By: Roy Webb

Quick! What are the names of John Wesley Powell’s 1869 boats?! How about the ones he and his crew used in 1871? On your Holiday River Expeditions river trip, you saw how the boats are all named after historic river runners, like GALLOWAY, LOIS JOTTER, and BUZZ HOLMSTROM. Naming boats is as old as, well, boats. My own raft is named for my oldest daughter, RACHEL LEE (I even painted eyes on it so it could see its way down the river.)

So what about Powell’s boats?

You heard about John Wesley Powell’s pioneering exploration of the Green and Colorado Rivers from your guides, and they might have told you the names of his boats. But just in case, here they are. On his 1869 voyage, Powell allowed the men of his crew to name the boats. There were three heavy boats for all the supplies and gear, and a lighter boat, which Powell rode in so he could scout the river ahead. It was named for his wife, EMMA DEAN, whom he married in 1862. The heavy freight boats were the MAID OF THE CANYON; the NO NAME, and KITTY CLYDE’S SISTER. The first is obviously from men who’ve been away from hearth and home for a long time, the second for lack of anything better. But what about that last one? It turns out the name comes from a maudlin song popular during the Civil War. All but one of Powell’s 1869 crew were veterans of the Civil War, mostly Union soldiers, including Powell himself and his brother Walter Powell. The full name of the song is “Minnie Clyde, Kitty Clyde’s Sister”.

John wesley powells replica "no name" boat

Replica of the “No Name” boat

The NO NAME was lost at Disaster Falls in Lodore; the other three made it all the way through the Grand Canyon, much battered and leaking and often repaired. The EMMA DEAN, in the worst shape, was abandoned at Separation Rapid in the Grand Canyon. Bill Hawkins and Andy Hall took one of the boats all the way to tidewater at the Gulf of California. Nothing remains of any of those boats.

John Wesley Powell's Nellie Powell boat fragment piece

Fragment from the Nellie Powell Boat

In 1871, the EMMA DEAN was back, or at least the name was. This time Powell only had three boats, the EMMA DEAN, the NELLIE POWELL; and the CAÑONITA. Again, the EMMA DEAN was a lighter boat, that Powell used to scout the rapids. The NELLIE POWELL was named for Almon Harris Thompson’s wife, Nellie, who was John Wesley Powell’s sister. Thompson was Powell’s second-in-command and held the 1871 expedition together during Powell’s frequent absences. CAÑONITA is “little canyon” in Spanish. The 1871 expedition started and stopped; by September 1871 they had only reached the mouth of the Dirty Devil River in Glen Canyon, so they buried the CAÑONITA in the sand and left the river at Lee’s Ferry. The next spring, A.H. Thompson led an overland expedition, retrieved the boat, and they regrouped to go down the Grand Canyon. At Lees Ferry, they abandoned the NELLIE POWELL as too worn out and took the other two. However, the water was high, conditions harsh, and at the mouth of Kanab Creek, at mile 150 in the Grand Canyon, a re-supply party met Powell. Hearing that the local Shivwits Paiutes were ready to rise up, Powell called the crew together and said “Well boys, our journey’s through.” He decided to leave the river and go out overland, so the boats were abandoned. Powell’s crew stayed in Kanab and surveyed all around southern Utah until 1875.

John Wesley Powell's sister, Nellie Powell

Nellie Powell,_wife_of_Major_John_Wesley_Powell._Chicago,_Illinois._1869_(powell005).jpg

But that wasn’t the end of the Powell boats. Frederick Dellenbaugh, the youngest member of the crew, came back down Kanab Canyon and retrieved the famous chair that Powell had sat on. It was given to Francis Marion Bishop, another member of the crew who had settled in Salt Lake City, but from there it disappeared. That same year, word got out that there might be gold in the Grand Canyon, causing a mini-rush into Kanab Creek. Prospectors took the boats to get downriver and they were lost to history. So, it was thought, was the NELLIE POWELL, but in 1938, Leo Weaver, who ran the ranch at Lees Ferry, found a piece of an old boat in one of his fields. Unfortunately, he cleared the field by burning it but afterward found a piece was still intact. He realized from the construction that it was probably a piece of the NELLIE POWELL, so he called Grand Canyon National Park and the piece was retrieved and is now housed in the south rim museum.

And one more tale (you knew there’d be one more story). In 2005, I participated in a Grand Canyon River Guides training seminar, spending two weeks on the river with a wide range of experts and guides. They were hikers! At one point, near Kanab Creek, we climbed (and climbed and climbed!) to a little alcove to see a historic site the NPS knew about (we were sworn to silence but it’s been almost twenty years, I could never remember how we got there, and “near Kanab Creek” is pretty vague). It was obviously an old prospector’s camp; there were pots and a kettle, old cans, tools, and other junk. Also there, however, was a rocker, which you would use to separate gold from mud. I noticed the rocker was made of finely milled wood, which looked like oak. Could that rocker have been made from wood salvaged from the EMMA DEAN or the CAÑONITA? Only the National Park Service knows.



Yampa Retro River Roy Webb SmilingRoy Webb is an author and renowned river historian.  Spending a lifetime holding long memory for these special places, Roy said he began his life’s work simply because “It didn’t seem anyone else was”.  He now stands as the go-to river historian for the desert southwest. Some of his first river trips were with Dee & Sue Holladay & Roy remains committed to enjoying quality family-oriented river trips. “Rivers always ask me a question: where have I come from and where am I going?”. Come join him on our Retro rafting trips!