J. W. Powell Survey - Colorado River Exploring Expedition (1868)

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Major John Wesley Powell did not want solely, “to be the first to make it through the [Grand] Canyon alive, but the first to make through with the understanding of it.” Powell’s ambition to explore the uncharted West began in May of 1867, when he made his first attempt to survey the Grand River, known today as the Colorado River. His brief 1867 survey was the catalyst to over a decade of western exploration. Powell returned to the Grand River in summer 1868 with a team of twenty men, mostly young students, ready to devote the next several months to science and discovery. Major Powell enlisted the help of the future Chief Botanist of the Department of Agriculture, Dr. George Vasey. Vasey and the traveling party were able to document 66 pages of flora and collect almost 700 plant specimens during the expedition. They sent the specimens to over seventy schools, colleges, and museums, including the Smithsonian U.S. National Herbarium. The expedition traveled the White, Grand, Green and Yamba Rivers, and around the Uinta Mountains—a sub-range of the Rocky Mountains in northeast Utah and northwest Colorado. Vasey focused on collecting different genera of wildflowers from the region. The Aster foliaceus, known commonly as the “Leafy Aster,” was identified in a valley of the Rocky Mountains. It is a very common native of the Pacific Northwest that blooms in the late summer producing flowers that can be violet, purple, blue, or rose. Vasey describes the characteristics of this wild plant as, “1 ½ - 2 feet high” with oblong leaves that are about two inches long. Vasey located the “Bellflower” Campanula planiflor in “cool springy places at the mountain.” He recorded that he found one at 11-12,000 feet. This plant is a perennial that blooms early to mid-summer and produces white flowers. Another flowering plant Vasey found was the Sepidium spathulatum. It was depicted by Vasey within his field notes as being a short perennial plant with thick leaves and a woody stem. Other flowering plants acquired during the expedition that are now located within the US National Herbarium are Bigelowia foliaceus, Lepidium scopulorum, Polanisia dodecandra, Oenothera coronopifolia, and Poa flexuosa var robusta. The J.W. Powell Survey of 1868 was a great achievement for botanical collections in the United States. In 1893, The Botanical Gazette examined Vasey’s role in the expedition and wrote, “He returned in December with a splendid collection which has enriched and enlarged several of the best herbaria of the country. He had now wholly given himself up for botanical pursuits.” J.W. Powell's multiple geological surveys in the Rocky Mountain region throughout the 1870s continued to aid in the collection of botanical specimens for the Smithsonian Institution.|Additional Sources: eFloras.org "Pyrrocoma.” Flora of North America, n.d.http://www.efloras.org/florataxon.aspx?flora_id=1&taxon_id=127795 Gray, Asa. "Botany of the Black Hills." In U.S. Geographical and Geological Survey of the Rocky Mountains Region 1880. Washington, DC: U.S. Congress, 1880. Nicholls, Graham. Alpine Plants of North America: An Encyclopedia of Mountain Flowers from the Rockies to Alaska. Portland, OR: Timber Press, Incorporated, 2002. Powell, John Wesley. Seeing Things Whole: The Essential John Wesley Powell (Pioneers of Conservation). 1 ed. Washington, DC: Island Press, 2004. Powell. US Geographical and Geological Annual Report 1880. Washington, DC: U.S. Congress, 1880. Turner Photographics. "Aster foliaceus.” Wildflowers of the Pacific Northwest, n.d. http://www.pnwflowers.com/flower/aster-foliaceus Vasey, George. Field Notes from George Vasey. Personal Account. Colorado River Exploring Expedition, May-September 1868. Worster, Donald. A River Running West: The Life of John Wesley Powell. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.


  • Canby, William Marriott and Joseph Nelson Rose. George Vasey: A biographical sketch. Botanical Gazette 18 (1893): 170-183.
  • Connecticut Botanical Society. "Common Arrow-grass (Triglochin maritimum)." Connecticut Wildflowers, 2005. http://www.ct-botanical-society.org/galleries/triglochinmari.html
  • Desert USA. "John Wesley Powell.” Desert Biomes, n.d. http://www.desertusa.com/magnov97/nov_pap/du_jwpowell.html

Date Range

1868 - 1868


  • Plants
  • Botany


  • United States
  • Colorado
  • Colorado River
  • Utah


Expedition name