Podcast Episodes

The Great Unknown

In the summer of 1869, an expedition embarked from The Green River Station in the Wyoming Territory and traveled downstream through parts of the present-day states of Colorado, Utah, and Arizona before reaching the convergence of the Colorado and Virgin rivers in present-day Nevada. Despite a series of hardships, including losses of boats and supplies, near-drownings, and the eventual departures of several crew members, the voyage produced the first detailed descriptions of much of the previously unexplored canyon country of the Colorado Plateau.

On this episode of the America’s National Parks Podcast, American Naturalist John Wesley Powell, and the Grand Canyon National Park.

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Learn More

Links to some of the resources we used and the website links we mentioned in this episode. 

https://www.nps.gov/parkhistory/online_books/geology/publications/inf/powell/index.htm

https://www.nps.gov/grca/index.htm

https://www.nps.gov/glca/index.htm


Arizona has been home to humans for more than 13,000 years. Ancestral Puebloan people lived in and around the Grand Canyon, leaving behind dwellings, garden sites, food storage areas, and artifacts that we can see today.

Modern tribes still consider Grand Canyon their homeland. Eleven contemporary tribes have cultural links to the area, and their oral histories are rich with references to the creation of that great chasm and torrential river.

In fact, much of the canyon isn’t part of the National Park. Parts lie within the bounds of reservations. 

Early European and American explorers of the Grand Canyon were the first to document the power of the Colorado River and share the beauty of the immense canyon with the larger world.

The first Europeans to lay eyes on the Grand Canyon were Spanish soldiers in Francisco Vázquez de Coronado’s army. They traveled north from Mexico City in search of the Seven Cities of Gold, fabled cities in the New Mexico territory purported to hold untold riches. 

After traveling for six months, Coronado’s army arrived at the Hopi Mesas, east of Grand Canyon. Coronado had also hoped to find a navigable water route to the Gulf of California. The Hopi leaders led a party into the canyon to see the power of the Colorado River. The soldiers were most unwelcome, and the Hopi guided them along a dangerous path to the highest point above the river and offered no information of value.

The twenty-day journey to the edge of the canyon culminated with the river nearly a mile below them. Three infantrymen were ordered to climb their way down to the river. They made it about 1,500 feet, a third of the way down, where they could more clearly see the river that they had estimated to be only 6′ wide. Now they saw it as a much wider waterway and realized there was no way to navigate ships along the powerful rapids. The Hopi had fooled the Spaniards into thinking that the area was an impenetrable wasteland, and Coronado dismissed further western exploration, moving his men east to Texas. The Grand Canyon was left unexplored for the next 235 years.

Often called “The Great Unknown,” the area was literally a blank space on maps. But it was clear that the Colorado River made a significant portion of its journey through this area, so in the mid-1800s, the federal government funded an expedition to determine its usefulness as a trade route.

Army First Lieutenant Joseph Christmas Ives of the U.S. Army Corps of Topographical Engineers was charged with the duty and would become the first European American known to reach the river within Grand Canyon.

Ives navigated upriver in a fifty-foot long sternwheel steamboat called the Explorer. Before reaching the Grand Canyon, he crashed and had to continue upriver for thirty miles in a skiff, until resorting to a journey on foot.

In his report, he said that “the extent and magnitude of the system of canyons is astounding. The plateau is cut into shreds by these gigantic chasms and resembles a vast ruin. Belts of country miles in width have been swept away, leaving only isolated mountains standing in the gap. Fissures so profound that the eye cannot penetrate their depths are separated by walls whose thickness one can almost span, and slender spires that seem to be tottering upon their bases shoot up thousands of feet from the vaults below.”

But he could not envision any sort of application for the area. Much of the beautiful scenery of the west was, to many early Americans, useless. He continued: “The region is, of course, altogether valueless. It can be approached only from the south, and after entering it there is nothing to do but leave. Ours has been the first, and will doubtless be the last, party of whites to visit this profitless locality. It seems intended by nature that the Colorado river, along the greater portion of its lonely and majestic way, shall be forever unvisited and undisturbed.”

