Friday, June 20, 2003

This week sees the very first Amputee of the Week from the 19th century (Cap'n Ahab doesn't count because he's a fictional character.)

John Wesley Powell was born in Mt. Morris, New York on March 24, 1834. His father -- an itinerant Methodist preacher -- wanted him to follow in his father’s footsteps, but instead Powell studied natural history in college.

During the Civil War he enlisted in the Union army in the 20th Illinois Volunteer Infantry. On April 6th 1862, at the Battle of Shiloh, Powell's right arm was struck by a half-spent minie ball. It was amputated two days later. Nevertheless, he continued to serve in the army for the remainder of the war.

In 1869, Powell and nine adventure-seeking companions completed the first exploration of the dangerous and almost uncharted canyons of the Green and Colorado rivers, through the present-day states of Utah and Arizona. In addition to these steep and dangerous river canyons, Powell and his companions faced the relentless and inhospitable conditions of the Great Basin Desert as they travelled from the northeast to the southwest corners of the Colorado Plateau.

Powell and his expedition surprised even the local Native Americans, who considered navigating the Grand Canyon River Gorge an impossible task. In fact, only 6 of the original 9 completed the expedition with Powell. Three of the original members, fearing for their lives on the dangerous rapids of the Colorado River, attempted to climb out of the canyon and were slain by Indians.

By this remarkable journey, Powell opened up the last unknown area of the continental United States and brought to an end the era of western exploration. Today, Lake Powell bears his does the roll-call of one-legged and one-armed heroes to be named Amputee of the Week.

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