comes on, and river and clouds conspire to give us a thorough drenching. Wet, chilled, and tired to exhaustion, we stop at a cottonwood grove on the bank, build a huge fire, make a cup of coffee, and are soon refreshed and quite merry. When the clouds “get out of our sunshine” we start again. A few miles farther down a flock of mountain sheep are seen on a cliff to the right. The boats are quietly tied up and three or four men go after them. In the course of two or three hours they return. The cook has been successful in bringing down a fat lamb. The unsuccessful hunters taunt him with finding it dead; but it is soon dressed, cooked, and eaten, and makes a fine four o'clock dinner.

“All aboard,” and down the river for another dozen miles. On the way we pass the mouth of Black's Fork, a dirty little stream that seems somewhat swollen. Just below its mouth we land and camp.

May 26.

—To-day we pass several curiously shaped buttes, standing between the west bank of the river and the high bluffs beyond. These buttes are outliers of the same beds of rocks as are exposed on the faces of the bluffs,—thinly laminated shales and sandstones of many colors, standing above in vertical cliffs and buttressed below with a water-carved talus; some of them attain an altitude of nearly a thousand feet above the level of the river.

We glide quietly down the placid stream past the carved cliffs of the “mauvaises terres,” now and then obtaining glimpses of distant mountains. Occasionally, deer are started from the glades among the willows; and several wild geese, after a chase through the water, are shot. After dinner we pass through a short and narrow canyon into a broad valley; from this, long, lateral valleys stretch back on either side as far as the eye can reach.

Two or three miles below, Henry's Fork enters from the right. We land a short distance above the junction, where a “cache” of instruments and rations was made several months ago in a cave at the foot of the cliff, a distance back from the river. Here they were safe from the elements and wild beasts, but not from man. Some anxiety is felt, as we have learned that a party of Indians have been camped near the place for several weeks. Our fears are soon allayed, for we find the “cache” undisturbed. Our chronometer wheels have not been taken for hair ornaments, our barometer tubes for beads, or the sextant thrown into the river as “bad medicine,” as had been predicted. Taking up our “cache,” we pass down to the foot of the Uinta Mountains and in a cold storm go into camp.

The river is running to the south; the mountains have an easterly and westerly trend directly athwart its course, yet it glides on in a quiet way as if it thought a mountain range no formidable obstruction. It enters the range by a flaring, brilliant red gorge, that may be seen from the north a score of miles away. The great mass of the mountain ridge through which the gorge is cut is composed of bright vermilion rocks; but they are surmounted by broad bands of mottled buff and gray, and these bands come down with a gentle curve to the water's edge on the nearer slope of the mountain.

This is the head of the first of the canyons we are about to explore—an introductory one to a series made by the river through this range. We name it Flaming Gorge. The cliffs, or walls, we find on measurement to be about 1,200 feet high.


Grand River: the name used at that time for the section of the Colorado River north (upstream), from where it joins with the Green River in Utah

mauvaises terres: badlands

talus: loose rocks at the base of a cliff

Document Analysis

Powell's preface is basically an explanation of why the journey had been made and why previous editions of his journal had been published in the forms in which they were. Powell also gives thanks to those who had gone with him and for the experience. In the passage from the fifth chapter, he records the initial days of the journey. This gives an indication of the difficulty of river travel as well as the concerns that might have affected his careful planning. In this passage, he also demonstrates his emphasis on keeping scientifically accurate records. However, in reading the full text, it can be seen that these first few days were tame compared with some that were yet to come.

Dedicating his book to the other nine on the 1869 expedition, Powell closes the preface by indicating the high esteem in which he held the others. Although not all of them completed the journey, Powell knew that each was important. Although his focus on scientific inquiry, rather than completing the journey as quickly as possible, did cause conflict with many of the others, it was the scientific aspect of the expedition which made such a valuable contribution to filling in one of the last gaps on the maps of the western United States. The preface also indicates why the book needed to be changed from past editions, since those were done quickly to recoup the finances he had put toward the effort or to assure funding for future research. By adding the illustrations and photographs, Powell hoped to make up for the “weakness” of his “descriptive powers.” In the full text, there are more than 225 illustrations, making this a luxurious book for its day.

