Three men of the John Wesley Powell Colorado River Exploration party had enough! They would go no further!
It was August 28, 1869 and behind them was nearly 3 months of hardship, struggle, poor food and near death. Now, they were faced with what they considered certain death, as described by John Wesley Powell in his incredible book “The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons.”
Ahead of them, falling boulders had created a dam over the river, beyond which was a treacherous, high waterfall. Beyond that, deadly river rapids boiled down river. To continue their exploration forward meant they would have to push their boats over the dam, ride down the falls and survive the rapids. If they survived, they would have only 5 days of food left to finish the journey.
Oramel Howland, his brother Seneca and William Dunn decided that continuing down the river would be certain death. They determined to leave the river and Powell. They would climb up, out of the Colorado River canyon to the desert lands above them. But they couldn’t know that fate had another awful scenario planned for them.
It was a sad moment for the adventurers, as John Wesley Powell wrote:
August 28—After breakfast I ask the three men if they still think it best to leave us. The elder Howland thinks it is, and Dunn agrees with him.
The departing three men waited on shore for Powell and the remaining men to attempt the falls and rapids in two boats. A third boat had been left behind in case the Howland brothers and Dunn change their minds.
We are scarcely a minute in running it, and find that, although it looked bad from above, we have passed many places that were worse . . . We land at the first practicable point below and fire our guns, as a signal to the men above that we have come over in safety.
The Howland brothers and Dunn ignored the rifle shot and began their climb to the top of what is now called “Separation Crayon” and the supposed safety of the land above.
After riding the boiling rapids, Powell and the rest of his party reached safety and the end of their adventure in only two days. It turned out that Powell was right in his calculations of the danger.
But while Powell’s group floated to safety, fate played an awful trick on the Howlands and Dunn.
Three other white men had insulted Native American women of the Shivwits tribe.
An angry war party of the tribe set out to find the men and mistook the Howland brothers and Dunn for the white intruders. They slaughtered the three men.
A year later, re-exploring the Colorado, Powell met an old Native American Chief who told him the following devastating story through a Mormon interpreter:
“Last year we killed three white men.
Bad men said they were our enemies. They told us great lies. We thought they were true. We were mad. It made us big fools. We are very sorry. Do not think of them. It is done. Let us be friends.
When white men kill our people, we kill them. Then they kill more of us. It is not good. We will be friends.”
There was nothing Powell could do. It was long past. Any violence on his part would result in continued violence on both sides. Despite his feelings about the deaths of his companions, the old Chief was right. Let it lie. Being friends was better for both sides. Powell could plan and control his famous exploration of the Colorado River, but he couldn’t control fate.
I produced and narrated John Wesley Powell’s “The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons” as a Listen2read audiobook. It is an astonishing adventure that was partly responsible for the opening of the United States Southwest. You can download it at the address below:
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