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People & Events
George Young Bradley (1836-1885)


In 1869, after two tedious years in the army, George Young Bradley declared that he would "gladly explore the river Styx" if only it would get him out of the military. As it turns out, it took an at-times "hellish" journey down the Colorado to do just that. Very little is known about Bradley's childhood and youth. There isn't even a record of his precise birth date. But records do indicate that he was from Newbury, Massachusetts, the son of English immigrants. Documents also show that the boatman and adventure-seeker first enlisted in the Army in 1862 to fight in the Civil War. It was a disappointing venture, however. Within weeks of signing up, Bradley was wounded in the thigh at Fredericksburg. He spent the rest of the war a reservist. Bradley's return to civilian life was apparently equally unexciting. He tried to get work as a druggist, and when that didn't work out, he re-enlisted, this time requesting frontier duty.

Major John Wesley Powell met Bradley while the Massachusetts man was serving with the Thirty-Sixth Infantry in Wyoming. For nearly a year the company had been guarding the route of the Overland Stage Company and protecting Union Pacific engineering teams, who were constructing the railroad through western Wyoming. "Chasing Indians" as Bradley put it, wasn't quite what he'd envisioned when he signed up. Powell ran into Bradley at Fort Bridger, a military outpost on the Green River, during the fall of 1868, while the Major was making preparations for his first river descent of the Grand Canyon. Powell was so impressed with Bradley that he wrote a letter to President Grant requesting the sergeant be released from the army to become a chief boatman on his river trip. Bradley got his discharge on May 14, 1869, and just a week later he set off with Powell's ten-man team on the greatest adventure of his life.

Bradley quickly became one of the most important members of Powell's team, frequently accompanying the Major on his survey excursions. On one occasion Bradley even saved the Major's life. The two men were climbing a canyon wall when, as Bradley describes it in his diary, "Major, having but one arm couldn't get up so I took off my drawers and they made an excellent substitute for rope and with that assistance he got up safe." In fact, much detail of that first expedition down the Colorado River, comes not from the Major himself, but from the saturnine Bradley. A moody man and a loner, Bradley's secretly-kept diary is the most compelling and detailed record of the trip. In the early days he was awed by the country they were passing through. "It is the grandest scenery I have found in the mountains" he would write. "I am delighted with it. I went out to see the country this morning and found it grand beyond conception." Later he recorded the hardships. "I feel more unwell tonight than I have felt on the trip. I have been wet so much lately that I am ripe for any disease and our scanty food has reduced me to poor condition."

For the most part uncomplaining, tough and loyal, Bradley did reveal that Powell was at times so focused on his scientific work that he lacked consideration for his men. In early August, after more than two months on the river, the team's food supply had grown very short. Powell halted the expedition to collect data. Bradley recorded the crew's anxiety. "Doomed to be here another day," he wrote, "perhaps more than that for Major has been taking observations ever since we came here and seems no nearer done now than when he began...he should not ask us to wait and he must go on soon or the consequences will be different from what he anticipates."

When the ragged, exhausted team finally emerged from the Grand Canyon almost a month later, the taciturn Bradley's delight was tempered by the knowledge that three of the crew members weren't with them. Alarmed by some fierce rapids they couldn't portage around, they had elected just two days before to leave the river trip. "All we regret now," he wrote, "is that the three boys who took to the mountains are not here to share our joy and triumph."

After the expedition, Bradley took a stagecoach to California. He ultimately settled near San Diego, where he set up a fruit-growing ranch. In 1885, in extremely poor health, the Massachusetts man returned home, dying just a few weeks after arriving at his sister's house. He was buried in the Bradley family plot in the Bridge Street Cemetery in West Newbury Massachusetts. Although, Bradley worked for Powell only once, the Major always held him in high esteem. "He was scrupulously careful," Powell would write, "and a little mishap worked him into a passion; when labor was needed he had a ready hand, and in danger, rapid judgment and unerring skill. A great difficulty or peril changed the petulant spirit into a brave and generous soul."


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