We Broke Many Oars and Most of the Ten Commandments: The Famous 1869 Expedition Staged in Men on Boats

By Elspeth Sweatman

Graphic by Sasha O'Malley.

Four boats. Ten men. Ninety-nine days. One thousand miles. John Wesley Powell’s expedition through the canyons of the Green and Colorado Rivers—which Playwright Jaclyn Backhaus has staged in Men on Boats—has gone down in history as one of the defining heroic narratives of the American West. Yet, when he and his crew set off from Green River Station in the Wyoming Territory on May 24, 1869, they were unknown, and more hodgepodge than heroes. No one—except for Powell—had any river-running experience. The expedition had no federal funding, and there was very little attention from the press.

As the explorers looked downstream on that first day, they wondered just what they had gotten themselves into. Would they encounter waterfalls taller than Niagara or boulders the size of houses? Would their days be filled with a never-ending onslaught of rapids or become a tedious slog through almost still water? And looming in the back of their minds was the question which no one dared ask: would they make it out alive?

Powell’s men heard an approaching rapid before they saw it. Facing backwards in the boats in order to row, they relied on Powell—one of the only men facing forward—to signal what was ahead. “When we approach a rapid . . . I stand on deck to examine it, while the oarsmen back water, and we drift as slowly as possible,” wrote Powell in his journal entry for June 8. “If I can see a clear chute between the rocks, away we go; but if the channel is beset entirely across, we signal the other boats, pull to land, and I walk along the shore for closer examination.” Powell and his crew scanned the water, reading the ripples like a book; a rounded mound of water meant a large rock under the surface, a hole indicated a dangerous current moving upstream. Sometimes when they were unsure which path to take, they threw sticks into the river to watch their course through the rapids.

If Powell decided that a stretch of river was too dangerous to run, there were two options available to him. One was to line the rapid: to guide a boat from the shoreline using ropes, or to tie the boats together and “leap-frog” down the rapid. Some rapids were just too dangerous for this method. In those situations, Powell was left with the only other option: to portage the boats. After emptying the water-soaked boats of their supplies, they carried them along the often rocky shoreline before making a return journey to collect their supplies. This was exhausting work and in some stretches of the canyons, they portaged for miles.

Want to learn more? Purchase a copy of Words on Plays, available in the box office and online. And be sure you see this historical adventure onstage—told with contemporary language, loads of laughter, and a cast of non-cisgender white males. Men on Boats closes this upcoming weekend, running through Sunday December 16. Get your tickets today!

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