March 24, 1834: Legendary American explorer John Wesley Powell is born

Not only did John Wesley Powell row down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, he did it with only one arm. Before that, he had already fought through a war, walked across Wisconsin and rowed down the Mississippi, the Ohio and the Illinois Rivers. Later in his life, he would direct the US Geological Survey and the Bureau of Ethnology at the Smithsonian Institution. But it was his quest to research the American West that really made him famous as one of America’s most intrepid travelers.

Although he was born in New York, Powell’s family soon moved to the Midwest, which would be his home base for the rest of his life. A teacher by trade, Powell was a Union Army cartographer during the Civil War. He lost most of his right arm during the Battle of Shiloh but later returned for the rest of the war. This was just one example of the courage he would show throughout his life.

After the war, Powell became a geology professor and a curator at the Illinois State Natural History Society museum. But that wasn’t enough to hold his interest for long, and he headed west. He explored the Rocky Mountain region for a couple years before organizing his most daring mission yet: to be the first to fully explore the mighty (and mysterious) Colorado River. In 1869, his small team rode the Green River, a major tributary, all the way past the confluence with the Colorado River in the desert near present-day Moab, Utah. They continued along the often-churning waters into what the men named Glen Canyon, eating moldy bread and battling the rapids to ensure they and their wooden boats survived, and then through the perilous ctaracts of the Grand Canyon.

On his next Colorado River trip two years later, Powell brought a photographer who captured priceless images of the region’s red-rock canyons, some of them now under the waters of Lake Powell. As an early conservationist who favored light use of the land rather than water-intensive farming, he may have taken offense at having a giant artificial irrigation lake named for him. Nevertheless, the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, which includes Lake Powell, is now a recreation destination for travelers looking to do some exploring of their own.