John Wesley Powell’s Headquarters at Kanab

Lyndia Carter
History Blazer, December 1996

When John Wesley Powell’s crew of topographers, geologists, other scientists, artists, and photographers arrived in Kanab in 1871, the settlement was in its infancy. Only a few scattered houses stood outside the fort. Fruit trees, shade trees, and vines were just getting a start. Yet the town was a haven for men who had just spent grueling weeks voyaging down the Green and Colorado rivers. Malnourished and exhausted, the men had a chance to recuperate and improve their diet in Kanab. Furthermore, the location was ideal for pursuing further geographic investigations of the Colorado Plateau. The town was Powell’s field headquarters during 1871-73. Powell’s second expedition down the Green and Colorado in 1871 and his mapping and survey work during the next two years have been overshadowed by his dramatic first expedition in 1869. Yet, the later methodical investigations provided the scientific data so valuable in understanding the physical features of the Colorado Plateau. The headquarters in Kanab were extremely important to the field investigations and the production of maps and photographs. From this base camp the survey fanned out in all directions. Kanab supplied the survey crew with food, services, and employees. On the personal side, residents gave the men, far from home, friends, and family, the social interaction that brightened their days.

Powell’s brother-in-law and chief assistant, Almon Harris Thompson, set up the base camp a few miles south of Kanab (actually in Arizona) in the fall of 1871, following the major’s directions. There the crew made short forays into the surrounding area, worked on their maps, and analyzed field data. In town they could buy butter, milk, cheese, molasses, meat, potatoes, and vegetables; pick up their mail and send letters; find blacksmiths and wood workers to make repairs, make posts for their survey flags and other necessary items, and shoe their horses and mules; and hire young men to herd their animals, freight supplies, and work as helpers during the survey.

One of the best things the village offered that first winter was a social life. Dances were held often in the Kanab schoolhouse, and the members of Powell’s crew attended. At first the Mormon girls were reluctant to interact with the men, but as time passed they accepted the surveyors, and friendships developed. Captain Francis M. Bishop joined a debating group, and some of the crew took tea or dined with townspeople.

During that first winter the men established a baseline that ran for nine miles south of Kanab and made triangulations and other measurements in preparation for more field work the following summer. Thompson, or the “Prof” as he was called, was in charge of this work. His wife, Ellen Powell Thompson (who collected botanical specimens), and her dog Fuzz lived in the camp, as did Major Powell, his wife Emma Dean, and their infant daughter for part of the winter.

During the spring and summer of 1872 the crew traveled south to the Grand Canyon, east to the Paria River, west to the Beaver Dam Mountains, and north into the High Plateau country with Kanab as the center of operations. That fall they reestablished headquarters camp at Kanab, this time right in town. Major Powell had gone east on business, so the “Prof” was again in charge. He rented a town lot and set up tents with wooden floors. Two small tents were for storage. A large tent housed the men, and the Thompsons occupied another tent. In the center of the crew’s tent was a long drafting table for map work. A conical iron stove kept them warm. The telescope and transit were set up on a stone foundation under a canopy that could be retracted for observations. A kitchen-dining tent was also set up. In addition to basic food items, the crew was also able to buy some Dixie wine in the area. The men entered into the town’s social life as they had the year before. They visited friends around town and received visitors as well. They were part of the life of the community.

Through the first part of December they continued their field work, branching out through the area. During the worst part of winter, they worked up their maps and expedition findings. The first preliminary map of the Grand Canyon was made in the tent in Kanab that winter. When it was finished in February 1873, a local tinsmith made the tube in which Frederick Dellenbaugh transported the map north to Salt Lake City for shipment east.

While Powell’s men lived in Kanab, the local citizens benefited greatly. Native Americans tanned buckskin for the crew. Local women were paid to sew the buckskin into coats, shirts, gloves, and breeches and to do other sewing, mending, or baking for the men. Thomas Robertson, the blacksmith, earned money for shoeing the horses and mules, setting tires, and mending wagons. Men from Kanab were essential to the field work of the scientists through 1872 and 1873. Many were employed as guides, packers, and survey helpers. The surveyors considered the Mormons to be excellent workers. One very important role of the Utah men was to transport supplies to the crews in the field during their frequent expeditions.

As time went on, Powell turned more of his attention to studying the Native Americans, and more of the geologic work fell to Thompson. Powell visited many local tribes, learning of their cultures and documenting them. While in the Kanab area he also had time to observe the irrigation practices of the Mormon settlers and noted their cooperative use of water resources. These observations were important to formulating his ideas on land and water use in arid regions.

The years 1871 through 1873 were productive for Major John Wesley Powell, Almon Thompson, and the geologic survey of the Colorado Plateau. The little city of Kanab and its citizens played important roles in their success.

Sources: Adonis Findlay Robinson, comp., History of Kane County (Salt Lake City: Kane County Daughters of Utah Pioneers and Kane County Commissioners, 1970); Wallace Stegner, Beyond the Hundredth Meridian (Boston, 1953); Frederick S. Dellenbaugh, Romance of the Colorado River (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1902); Frederick S. Dellenbaugh, A Canyon Voyage (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1926); Almon Harris Thompson, “Diary,” in Utah Historical Quarterly 7 (1939); Francis M. Bishop, “Journal,” Utah Historical Quarterly, 15 (1947).