Powell Expedition—What did the Powell expedition members eat? Then and Now.

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Food can be a common thread between peoples of history and today and it often plays an important role in morale, celebration, hardship and bringing people together. How did food influence the original Powell expedition, and how does it factor into modern long-haul rafting trips, such as the one USGS scientists and science support staff are currently engaged in?

In the 19th Century

Adequate food supply was one of the biggest hurdles for the 1869 Powell expedition. The crew started the trip assuming a relatively leisurely pace and packed enough food supplies for 10 months. The explorers had to rely on food preserved by drying (like flour, rice, beans and dried apples) or salting (like bacon). Cooking relied on fires fueled with collected branches and driftwood.

Although the boats had adequate space for a long trip, proper food storage turned out to be more of a challenge than the explorers anticipated. One boat, the No Name, was destroyed three weeks into the trip and a third of the food was lost. Within the salvaged wreckage, Powell was thrilled to discover that the barometers had survived. The crew was more excited that a smuggled keg of whiskey, until then hidden from Powell, had made its way through the rapids unharmed. Not long after losing the No Name, an out-of-control campfire caused the men to lose nearly all their kitchen supplies except for a camp kettle and a few cups and bowls.

To supplement their preserved food stores, the men would hunt, fish and gather wild plants (like currants). The crew also occasionally stole from others’ gardens. One stolen bounty proved to be a mistake — root vegetables pilfered from an interpreter’s garden on the Green River weren’t mature enough to eat, so the men cooked and ate the plant greens instead, including potato greens. Potato greens contain moderate levels of the toxin solanine. All the men became violently ill almost instantly, except for Bradley and Howland, who couldn’t stomach the bitter greens and abstained.

Early in the trip, game was more plentiful (e.g., water fowl, fish, beavers, wild sheep, and deer) but the latter part of trip provided little opportunity for fresh meat because of the steep canyon walls and scarce game. Fish were harder to catch in the lower basin, too, due to a combination of swift currents, muddy waters[DJE3]  and poor understanding of the local species.

The boats were frequently flooded and splashed by water, wetting the food and causing it to spoil. Wet, spoiled flour was either thrown out or sifted with mosquito netting. The sugar dissolved into the river. The bacon became rancid, apples frequently had to be re-dried, and supplies ran low. The crew often commented on provision scarcity and how it degraded their morale. One day, while subsisting on half-rations in the Grand Canyon, the explorers happened upon a Native American garden. They stole some squash, which raised everyone’s spirits. With the exception of the stolen squash, the explores only ate biscuits made from spoiled flour and dried apples for the last month of the trip. With two weeks left, the baking soda was lost in the river and the men had to eat unleavened bread. Luckily, coffee was plentiful throughout the trip and would help warm up and lift the spirits of the damp explorers, as long as they could find enough wood to boil water. The crew emerged from the river with only a few days’ provisions left. They found settlers and were taken in and fed a large dinner that included fish and squash.

The first camp of Powell's Second Expedition

The camp and cooking setup for the second expedition (pictured) was likely very similar to the first expedition and consisted of a few pots and pans to cook over a fire. May 4, 1871. (Credit: E.O. Beaman. Public domain.)

 

In the 21st Century

Food preservation has come a long way since the first Powell expedition. With the availability of well-insulated coolers, fresh and frozen food lasts as long as the crew has ice. For long trips, meals are pre-planned and staged in date-specific coolers to reduce ice loss from repeated opening. Canned and other shelf-stable foods are easy to find and much more varied than the dried apples, rice and flour of the Powell expedition. The biggest advancement is our ability to keep things dry in coolers, dry bags and sturdy bins, all securely fastened to rafts. The menu is only limited by the creativity and determination of the group. For longer segments, the reduced fresh food can influence morale, just as it did to the Powell crew. 

The current Sesquicentennial Colorado River Exploring Expedition is well-provisioned. Fresh supplies are brought in coolers and bins at each segment switch. Food is cooked with propane and charcoal on grills and stoves, without having to rely on driftwood as a fuel source. The menu is varied and flavorful, and includes dishes such as fried eggs, oatmeal and French toast for breakfast; sandwiches, cookies and snack mixes for lunch; and salmon, steak, and fish tacos for dinner. Like Powell’s men, the current crew has not always had such great luck fishing, and, also like the 1869 Powell expedition, coffee remains an essential part of the trip. In addition, SCREE has located 10 Hopi heritage bean variety seeds and reached out to Native American elders in the region to recognize the stolen squash from the historic expedition. 

scientist cooking cracking eggs into a sizzing pan for breakfast sandwiches

Austin Alvarado cracks eggs into a sizzling pan for breakfast sandwiches. (Public domain.)

To follow this year’s expedition, see www.usgs.gov/powell150

Sources: Powell, Sumner, and Bradley’s 1869 journals

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Date published: April 15, 2019
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