Many explorers crisscrossed the lands of southern Utah, but two stand out in my mind. One is John C. Fremont, and the other John Wesley Powell.
Fremont headed a number of expeditions through the American West, often passing through present-day Utah. In fact, the Fremont river in central Utah is named after him.
During the Mexican-American War, Fremont led a military expedition into California and defeated the Mexican army. He was then appointed by the Navy as California’s first military governor, but got into a dispute with the Army over the legitmacy of this appointment. Fremont was court-martialed over this, and convicted of mutiny. But he became a national hero during his trial, and President Polk commuted his sentence. It was the politically savvy thing for Polk to do for such a celebrated man.
In 1856, Fremont became the Republican Party’s first nominee for president. The newly-formed GOP was banking on Fremont’s national hero status in their bid for the White House. However they didn’t count on him being swift-boated. Revelations came out about a decade-old murder in California of three unarmed Mexicans, committed by Kit Carson. Carson had been under Fremont’s command at the time, and it was alleged that Fremont gave the order. This scandal, along with alleged military blunders, sank his chances of winning the election. He came in second to James Buchanan.
Yes, Fremont was a man of questionable character and judgment. In fact some of his questionable decisions led to several of his expeditions ending in disaster and lost lives. Historians describe this man as being controversial, impetuous, and contradictory. Not only that, but he also had poor business acumen. He died penniless in 1890, at age 77.
John Wesley Powell’s character and judgment was not nearly as questionable as John C. Fremont’s. But they both possessed the heart of an explorer.
Powell grew up bucking his father’s wishes, in pursuit of his love for the natural sciences. But he was also an abolitionist. He put his beloved science career on hold and enlisted as a private, to fight in the Civil War.
At the battle of Shiloh he lost most of his right arm to a minie ball. But he continued to serve and fight until the end of the war, leaving the Army as a brevet lieutenant colonel.
In 1869, the one-armed Powell embarked on his legendary expedition down the Green and Colorado Rivers in Utah and Arizona. This journey included the first recorded passage of white men through the entirety of the Grand Canyon. What a ride that must have been! Three of his men abandoned him in the middle of the expedition, fearing they would not survive the rapids. They were never heard from again. But everyone else did survive.
Powell led a second expedition in 1871, resulting in fairly accurate maps and more extensive knowledge of the Colorado Plateau region.
After these expeditions, Powell devoted the rest of his life to public service. He led the U.S. Geological Survey, and directed the Bureau of Ethnology at the Smithsonian Institute.
And he possessed the vision to encourage water conservation in the West, while discouraging the use of widespread agriculture in America’s arid and semi-arid regions. But he was resisted by money interests from the railroads, and his recommendations went unheeded. Then the Dust Bowl of the 1930’s ruined the livelihoods of thousands of western pioneer farmers. After this, Powell’s ideas and policies were finally taken seriously, and implemented.
Powell died in 1902 at the age of 68. I wonder which was the most breathtaking: his journey through the passage of death, or his wild gauntlet run through the Grand Canyon, riding the rapids of the untamed Colorado River.
You see, death is inevitable. It’s an adventure requiring no courage or free will. But living, true living, is never certain. You must be brave. You must seek out on your own the whitewater maelstrom of risk and reward, and plunge forward with a lust for all things new and unexplored. To really live, you must possess the heart of explorers.
Explorers like John C. Fremont and John Wesley Powell.