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Powell's Adventures

May 26, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

Many veterans have shaped our history in both service through military and then ongoing service after their military careers. All military contributions are incalculable, but important for contemplation and discussion. Additionally, the contributions of those once they have left military service is worth our contemplation. Veterans often face great unknowns in their military career, and then upon leaving the service, they return to yet another unknown. In returning to civilian life they have families, find jobs, but lose the military structure. Today's blog discusses the life of one soldier who founded a life on adventure.

Powell was first a scientist and adventurer who enlisted in the Union Army in support of Lincoln's abolition of slavery. At the age of 27, he enlisted as a cartographer, topographer and military engineer. In the Battle of Shiloh, he lost an arm and was briefly hospitalized. However, he did return to the war, in which his bravery promoted him to major and finally, brevet lieutenant colonel. After serving in the Civil War, John Wesley Powell, decided on a personal adventure. Wallace Stegner writes, “Major John Wesley Powell's 1869 expedition down the canyons of the Green and Colorado rivers was the last great exploration within the continental United States, and an exploit of enormous importance in opening the West after the Civil War.”

Directly after the Civil War, Powell became a lecturer, which did not fully satisfy his adventurous spirit. According to his desire, he began to plan a trek intended to map previously undocumented regions of the West. He is memorable both for his military service, and also for, albeit unknowingly, giving the country a new direction post-war. Few people had the capability, planning skills and desire to pursue such a dangerous path. Yet, he successfully gathered a handful of scientists and veterans to navigate the difficult waterways.

After the Civil War, Powell set the goal of traveling into “the Great Unknown”, which includes portions of the Green and Colorado Rivers. The group of nine men traveled for months by small boats through the narrow, tall and dangerous canyon walls. They carried supplies, occasionally losing items to the river's wrath. Most of the men kept a journal or record which described both scenery and their mental anguish and frustration at all of the journey's unknowns. The trip took these men from Wyoming through parts of Colorado, Utah and Arizona. They traveled down uncharted rivers without any knowledge of what they might find or knowledge as to the trip's duration. While three men did not finish the voyage, Powell and the others emerged from the long, arduous canyon as the first ever to accomplish this feat.

Powell is a difficult figure to encapsulate. He studied and wrote about languages, cultures, geology, botany, and survival. Above all, he is most likely an adventurer; someone in whom curiosity peaks at nearly every turn. For this reason, his journals and notes are also hard to categorize since they span a wide variety of specialties. It is perhaps important for any such adventurer to have a wide lens when introducing the world to something new. The country embraced his journals and asked for more. The United States government then funded a second expedition. Additionally, he wrote a number of essays published in Scribner's because of the high public interest. Some of the originals can be viewed here. Also, find photos from his second expedition here.

In addition to Powell's survey of the Grand Canyon, he also traveled extensively in the southwestern desert in order to learn native cultures and ways of life. The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons dedicates a large quantity of space to native language and culture. He often asked natives about their mythology, structure, lifestyle and food. He attempted to discuss and categorize pueblo life versus the “more primitive” hunter/gatherer style of living. He also narrates a bit about family ties and the way that bloodlines might lead to powerful roles within a Native American community.

While a number of flaws and errors have been found in his journals and writings, his narrative stands the test of time. His adventurous spirit drove him from successful self-funded small trips, through the Civil War, into the Grand Canyon and then on to become director of the US Geological Survey, the Bureau of Ethnology and the Smithsonian Institution. Described as “stoical to a fault” and at times “autocratic”, he has the renown of having achieved all he set out to do.

Major Powell is only one example of the many heroic veterans who have served our country. In order to better understand his life and times, visit a Civil War memorial or the John Wesley Powell Museum. Spend the day researching other famous veterans, or say a quiet thanks to the many who did not leave the battlefields.

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