Follow Your Dreams – The Adventurous John Wesley Powell

By Herm Hoops

One of the most significant moments in Wyoming’s history didn’t occur within its borders. On May 10, 1869, a large crowd gathered at Promontory Summit, Utah Territory, to celebrate the completion of the world’s first transcontinental railroad between the Central Pacific Railroad and the Union Pacific Railroad.

Two weeks later, at Green River, Wyoming another great feat began after John Wesley Powell’s boats arrived for his Expedition down what was to become the Green and Colorado Rivers into “The Great Unknown.”

Powell was the fourth child of English immigrants Joseph Powell, a tailor, farmer, and itinerant Methodist preacher, and Mary Dean, a missionary.  In 1838 his parents moved the family from New York to southern Ohio, where Powell came under the tutelage of George Crookham, an amateur naturalist, and scholar who encouraged the young man’s interest in science, history, and literature.  The Powell family eventually moved to Wisconsin, where young John was responsible for the family farm while his father was away preaching.  The family eventually settled in Illinois in 1851, and Powell became a schoolteacher there in 1852.

The family was heavily influenced by the Victorian age a time when science and religion both underwent dramatic changes.  Powell’s father followed the creationist influence, while John Wesley Powell had a burning interest to study nature, from fossils and geology to plants and animals.  Young Powell amassed an impressive natural history collection, which he eventually turned over to his cousin.  That act coined a characteristic of Powell throughout his life, to study, develop and expand on an issue and then to turn it over to a trusted friend.

For brief periods throughout the 1850s when he was not teaching, Powell attended college at the Illinois Institute, Illinois College, and Oberlin College, but he did not receive a degree. Throughout the late 1850s, he undertook several self-financed expeditions along the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, where he collected fossils and studied the natural history and geology of the regions.  His father was so disappointed that Powell did not study religion that he refused to pay his tuition or expenses.

Powell enlisted in the Union army at the outbreak of the Civil War and soon earned a commission as a second lieutenant. On April 6, 1862, at the Battle of Shiloh in western Tennessee, near Bloody Pond, Powell was struck in the right forearm by a minié ball and field surgeons amputated his arm.  Powell convalesced for the next year while living at home with his wife and second cousin, Emma Dean Powell.  Powell returned to service and participated in the siege of Vicksburg, the Atlanta Campaign, and the Battle of Nashville.  Powell’s father wanted John to give up his explorations and collecting and become a farmer now that he was married and “disabled.”

Again, John disappointed his father.  When the war ended, Powell became a professor of natural sciences at Illinois Wesleyan University.  In 1866 he took a teaching post at Illinois State Normal University in Normal, and he became curator of the Illinois Natural History Society Museum in 1867.  Possibly with Sherman’s encouragement, he organized a specimen-collecting expedition to Colorado, where Powell climbed Pikes Peak and explored the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains.  His wife was the second known woman to have climbed Long’s Peak.

That winter the Powell’s lived in Meeker, Colorado where they met many members of the Colorado River Expedition.  The following year they rode horseback to Green River and that is where your part of the 150th Anniversary story begins.  Like Powell, follow your dreams, explore things that interest you, study them and share their limitations and importance to others.


image024 (1)Herm Hoops’ life has always been associated with water: from bucolic farm ponds and awe-inspiring rivers to the endless ocean, and he’s always had an interest in history.

Herm, the son of farmers, grew up on a large dairy cattle and Morgan horse farm.  After attending the University of Vermont he taught Vocational Agriculture and Forestry in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont.

He began running Western rivers in 1966.  In 1972 Herm left Vermont and headed West for the better part of a year to run any rivers he ran across.  In 1975 he began a career with the National Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  Herm retired from the Dinosaur National Monument in 1996, but he has continued following his love of rivers as a guide, naturalist, historian, and he is proactive in protecting the river canyons of the Colorado Plateau.  Over the years he has been acknowledged for his contributions to a large number of river guides and books. Herm has written articles for historical journals and magazines.  He is a lifetime member of the Colorado Plateau River Guides, the Grand Canyon River Guides and recently was made an honorary life member of the Utah Guides and Outfitters Association.  Herm has served on the boards of several organizations, including Plateau Restoration and Conservation Adventures (Moab) and Colorado Plateau River Guides.

The rivers have been good to him, and perhaps, he has been good to them.

Herm and his wife Valerie live in Jensen, Utah.