How the West Was Drawn

Explorer John Wesley Powell filled in “great blank spaces” on the map – at times buoyed by a life preserver

Life preserver
Mark Laita

Some have said I wasn’t there. When a one-armed Civil War veteran named John Wesley Powell made the first known descent through the Grand Canyon in 1869, from the Green River Station in Wyoming nearly 1,000 miles down to the Virgin River, it was described as the last heroic feat of exploration in the United States, the one that, as Wallace Stegner says, filled in the “great blank spaces” on the map.

Powell gathered a party of nine men, mostly former soldiers, and had four stout wooden boats shipped out from Chicago by rail. This was a scientific expedition—the explorers brought with them barometers, thermometers, compasses and sextants—so no one mentions me. I’m pretty unscientific, a mere life preserver, and by today’s standards, I must surely seem laughably inadequate. I am a horseshoe-shaped tube about 25 inches long and 6.75 inches wide. I’ve got two grommets on me, both sides. Tie me on to you with a rope! Ha. Oh, but despite my limitations, I worked.

Powell often sat near the center of one of his four boats, the Emma Dean, which, not incidentally, was his wife’s name. I sat by his side and, in rough water, was often tied about his body. I saved his life and more than once.

After he died in 1902, there was some dispute as to whether Major Powell wore a life preserver. In 1907, an amateur historian wrote to the chief boatman of the party, Mr. John C. Sumner, who replied that, “Yes, Major J. W. Powell wore a life preserver made of rubber to be inflated when needed. It was the only one in the outfit....” Sumner added Powell wore the life preserver in every rapid “that looked dangerous to me....” Powell, Sumner thought, “would have been drowned in any bad rapid without a life preserver.”

The last surviving member of the expedition, Mr. William R. Hawkins, a former soldier and the party’s cook, later added, “I have now before and in front of me on my desk the very life preserver that Major Powell wore in all the bad places on that trip.” Hawkins, whom Powell called Billy, said “it was given to me after the boys left us.” The boys—William Dunn and the Howland brothers, O.G. and Seneca—left the expedition with the intent of climbing the canyon wall and walking 75 miles to a settlement. “The boys” were not deserters. (This remains a matter of historical controversy.) According to Powell’s report, written five years after the expedition, the boys saw the rapids ahead as sure death. Powell’s group saw the walk itself as deadly. Both groups feared the other was doomed and they parted at Separation Rapid.

Shortly after that rapid, the river slowed and settled. Dunn and the Howland brothers, however, were never seen again, killed, it is alleged, by Indians who mistook them for some miners who had raped and killed an Indian woman.

But it was then, at Separation Rapid, Hawkins wrote, that “the major left his boat and came into my boat. Some time after he took off the life preserver and handed it to me at the same time saying, ‘Billy, if I am going the rest of this trip in your boat I will have no further use for this and I will give it to you for a keepsake.’”

William Hawkins donated me to the Smithsonian in 1908. The honorable Mr. Hawkins wrote out my thoughts as he imagined them to be, on one side of my cracked rubber tubing:

“I can’t talk or I would tell you some queer things. I have been under the water many times and saved one Brave Man’s life more times than one. (sic) (Signed) Life Preserver.”

A founding editor of Outside magazine, Tim Cahill once set a world record by driving 15,000 miles from the tip of Argentina to Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, in under 24 days for his book Road Fever.

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