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John Wesley Powell: The Man Who Named the Grand Canyon


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• Part 2: His Legacy

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The Late 19th Century

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Major John Wesley Powell
The Grand Canyon Expedition

Part 1: His Story

September 23, 2003, marks 100 years since the death of one of America's greatest explorers, John Wesley Powell. He it was who went down the deadly Colorado River, naming the Grand Canyon in the process. He it was who explored (and mapped) much of the unsettled American West. He it was who never took no for an answer.

From an early age, he was interested in all things nature, studying botany and zoology and geology with only himself as a teacher. He lived in the years just before the Civil War, and he traveled all around Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Missouri, cataloging the natural history of the areas. He also was quite a daring explorer, rowing the entire length of the Ohio River, the Illinois River, and even the Mississippi River.

In 1861, when the Civil War began, Powell enlisted in the army. He fought in several battles, including the famous Battle of Shiloh, in which he lost his right arm. He continued fighting in the war until it was over, then went back to Illinois, as a professor of geology.

In this capacity, he often made trips out west. And on one of these trips, he began making plans to explore what we now call the Grand Canyon.

The major river in the Grand Canyon area is the Colorado River. At that time, no one had mapped it because no one had lived to bring back maps of it. Powell wanted to try.

In 1869, he took many men with him. Not many of those men made it all the way to the end of the expedition. The Colorado River was said to have monstrous rapids and waterfalls, down which no man could go and survive. Yet there was John Wesley Powell, having the use of only his left arm, captaining the expedition and rowing himself down the dangerous river.

(Click here to read an entry from Powell's journal that he wrote just before entering into completely unknown territory.)

Next page > His Legacy > Page 1, 2

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