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John Wesley Powell took the first river trip through the Grand Canyon in 1869. He called Wisconsin home for a time.

Wisconsin helped develop Grand Canyon explorer


John Wesley Powell is best known for taking the first river trip down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon in 1869.

But his sense of adventure and exploration were developed, at least for a few years, in Walworth County and elsewhere in Wisconsin.

Powell was born in Mount Morris, N.Y., but his father Joseph, an itinerant preacher, moved the family to Ohio and later Walworth County. When Powell was 12 years old, he took over the operation of the Walworth farm because his father was away preaching.

Assuming management of the farm helped develop physical stamina and moral character and it also developed Powell's intense interest in nature.

Powell first encountered Native Americans of the Winnebago Tribe near his family farm. He learned that the land used to be a part of their hunting grounds. From this encounter, he began a life-long study and appreciation of Native Americans and the study of ethnology.

The family later settled in Boone County, Ill. Powell received his education at Illinois College, Wheaton College and Oberlin. He never graduated, but did study natural sciences.

Powell had a restless nature. As a young man, he undertook a series of trips through the Mississippi River Valley. In 1855, he spent four months walking across Wisconsin. Powell rowed from St. Anthony, down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico. He also undertook rowing expeditions down the Ohio, Illinois and Des Moines Rivers.

When the Civil War broke out Powell joined the Union army as a topographer and engineer. At the Battle of Shiloh, he lost most of one arm when struck by a musket ball. The raw nerve endings in his arm would continue to cause him pain the rest of his life.

Despite the loss of his arm, he returned to the army and was present at Champion Hill and Big Black River Bridge on the Big Black River. He became a major and served as chief of artillery with the 17th Army Corps.

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