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John Wesley Powell's Exploration of the Colorado River

map of Powell's 1869 voyage
John Wesley Powell's Pioneer River Voyage 1869

By May 24, 1869, all plans had been completed, and the boats were moored along the shore. The men clambered aboard with Major Powell in the lead boat and—

. . . at half-past 1, we started from Green River City. The rations, instruments, etc., were so divided among the boats as to have a fair proportion of the several articles on each. This precaution was taken that we might not be seriously crippled by the loss of a boat. The good people of the city turned out to see us off. This does not indicate that a great crowd came out, as the cities here lack people to make them densely crowded. But there are plenty of vacant lots yet.

We dropped down the river about seven miles, and went into camp, satisfied that our boats were quite manageable and not overloaded, as we had feared they would be.

The Powell expedition preparing to depart from Green River Station, Wyoming Territory.

On the 27th they reached the Uinta Mountains.

At a distance of from one to twenty miles from this point a brilliant red gorge is seen, the red being surrounded by broad bands of mottled buff and gray at the summit of the cliffs, and curving down to the water's edge on the nearer slope of the mountain. This is where the river enters the mountain range—the head of the first canyon we are to explore, or, rather, an introductory canyon to a series made by the river through the range. We have named it "Flaming Gorge."

June 6 . . . We left camp at Flaming Gorge on the 30th of May, and quickly ran through the gorge; then wheeled to the left on the swiftly gliding current into another canyon with a direct run of nearly a mile; then the river turned sharply, around the point of a narrow cliff to the right, about 1,500 feet high, and rolled in great waves back again to the west ford another mile; then became a quiet stream in a little valley. As this was our first experience with canyon rapids, we called it "Canyon of the Rapids." Soon we entered another canyon in the gray rocks, and made a ride to the point where the river makes its grand turn to the east, and camped for the night. This camp was on the south side of the river, just opposite a dome-shaped mountain, around which the Green makes its turn, and we called it "Beehive Point." Down the river the mountains were of red sandstone, and the evening sun played in roseate flashes from the rocks and shimmering green from the cedar spray and shimmered and flashed along the dancing waves away down the river.

Entrance to Flaming Gorge, Green River, Utah, the first canyon explored by Powell's party.

The course of the Green River through the Uinta Mountains furnished the basis for one of Powell's major contributions to geology: the theory of antecedent rivers. He believed that the Green River was older than the mountains, which slowly rose up athwart the river's course. The river excavated its bed as fast as the rocks were uplifted, just as a revolving saw cuts its way through a log held against it.

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Last Updated: 28-Mar-2006