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A Vision of the West from the 19th and 20th Century River Expeditions. Read all John Wesley Powell Expedition—Then and Now Stories.

This year marks the 150th anniversary — or sesquicentennial — of the historic expedition that John Wesley Powell and his nine-man crew undertook to explore the Green and Colorado rivers in an epic story of Western discovery. Powell returned to the river for future measurements and later applied his extensive knowledge of mapping, geology, and water resources during his term as the second director of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). Let’s consider Powell’s plans for his original expedition and how they compare to this year’s modern-day expedition, which launches from Green River, Wyoming, on May 24.


In the 19th Century

THE GRAND CANON, LOOKING EAST FROM TO-RO-WEAPFrom "Exploration of the Colorado River of the West and Its Tributaries" By J. W . Powell, 1875

John Wesley Powell — teacher, Civil War major, statesman, and above all, scientist — was a geology professor when he planned the first scientific expedition of the Green and Colorado rivers. His plan was to enter the Great unknown, take scientific measurements, chart the region, and complete our nation’s maps.1

Powell received support for his endeavor from such sources as the Illinois State Natural History Society, Illinois Industrial University, and the Chicago Academy of Sciences; the U.S. Congress (after some debate) passed a joint resolution authorizing the secretary of war to issue rations for the explorers’ use during the expedition.2 The expedition also had the approval of the Smithsonian Institution.3

Powell’s crew for his initial expedition in 1869 included four guides, the brother of one of these guides, the major’s youngest brother, a former U.S. Army lieutenant, an 18-year-old mule driver and Indian scout, and an Englishman interested in the adventure. Of the ten men, only Powell and five others made it all the way from the Green River in Wyoming to present-day Lake Mead; the Englishman left after the first 26 days, at Echo Park, having had enough of an adventure, and three more departed the crew at Separation Point in the Grand Canyon (their ultimate fate never to be known for certain).

Newspaper readers in 1869 were treated to letters and accounts occasionally sent by various crew members recounting colorful stories from the river, such as when one of the boats was dashed by rapids. A rash of articles in July described, falsely, how the entire party was lost on the Green River; it took letters written by Powell to his wife after the supposed date that the party was lost to disprove the story. Powell understood the importance of art in capturing the hearts of the public and engaged photographers, engravers, and painters, including Thomas Moran, in future surveys. Wood engravings and paintings from the time complement the reports and maps that Powell published after his 1869 expedition and follow-up surveys; these works of art invite us to imagine Powell reading the story of geologic time in the exposed canyons.

“It is not creditable to us as a people that a geographical and geological problem of such absorbing interest should remain unsolved for a whole generation. We hope Major Powell will secure the rewards of its solution, and he will, if intelligence and unflagging energy can accomplish it. His many friends will be glad to know that he is in the best of health and spirits, and almost confident of ultimate and complete success.”
-Chicago Tribune, May 9, 1869



In the 21st Century

Powell’s “unknown” has become a highly visited, studied, and managed environment across five states and a complex patchwork of federal lands and jurisdictions, including 28 Native American reservations. Like the original, this year’s expedition is being led by a professor, Thomas Minckley of the University of Wyoming’s Geography Department. Under his direction, the Sesquicentennial Colorado River Exploring Expedition (SCREE) has spent several years planning a journey that mirrors Powell’s, and its vision statement is as ambitious as Powell’s in its scope: “this expedition is not a reenactment of the past, but rather a re-envisioning of our future that engages traditional, historic, and contemporary river ecosystem perspectives to derive proactive management strategies, integrating community values, science, and humanities through an analysis of culture, informed management, and traditional ecological knowledge.”4

Like Powell’s expedition, the SCREE endeavor is made possible through a variety of sources. The river outfitter community and private donors, in particular, have made the SCREE expedition possible, and SCREE has also received modest federal assistance.

The SCREE crew includes academics, Native Americans, artists, and USGS scientists and support staff. Almost 10 times as many people will participate in this year’s 70-day, nearly 1,000-river-mile journey as did in the original expedition. SCREE is supported by a logistics contractor and permitted by various federal agencies with jurisdiction over the rivers.

The modern expedition has the benefit of satellite communications. SCREE is continuing the legacy of connecting the public to the west via art and has developed a distributed art exhibit called “Contemporary Views of the Arid West: People, Places and Spaces,” to engage people in the issues facing the water resources and western landscapes. Rather than waiting months to hear about their adventures, the crew will broadcast daily updates, and the public may follow them on Facebook, the SCREE website, and other social media. Visit to learn more.


Quote from Powell’s letter to the Chicago Tribune on May 1869; this summary of Powell’s first expedition was adapted from Mary C. Rabbitt’s article, “John Wesley Powell: Pioneer Statesman of Federal Science;” to read her full story, click here.

Congressional Globe record, May 25, 1868. Pages 2563-2566.

Letter from Joseph Henry of the Smithsonian Institution, dated April 21, 1868; included as “communications” considered during Senate debate on authorizing the use of rations (see #2).

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