But in 1869, another explorer would take on the Colorado River through Grand Canyon. His name was John Wesley Powell. 

Powell was born in Mount Morris, New York, in 1834, the son of Joseph and Mary Powell. His father, a poor itinerant preacher, had emigrated to the U.S. from Shrewsbury, England, in 1830. His family moved westward to Ohio, then Wisconsin, before settling in rural Boone County, Illinois.

As a young man, he undertook a series of adventures through the Mississippi River valley. At age 21, he spent four months walking across Wisconsin. The next year, he rowed the Mississippi from St. Anthony, Minnesota, to the Gulf of Mexico. Then he rowed down the length of the Ohio River, and then down the Illinois River, turning upstream and rowing the Mississippi and the Des Moines River to central Iowa. 

His ravenous appetite for exploration led to being elected in 1859 to the Illinois Natural History Society.

Powell studied at Illinois College, Illinois Institute (which would later become Wheaton College), and Oberlin College, over a period of seven years while teaching, but was unable to attain his degree. He learned Ancient Greek and Latin, and of course, he buried himself in the natural sciences. However, the course of his education changed as the Civil War was looming. As a union-loyal abolitionist, he decided to study military science and engineering to prepare himself for the approaching conflict. He enlisted at Hennepin, Illinois, as a private in the 20th Illinois Infantry, hoping to serve the Union army as a cartographer, topographer and military engineer. He was elected sergeant-major of the regiment, and when the 20th Illinois was mustered into the Federal service a month later, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant.

During the War, he became a captain of a regiment, before taking a brief leave to get married. He returned to service, where he fought in the Battle of Shiloh, and lost most of his right arm when struck by a bullet.

Despite the loss of an arm, he fought at Champion Hill, Big Black River Bridge, and in the siege of Vicksburg. He was made a major and commanded an artillery brigade during the Atlanta Campaign. After the fall of Atlanta, he participated in the battle of Nashville.

After leaving the Army, Powell returned to Illinois where he became a lecturer at various universities, but declined a permanent position, as he had his eyes focused on exploring again. This time, in the American West.

Powell led expeditions into Colorado and Wyoming, studying the geology, especially that of the Colorado River. That unknown space on the maps downriver sparked his curiosity. He began to study reports from Ives’ expedition, arranged for support and supplies from the Smithsonian Institution, railroads, and some educational institutions, and convinced Congress to authorize the use of rations and supplies from army posts along the planned route. He designed boats and gathered a makeshift crew of ex-trappers, mountain men, and Civil War veterans like himself. 

The Powell Geographic Expedition of 1869 launched four boats from Green River, Wyoming. The river started off with ease, but quickly gained momentum and began to bare its teeth. One boat and all its supplies were lost in a rapid Powell dubbed “Disaster Falls.”

He wrote:  

Early in the afternoon I found a place where it would be necessary to make a portage, and signalling the boats to come down, I walked along the bank to examine the ground for the portage, and left one of the men of my boat to signal the others to land at the right point. I soon saw one of the boats land all right, and felt no more care about them. But five minutes after I heard a shout, and looking around, I saw one of the boats coming over the falls. Capt. Howland, of the “No Name,” had not seen the signal in time, and the swift current had carried him to the brink. I saw that his going over was inevitable and turned to save the third boat. In two minutes more I saw that turn the point and head to shore, and so I went after the boat going over the falls. The first fall was not great, only two or three feet, and we had often run such, but below it continued to tumble down 20 to 30 feet more, in a channel filled with dangerous rocks that broke the waves into whirlpools and beat them into foam. I turned just to see the boat strike a rock and throw the men and cargo out. Still they clung to her sides and clambered in again and saved part of the oars, but she was full of water, and they could not manage her. Still down the river they went, two or three hundred yards to another rocky rapid just as bad, and the boat struck again amid ships, and was dashed to pieces. The men were thrown into the river and carried beyond my sight.

