John Wesley Powell expedition reached confluence 150 years ago [July 16, 1869]

A stopover during Powell’s second expedition down the Colorado River. Note Powell’s chair at top center boat. Image: USGS

From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Bob Silbernagel):

George Young Bradley was ecstatic on July 16, 1869. “Hurra! Hurra! Hurra!” he wrote in his journal that day. “Grand River came upon us, or rather we came upon that suddenly.”

Bradley was one of 10 members of the John Wesley Powell expedition that had left Green River, Wyoming, on May 24, 1869. The first 53 days of their expedition took them down the Green River, to its confluence with the Colorado, then known as the Grand River…

By the time they reached the confluence with the Grand River, they’d already lost one boat and many of their provisions in a wreck at what they called Disaster Falls. They’d survived the Gates of Lodore and a variety of smaller rapids.

They’d had their last contact with the outside world two weeks earlier, when they stopped at the mouth of the Uintah River. Powell and two others had hiked to the nearby Uintah Indian Reservation, mailed letters for crew members and replenished some of their lost provisions. One of the team members, Frank Goodman, left the expedition there.

By July 16, they were more than halfway through their 98-day journey, although they had no way of knowing it then. Nor did they know what lay ahead — the great rapids in Cataract Canyon,…Glen Canyon and in the Grand Canyon itself.

But they did know that the confluence of the Green and Grand rivers was a key point on the journey. Bradley was surprised that the junction of the two rivers didn’t produce the sort of tumult that occurred when lesser streams flowed into the Green…

“At last without warning … in broke the Grand with a calm strong tide very different from what it has been represented,” Bradley wrote. “We were led to expect that it was a rushing, roaring mountain torrent.”


Powell, the one-armed scientist and surveyor, was more pragmatic in his description of the confluence:

“The lower end of the canyon through which the Grand comes down is also regular, but much more direct,” he wrote. “Down the Colorado the canyon walls are much more broken.”

Powell said the team could see the snow-clad peaks of the La Sal Mountains when they looked up the Grand River.

The expedition spent four days at the confluence of the two great rivers, resting, taking scientific observations and repairing boats and other gear…

they relaunched their boats on July 21, and soon found themselves in the rough water of Cataract Canyon.

That afternoon, Powell’s boat, the Emma Dean, was swamped. Powell, Sumner and William Dunn were tossed into the river.

“We cling to the boat, and in the first quiet water below she is righted and bailed out; but three oars are lost in this mishap,” Powell wrote…

But they also rode through many rapids. On Aug. 21, just below Bright Angel Creek, Powell stood up on the Emma Dean, hanging by a leather strap with his one good hand.

“The boat glides rapidly where the water is smooth, then, striking a wave, she leaps and bounds like a thing of life and we have a wild, exhilarating ride for ten miles, which we make in less than an hour.”


By then, their rations were nearly gone, and they were uncertain how much farther they had to go to reach the Virgin River, where they knew Mormon settlements were nearby. There was also near mutiny among some of the crew members.

The combination of these factors led three members — O.G. Howland, his brother Seneca Howland and William Dunn to leave the expedition on Aug. 28, hike to the top of the canyon and attempt to march westward to civilization.

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