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The First Descent of the Grand Canyon

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John Wesley Powell was one of the foremost explorers in American history, and his first descent down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon is one of America’s greatest adventure stories. Although he is not as well known as other explorers, his travels and his contributions to American history are significant because they represent a spirit of discovery motivated not by self-glory or the acquisition of gold or land, but by a curiosity about and appreciation for both the natural world and the native peoples of the West.

John Wesley Powell pursued knowledge and the uncommon experience his entire life. Born in 1834 in Ohio to a Methodist minister, he became interested in science as a boy and was fortunate to have a neighbor who was both an amateur scientist and a willing teacher (Stegner 13–14). In 1846, the Powell family moved to Wisconsin, where John Wesley struggled to continue his scientific education against the will of his father, who wanted him to become a preacher. In 1857, he set off on his first great adventure: a trip down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers in a rowboat (Stegner 16).

In 1861 Powell enlisted in the Union Army and was elected captain of artillery under U. S. Grant. He was wounded at the Battle of Shiloh in 1862 and lost his right arm. Despite his debility, however, Powell returned to active duty and finished the war (Stegner 17).

After the Civil War, Powell became a professor of science at Illinois Weslyan and curator of the Illinois State Natural History museum. In 1867 he went on his first expedition to Colorado and began his life-long love affair with the American West and the native peoples who lived there. The next year he went back to Colorado and spent the winter amon...

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...de him fearless and victorious against hardship. Because of his unfaltering dedication to knowledge and the preservation of the West, Powell is truly one of the most significant American explorers of the nineteenth century.

Works Cited

Hillers, John K. “Tau-gu, Chief of the Paiutes, and Major John Wesley Powell.” 1873. National Anthropological Archives. Washington: Smithsonian Institution.

Powell, John Wesley. The Exploration of the Colorado River. Ed. Wallace Stegner. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1957.

---. Report on the Lands of the Arid Region of the United States. 2nd ed. Washington: GPO, 1879.

---. “Wreck at Disaster Falls.” Exploration of the Colorado River of the West and Its Tributaries. Washington: GPO, 1875: 26.

Stegner, Wallace. Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1954.
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