Although the three men were washed ashore uninjured, the No Name was utterly wrecked. Rations, instruments, and clothing were lost. Only two barometers and a keg of whiskey were recovered. 

Bad luck continued to plague the explorers. Only a little more than a week later, they camped in a little alcove bordered by cedars on one side and a dense mass of box elders and dead willows on the other. Powell and Captain Howland went to explore the stream coming down into the alcove, and, while away, their campfire was blown by strong winds starting a forest fire. The men rushed for the boats, leaving everything they couldn’t carry. Their clothes were burned and their hair singed. The cook saved the mess kit, but as he jumped aboard the boat, he stumbled and tossed it overboard, losing it all to the Colorado. Plates, silverware, pots, and water vessels were all lost. 

That’s only a small sampling of the trials the party faced on their journey downriver, well before finding the unknown canyon. After a summer traveling, the expedition entered a canyon where the river, in its meanderings, had undermined the vertical walls. There were mazes of side canyons and gorges and huge potholes in the rocks. On the canyon walls and back many miles into the country, the explorers saw monument-shaped buttes, carved walls, royal arches, glens, alcoves, gulches, and mounds. They named it Monument Canyon. Today, we call it Glen Canyon. 

They traveled cautiously in water that boiled between sharp rocks and over limestone ledges. As they proceeded, the canyon walls rose higher and higher. In places, the river occupied the entire channel; the cliffs rose vertically from the water’s edge, and there was no place to land. The walls were of colored marble—white, gray, pink, and purple. Powell wrote: August 9 . . . Scenery on grand scale. Marble walls polished by the waves. Walls 2,500 feet high. 3 portages before dinner. This afternoon I had a walk of a mile on a marble pavement, polished smooth in many places, in others embossed in a thousand fantastic patterns. Highly colored marble. Sun shining through cleft in the wall and the marble sending back the light in iridescence. 

Marble Canyon today is the eastern tip of Grand Canyon National Park, where the earth truly begins to open. 

Their food was reduced to flour, coffee, some bacon, and dried apples; half of their blankets were lost; their clothes were in rags. Powell described the experience in these words:

“We are three-quarters of a mile in the depths of the earth and the great river shrinks into insignificance,” Powell continued. “As it dashes its angry waves against the walls and cliffs, that rise to the world above; they are but puny ripples, and we but pigmies, running up and down the sands, or lost among the boulders.

We have an unknown distance yet to run, an unknown river yet to explore. What falls there are, we know not; what rocks beset the channels, we know not; what walls rise over the river, we know not.

August 13—We are now ready to start on our way down the Great Unknown. Our boats, tied to a common stake, chafe each other as they are tossed by the fretful river. They ride high and buoyant, for their loads are lighter than we could desire. We have but a month’s rations remaining. The flour has been resifted through the mosquito-net sieve; the spoiled bacon has been dried and the worst of it boiled; the few pounds of dried apples have been spread in the sun and re-shrunken to their normal bulk.

The sugar has all melted and gone on its way down the river. But we have a large sack of coffee. The lightening of the boats has this advantage; they will ride the waves better and we shall have but little to carry when we make a portage.

They became aware of a great roar and moved forward cautiously. The sound grew increasingly loud, and they found themselves above a long broken fall with ledges and pinnacles of rock jutting into the stream, their tops sometimes just below the surface. There was a descent of 75-80 feet in one-third of a mile, and the rushing waters broke into great waves on the rocks.

The walls were now more than a mile high. The gorge was black and narrow below, red and gray and flaring above, cut in many places by side canyons out of which streams flowed, adding to the turmoil of the river. Carried swiftly along, they listened for the roar of water that meant increased danger. The narrow canyon was winding, and the river was closed in so that they could see but a few hundred yards ahead.

