Major John Wesley Powell’s exploration of the Colorado River is the story of a scientific adventure that started on May 24, 1869 at Green River, Wyoming, and transformed into a story of death and survival. Purportedly, the Major, along with his nine crew members, were the first party to successfully traverse the canyons of the Colorado River by boat. Powell completed this first of two journeys, but just by the skin of his teeth. He released his official government report of the expedition in 1875, six years after completion of the first adventure. Ever since the tale’s first telling, the story has drawn criticism and praise for its supposed inaccuracies as well as its geographical achievements.
The bravery of these expedition men warrants notoriety, but it is the fate of three men on the first journey that became the focus of scrutiny by later river runners. Oramel G. Howland, his brother Seneca Howland, and William Dunn decided to leave the expedition on August 28; not knowing only two days remained on the trip through the Grand Canyon. At this point they survived 99 days on the river and all of the men were low on rations. The night before they deserted, the outfit pulled in to a camp at the head of one of the worst rapids yet encountered. The trauma of the previous three months and the imminent threat of the next morning’s rapid finally drove the three men to the end of their tolerance. They hiked up what came to be known as “Separation Canyon” the next morning. Several weeks later (September 15), Powell learned that the three men had not made it out. No one to this day is sure what happened, but one account says they encountered some Shivwits Indians who accused them of killing one of their women. As the story goes, the three denied the accusation and explained they had come down the river through the Grand Canyon. But since no one had ever come down the river, the Shivwits did not believe the men and killed them in retaliation. No one ever found the bodies.
Not until the third group of explorers went through the Grand Canyon, headed by Robert Brewster Stanton, did anyone question Powell’s story. Stanton, a professional engineer and noted detractor of Powell, kept detailed accounts of his travels, and began to notice that parts of Major Powell’s writings did not add up. He noticed that places and events were out of order or exaggerated. The Major for example noted the fall of Sockdolager Rapid as thirty-feet in his river journal, but his official report claimed a fall of seventy-five to eighty-feet. Stanton also discovered that the major represented events that occurred on his 1871-72 river expedition as happening during his first trip in 1869. Powell had merged episodes from his two river trips into a single narrative portrayed as a single trip. Stanton used these errors and misrepresentations to criticize Powell in a book titled, Colorado River Controversies.
When the names of Dunn and the Howlands were left off the Powell Memorial on the South Rim—which commemorates the men who braved the Colorado River on Powell’s two expeditions—Stanton attempted to vindicate the three. Stanton found in Powell’s 1869 river journal the following entry for August 28: “Boys left us. Ran rapid. Bradley boat. Make camp on left bank. Camp 44.” None of the men on the trip kept a thorough account of the events that day, but when the Major wrote his narrative of the expedition six years later he drew upon his memory to write a long description of the departure of the three men at Separation Rapid.
During his investigation Stanton corresponded with other men on the 1869 river trip. William Hawkins, the cook, remembered tension among the expedition members. Apparently tempers between Powell and Oramel Howland had soured at the beginning of the journey because Oramel had flipped a boat in Disaster Falls on the Green River and lost a good portion of the expedition’s supplies. The Major harbored ire against Bill Dunn, too.
Dunn’s troubles started some weeks before his departure while taking barometer readings by the shore. He fell in the river and ruined Powell’s watch. Infuriated, Powell told Dunn to either pay for the watch or leave the expedition, according to Hawkins. Dunn did not pay for the watch, yet had no way to leave either, so Powell purportedly forced him to pay a dollar every day for his board until he could climb out. Hawkins’s account supported Stanton’s contention that Powell can be blamed for the departure of the three men. Jack Sumner, the head boatmen, relayed a similar story, but said the three men left of their own accord and were not forced to leave by Major Powell. According to Sumner, the three men had agreed the rapid was indeed passable, suggesting they may have had alternative reasons for leaving.
The morning the three departed they helped to line the boats through the first fall of the rapid and watched as the rest of the men ran the remaining part of the rapid successfully. They could have joined the boaters then by walking downstream, but still chose to leave. Powell in his expedition report referred to Dunn and the Howlands as three “faithful men,” never calling them deserters. Nonetheless, Stanton interpreted the event at Separation Rapid as an unnecessary loss of life spurred by Powell’s gruff manner. We may never know for certain whether the men chose to abandon the expedition or were driven away by an imperious Powell.
Written By Mark Buchanan
- Berger, Todd R. It Happened at Grand Canyon. Guilford, CT: TwoDot, 2007.
- Powell, John Wesley. The Exploration of the Colorado River and its Canyon. New York: Dover Publications, 1961.
- Stanton, Robert Brewster. Colorado River Controversies. Boulder City, Nevada: Westwater Books, 1982.
- Stegner, Wallace. Beyond The Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and The Second Opening of The West. New York: Penguin Books, 1992.