Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS
Montage of images and link description. Lost in the Grand Canyon Imagemap: linked to kids and home
The Film and More
Imagemap(text links below) of menu items
The American Experience

People & Events
Oramel G. Howland (1833- 1869)
Seneca B. Howland (1843 - 1869)
William Dunn (? - 1869)

On September 7th, 1869 the operator at a small settlement in Utah received an alarming telegram: "[Major John Wesley] Powell's three men killed by three She-bits.... Indian[s] report that they were found in an exhausted state, fed by the She-bits, and put on the trail leading to Washington after which they saw a squaw gathering seed and shot her. Whereupon the She-bits [also known as Shivwits] followed up and killed all three." The men the message referred to were three of the ten-man team who had set out in May on Powell's first expedition down the Colorado River. Two of them, Oramel and Seneca Howland, were brothers. The other, William Dunn, is a shadowy figure about whom very little is known. Powell had last seen the men on August 28th, just two days before his expedition come to an end. Faced with extremely treacherous rapids, the men had decide to leave Powell's expedition and try their luck reaching human habitation by land.

Powell received the news of their deaths a week after the telegram was sent; he found it extremely hard to believe. The Shivwits were a peaceable people, and his men wouldn't have killed anyone, except possibly in self-defense. "They were honorable men and gentlemen," the Major told the press. "I have no hesitation in pronouncing this part of the story as a libel."

Powell first met the Howland brothers and Dunn in Denver in the summer of 1868. They were among a small group of mountain men Powell recruited to join his expedition on its scientific exploration of Colorado. Oramel, the older of the two Howlands, had arrived in Denver in 1860. He was an educated and literate man. At one time or another he had been a printer for the "Rocky Mountain News," the vice-president of the Denver Typographical Union Local No. 49, and a business agent for a Methodist Episcopal magazine. Much less is known about his younger brother Seneca, other than that he had traveled West at Oramel's urgings in 1868 and that he had served in the Union Army during the Civil War before being wounded at the battle of Gettysburg.

O. G. Howland, in particular, was a very good addition to Powell's team. He was interested in science, he wrote well and, as Powell would later point out, he was of a "faithful, genial nature." So when Powell began making preparations to explore Grand Canyon by river, the first time anyone had attempted to do this, he hired Howland, making it his task to map the river and take notes. Dunn and Seneca Howland were also invited to join the team.

As it turns out, the older Howland made one unfortunate mistake that caused the crew much hardship. This error came just two weeks into the trip. A little after noon on June 7, 1869, Powell pulled his boat ashore and indicated that the other vessels do likewise. O. G. Howland either didn't see the signal or didn't start for land soon enough. Either way his boat went over the rapids, threw out all three men and was dashed to pieces on the rocks. The team lost one-third of its provisions, half of its mess-kit and three barometers. That night, George Bradley, another crew member, wrote in his diary, "It is a serious loss to us and we are rather low spirrited [sic]." By the end of the trip, the loss had the men on starvation rations. Later on in the trip, Howland lost some of the maps and notes he had been compiling. Those losses were part of the reason the trip produced very little in the way of scientific data.

Some have speculated these mishaps may have weighed heavily on O. G. Howland, helping to contribute to his decision to leave the river expedition when he did. But it's more likely that after three exhausting months on the river, living off extremely meager supplies, the Howland brothers and Dunn had simply reached the end of their endurance. When they arrived, on August 27, at what seemed to be impassable rapids, O.G. Howland took Powell aside and tried to persuade him that it would be madness to continue on the river. Powell tried to convince Howland otherwise. The following morning the two groups separated. The Howland brothers and Dunn began climbed out of the canyon, and Powell's remaining men set out to battle the formidable rapids. It was an amicable if sad parting. "They left us with good feelings," Bradley wrote, "though we deeply regret their loss for they are fine fellows as I ever had the good fortune to meet." Ironically, the worst of the expedition was over. Two days later Powell and his remaining men floated out into the mouth of the Virgin River. Hoping to hear that the Howland brothers and Dunn had reached safety, Powell headed to a nearby settlement. But it wasn't until he visited Indian tribes the following year that he confirmed the story of the men's deaths.

Powell returned to the West in 1870 because he knew the paltry scientific data produced on his first Colorado River trip had made the expedition of little practical value. He needed to run the river again to survey it properly. Success, he believed, lay in locating points along the way where his team could resupply, and also in establishing friendly relations with the Indians. During his travels that fall he met with the Shivwits, hoping to find out the truth behind the rumors that their warriors had murdered his men. According to Powell's Mormon interpreter, the Indians admitted killing the three explorers, but explained how they had made such a tragic error. They said they had wrongly believed the Howland brothers and Dunn were prospectors who had molested and killed a Shivwit squaw.

Instead of demanding retribution for the deaths of his men, which would have been usual in those days, Powell accepted the Native Americans' story and smoked a pipe with them. The following year, with an appropriation from Congress, Powell set out on his second expedition down the Colorado River. In recent years historians have began to question whether the Shivwits were in fact responsible for the deaths of Powell's men. They say there's some evidence to suggest that Mormons killed the adventurers thinking that they were in fact Federal spies. Some scholars point out that the Indians' own admission that they committed the murders was relayed to Powell through a Mormon interpreter, who possibly altered the story. The truth of the matter will probably never be known. With time the memory of the three men who gave their lives for his expedition faded, though the Major made sure that in one way they would be immortalized. When he named topographical features of the lands under his investigation, he gave buttes in the Grand Canyon the names Howland and Dunn.

previous | return to people & events list | next