The material from the fifth chapter describes the preparations he had made, a shorter expedition on the Green River two years previously, some land exploration he had done in the months prior to May 1869, and the placement of supplies. The specially ordered boats, fully described in the opening section of the first day, suggest the care with which Powell prepared for the expedition. In his later years, Powell was known as a consummate administrator, and this was reflected in his preparations. Many of the supplies, enumerated in this section, would not have been taken by other explorers, but Powell wanted to ensure success. However, also differing from other expedition leaders, Powell did not carry a gun.

The sturdiness of the boats is illustrated by the accident the first day out, when one of them struck a rock and sustained no damage except a broken oar. As implied by his previous description of the boats, this type of incident was something he expected to happen quite often. Stopping early the first evening not only assured their safety, but also allowed time for his research. Even though he had previously had been on this part of the river, for Powell there was always more to learn and new things to see and experience. The richness of his language belies his claim that he did not have the literary skill to do the terrain justice.

The unpleasantness of the second day, followed by the beauty of the third, set the pattern of what was to follow. Over the length of the journey, the weather could not be depended upon to be beautiful every day, but the beauty and unique formation of the rocks were always present. This was especially true as they entered what they named “Flaming Gorge,” at the approach toward the northern border of Utah. Even someone as well traveled as Powell is awestruck at the sight of the beautiful cliffs. They were only three days and sixty-two miles into their journey, and already, the wonders of nature were overwhelming them.

Essential Themes

From the time he had to take charge of his family farm at age twelve, John Wesley Powell understood the need not only to plan, but also to have a vision of what direction he needed to move. Throughout this excerpt from his book, it is clear that Powell has the administrative skills necessary to be successful, and he knows how to implement them. This did not mean that everything worked perfectly, but having the proper plans helped make things work. Thus, he quickly published his journals in the 1870s, in order to secure funding for future research. (His skills also included the ability to navigate Washington politics.) He did preparatory explorations for his major expedition, had boats constructed that could withstand the many barriers the river would present, and put equipment along the river. Planning was clearly one of his strengths.

Although he modestly said otherwise, Powell's ability to communicate through the written word was a great asset. This was necessary for him to help the reader understand the beauty and ruggedness of the area around the Green and Colorado Rivers. From the first day out, the difference between what eastern readers knew of the world and the terrain through which the Green and Colorado Rivers flowed, was clearly illustrated. In a dramatic fashion, Powell depicted the flow of the river, the rocks, and the cliffs between which they floated. His explorations after they stopped for the evening added to the scientific knowledge and also to the richness of Powell's description of the region. The entry into Flaming Gorge was the first major point of exploration for the team. The manner in which he introduces it seems to intentionally give a hint of what would lie ahead for the expedition crew and the reader.

The power of the river on which he and the others were traveling was neatly summarized by his description that “it glides on it a quiet way as if it thought a mountain range no formidable obstruction.” Thus, the beauty and peacefulness of nature is set in opposition to the almost absolute power which had cut these canyons through the rocks. These first few days on the Green River reflect what would be found when they entered the main channel of the Colorado.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • deBuys, William, ed. Seeing Things Whole: The Essential John Wesley Powell. Washington: Island P, 2001. Print.
  • “Lost in the Grand Canyon,” The American Experience. PBS/WGBH, 1996–2009. Web. 16 Oct. 2014.
  • Powell, John Wesley. Canyons of the Colorado. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1895. Project Gutenberg, 2012. Web. 16 Oct. 2014.
  • Rabbitt, Mary C. “John Wesley Powell's Exploration of the Colorado River,” Geological Survey. Washington, D.C.: US Geological Survey, 1978 – 2006. Web. Accessed 16 October 2014.
  • US Geological Survey. “John Wesley Powell: Soldier, Explorer, Scientist.” Geological Survey Information 74–24. US Geological Survey, 1976–2006. Web. 16 Oct. 2014.
Categories: History