Visitors to the Grand Canyon often hear all about John Wesley Powell, the one-armed Civil War veteran who led the first recorded expedition down the Colorado River and through the granddaddy canyon itself.
The epic, three-month expedition in 1869 is one of the great rip-roaring adventure tales of western exploration, with Powell leading nine men (six of whom survived) through roiling rapids in boats made of pine and oak as they ventured through the last unexplored swath of the contiguous United States.
But not many of today’s tourists will learn that Powell, a self-taught geologist, archaeologist and ethnologist, fell in love with the West two years earlier, while leading a ragtag group of Illinois Wesleyan University students and Bloomington-Normal residents into the Rocky Mountains.
After the Civil War, Powell (who lost his right arm, slightly below the elbow, at the Battle of Shiloh) accepted an offer to teach natural sciences at Illinois Wesleyan University. It was a good place to begin such a career, because one and a half miles to the north, on the Normal University campus, was the museum of the Illinois Natural History Society. Although a private society, this statewide group of amateur naturalists had a magnificent museum at the university, located on the third floor of the Old Main building, showcasing its impressive collections of everything from fossils to stuffed birds.
As a member of the Natural History Society, the ambitious Powell then lobbied the state legislature for an annual appropriation to support the museum, a proposal which included a paid curator. And to the surprise of no one, when state agreed, it was Powell who was appointed curator of the museum.
This appointment altered the trajectory of Powell’s life and career, for he now had the financial wherewithal to pursue his dream — exploring the American West. And so it came to be that prior to the celebrated 1869 Colorado River expedition, he organized two academic-oriented western trips under the auspices of the Normal museum, the first in 1867 and the second the following summer.
Eleven students, educators and interested observers joined Powell on his first westward trek, their ostensible purpose being to collect plants, insects, minerals and everything and anything to boost the museum’s collections. The party included Emma, Powell’s wife; Almon H. Thompson, his brother-in-law and superintendent of Bloomington schools; and Martin Titterington, Marion Francis Bishop and Joseph Hartzell, all Wesleyan students.
In late May, Powell ventured to Council Bluffs, Iowa, to purchase wagons, equipment and horses, with the other members of the collecting party arriving soon thereafter. They then ventured across the Great Plains, following the south bank of the Platte River to Denver (this was before completion of the transcontinental railroad). Titterington, a 19-year-old junior, recalled “the wrecked wagons, new-made graves and deserted sod houses” they encountered on the journey to Nebraska’s Fort McPherson.
Along the banks of the Platte, the group also faced a series of hardships, none greater than the incessant July heat. “Water was poor, feed and fuel scarce, no shade trees at all, and the insect pests sure a fright,” recorded Titterington. “They got in our ears and under our clothes. My face was one solid mess of sores. I couldn’t wash it.”
The weary travelers arrived in Denver on July 1, and from the territorial capital they traveled south across the Rampart Range and into a long, narrow valley bounded by Pikes Peak on the south and Devil’s Head on the north.
Joseph Hartzell, another Illinois Wesleyan student, penned a dispatch detailing a two-day ascent of Pikes Peak by eight members of the expedition, including Emma Powell. Mounted upon a “white-eyed pony,” Hartzell wrote of Emma, “she kept pace with the rest, dismounted and climbed when necessary, and in the end bore the fatigue with hardly an equal.” Their climb was blocked by a large rock slide, forcing the party to take an alternate route and camp overnight on the mountainside.
After several weeks of further explorations, the party returned to Denver. With the fall 1867 school semester fast approaching, the group separated, with most heading back to Central Illinois. But Powell remained in the mountains, spending September and October exploring the Rockies and pushing west to the headwaters of the Colorado River.
“A result of the summer’s study was to kindle a desire to explore the canyons of the Grand, Green, and Colorado rivers,” Powell would later recall of his inaugural journey to the Rockies. Thus, this 34-year-old science professor from Illinois was now firmly dedicated to the West, and he would spend the greater part of the next 35 years in the federal government exploring, mapping and defending its lands.
The members of the 1867 expedition collected a vast amount of material, ranging from rocks to butterflies. Crates packed with specimens were sent back to Normal, and when Powell returned later that fall he found the already cluttered museum in disarray. From his salary as curator, he paid several assistants to help unpack, sort, label and catalog the new material.
But such tedious (though critically necessary) work couldn’t keep the restless Powell in Normal. No sooner was he back than he began organizing a second, more ambitious academic-oriented collection trip to the Rockies. When the second summer-long “field trip” ended in the fall of 1868, Powell wintered out West to prepare his planned expedition down the Colorado River for the following spring.
Hailed nationally as the “Conqueror of the Grand Canyon” after the 1869 adventure, Powell increasingly divided his time between Washington, D.C., and the West, though he still maintained tenuous connections with his former hometown. In 1872, he attended commencement services at Illinois Wesleyan, and invited professor H.C. Demotte to accompany him out West. Powell spent that summer occupied with surveying northern Arizona and southern Utah, but before leaving he resigned as curator of the Illinois Natural History Society museum. He then split his time between the arid lands beyond the Rockies and the nation’s capital, where he helped establish and lead the Smithsonian Institution’s Bureau of Ethnology and the U.S. Geological Survey.
Back in the summer of 1869, atop Pikes Peak, IWU student Joseph Hartzell was awestruck at the immensities before him. “Surely the Creator intended the grandeur and beauty of the world as foretastes of the hereafter,” he reflected. “What a prediction of the unknown! Eternity itself may easily seem short.”