Emma Dean Powell: The Explorer’s Wife

2019 is a big year for Utah sesquicentennial celebrations (isn’t that a great word?). May 10, 2019, was the 150th anniversary of the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad linking the East Coast and West Coast at Promontory Point, Utah.  This enormous accomplishment, achieved mainly by such downtrodden groups as the Chinese, Irish, former slaves, former Civil War soldiers, Native Americans, and Latter-day Saints (Mormons), is rightly regarded as a major technological and social achievement in Utah and US history.

On May 24, 1869, another scientific wonder began: an exploratory trip down the wild Colorado River by one-armed geologist and former Civil War soldier, Major John Wesley Powell. With a ten-man crew–none of whom had white-water rafting experience–he set out to map the unexplored regions of the Colorado River through Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and Nevada. And I don’t just mean unexplored by white men–Native Americans familiar with the area told him his goal was impossible, deadly. Yet he took his scientific equipment in four boats and set off. The fourth boat–his own–was named the Emma Dean after his wife. On August 30, 1869, Major Powell arrived in St. Thomas, Nevada, having lost one boat, a great deal of the scientific information he gathered, and four of his men (all four deserted the expedition, and three of those were lost in the desert, never heard from again). Undeterred by the hardships, he would make the trip again in 1871-1872 to improve his scientific data.

Powell is justly famous for his daring and for his contributions to the understanding of the geology and ethnology of the West, but Emma Dean Powell rarely gets any mention. True, she did not raft down the Colorado (during one of her husband’s Colorado expeditions, she was busy giving birth to their daughter Mary Dean Powell), but the petite Emma had been her husband’s nurse, champion, and scientific partner starting in the Civil War and through his many previous expeditions. She became an ornithology expert in her own right, as well as one of the first women to climb Pike’s Peak in Colorado. Along with her sister-in-law, Nellie Thompson, Emma made important contributions to the work that her husband and the other men of his expedition became famous for, at a time when female scientists were rarely recognized for their work. You can read more about Emma Dean Powell’s quiet but remarkable career in Utah Women: Pioneers, Poets & Politicians.

Photo of Emma Dean Powell courtesy of the USGS.

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