After making a difficult portage in the afternoon, the party finally landed the boats in a side canyon and climbed to a shelf 40-50 feet above the water where they camped for the night. It was raining, there was no shelter, and the men spent the night on the rocks, sleeping fitfully, wrapped in their rotted ponchos.

At noon on August 27, they approached a section of the river that seemed to be particularly threatening. Boulders that had been washed into the river formed a dam over which the water fell 18-20 feet. Below the boulder dam was a 300-foot-long rock-filled rapids. On the side of the gorge, rock points projected from the wall almost halfway across the river. They tried in vain to find a way around it but finally concluded that they had to run it. There were provisions for only 5 days more.

Some of the men thought they should abandon the river. 3 men decided to leave the party and go overland to the Mormon settlements 75 miles to the north.

For the last 2 days, the course had not been plotted, and Powell now used dead reckoning to determine their way. He found that they were only about 45 miles from the mouth of the Virgin River in a direct line, but probably 80-90 miles from it by the meandering line of the river. If they could navigate the remaining stretch of unknown water to that point, he reasoned, the journey up the Virgin River to Mormon settlements would be a relatively easy one.

Powell spent the night pacing up and down on the few yards of a sandy beach along the river. Was it wise to go on? While he felt that they could get over the immediate danger, he could not foresee what might be below. He almost decided to leave the river, but wrote:

For years I have been contemplating this trip. To leave the exploration unfinished, to say that there is a part of the canyon which I cannot explore, having already nearly accomplished it, is more than I am willing to acknowledge and I determine to go on.

They divided the scanty rations and the guns and ammunition. The small boat was abandoned. First, three men in one boat ran the rapids, then three in the other.

Early on the morning of the 29th, the expedition again started downriver. At about 10 o’clock, the country began to open up. On the 30th, they came, somewhat unexpectedly, to the mouth of the Virgin River. They had successfully traversed the previously unknown Grand Canyon.

 On September 1, 4 of the remaining men took a small supply of rations and continued downstream, intending to go on to Fort Mojave and then overland to Los Angeles. Powell and his brother left for Salt Lake City and then home, returning as a national hero.

Powell was not satisfied with the results of his exploration. Notes and specimens had been lost. The scientific instruments had been badly damaged and the information obtained was not as complete or reliable as Powell wished.

So, he planned another expedition to supplement the work of the first. Congress appropriated funds, the members of the party had been selected, and, on May 22, 1871, the party pushed their boats out into the stream at Lee’s Ferry

The voyages produced the first detailed descriptions of much of the previously unexplored canyon country of the Colorado Plateau. 

After returning home, Powell became the director of the Bureau of Ethnology at the Smithsonian Institution in 1879 until his death. In honor of his service to the country, he was buried in Arlington National Cemetary. 

Lake Powell, created by the flooding of Glen Canyon is named for John Wesley Powell, the one-armed American Civil War veteran who explored the river on three wooden boats in 1869.

If you’re interested in a similar, but perhaps safer journey through the grand canyon, you can see it the way Powell did. Rafting trips up to 18 days long set in at Lee’s Ferry, just where Powell did on his second trip, above marble canyon. 

This is really the ultimate National Park adventure’s trip. There are over 42 major rapids rated 5 or above on a 1-10 scale. Rafters float in the mornings, stop for short hikes, and arrive at a new campsite late afternoon each day, dining river-side before sleeping under the stars before waking up to magnificent sunrises. A charter plane, helicopter, or ground transport takes you either back to your car at Lee’s Ferry, or to Las Vegas for air travel home.


The America’s National Parks Podcast is hosted by Jason Epperson and Abigail Trabue, produced by Lotus Theatricals, LLC and sponsored by L.L.Bean. Follow the hashtag #beanoutsider, and visit LLBean.com to find great gear for exploring the National Parks.

Want to continue exploring America? Check out the entire lineup of RV Miles Network Podcast featuring the road trip focused See America and the RV and camping focused RV Miles.

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