Research by Assistant Director & Dramaturg Emily Hoffert, with additional support from Jackson Lewis and Vivienne Blouin. Untold Stories voiced by Jayda Jones, Ayree McGirt, Isabella Gonzalez, and Aaron Dorelien. Special thanks to Max Breit and Janae Beaver.

Powell: His Life and Journal
Daily Life of the Expedition
The Expanding Frontier
The Ute Tribe
Case Study: Untold Stories
About the Playwright
Behind the Scenes: Making Virtual Theatre

Men on Boats is a dramatic interpretation of The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons, a journal that John Wesley Powell wrote in 1895 detailing his experience of traveling the Green and Colorado Rivers in 1869. Powell was the leader of this expedition, and he credits himself with both developing the exploration idea and assembling his team of crewmembers.

Who Was John Wesley Powell?
  • Powell was born in Mount Morris, New York, in 1834. His father, a poor itinerant preacher, had emigrated to the U.S. from Shrewsbury, England. His family settled in rural Boone County, Illinois.
  • Powell studied at Illinois College and Oberlin College, over a period of seven years while teaching, and he acquired a knowledge of Ancient Greek and Latin. Powell had a restless nature and a deep interest in the natural sciences. In 1861, when Powell was on a lecture tour, he decided that the Civil War was inevitable; he decided to study military science and engineering to prepare himself for the imminent conflict. 
  • In 1861, Powell enlisted in the Union Army as a cartographer, topographer and military engineer. He was passionate and vocal about the abolition of slavery, which drove his support of the Union Army. At the Battle of Shiloh, he lost most of his right arm when struck by a minie ball while in the process of giving the order to fire. The raw nerve endings in his arm would continue to cause him pain for the rest of his life. For further reading on the nature of Civil War amputations, click here. Powell continued to serve in the army, even after the loss of his arm.
  • After fighting in the Civil War, Powell then studied geology under George Crookham. He later became a professor at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington. He was later named curator of the State Natural History Society. 
  • Prior to his 1869 exploration, he led smaller groups of students and explorers throughout the Rocky Mountains and Colorado to collect specimens for various museums. He brought his wife with him on many of these explorations. 
  • Before Powell, explorers and government officials alike agreed that the Colorado River and its canyons were too dangerous and overgrown to be explored or touched by humans. Yet, Powell decided it was possible to explore the river by descending it in small boats. 
  • He got funding for the voyage from private sources and from the Illinois State Natural History Society, and he gained permission from the United States government to requisition military stores. He had four boats built in Chicago to his own design and specifications and had them shipped to him.
  • Click here to access the US National Parks website page on Powell. 
Powell’s Journal



  • Powell recruited his crew through various avenues…
    • Old Shady (Walter Powell) was Powell’s brother, so Powell was easily able to get him on board for the voyage.
    • Powell found O.G. Howland through a friend at the Rocky Mountain News, where Oramel had been a printer and vice president of a Denver typographers’ union. O.G. wrote to Seneca, his brother, and invited him to the voyage. Oramel and Seneca Howland had been among the last men to sign up with Powell for the expedition. They worked as volunteers, but some brought along beaver traps and gold–sifting pans, hoping to get rich along the way.
    • Powell had already worked with Dunn on previous expeditions, in 1867 and 1868, and the two men were on good terms from their past work together; Powell contacted Dunn again for this next one.
    • Powell had also already worked with Sumner in 1867 and 1868, so he called him back in for this next journey. Sumner’s knowledge of the country and his familiarity with boats gave him a key position in the organization.
    • Powell encountered young Andrew Hall as he was roaming the plains of the west, causing skirmishes and getting into trouble. Hall needed the money Powell offered, was generally up for anything, and learned exploration skills quickly. 
    • Powell met Hawkins a year prior to the expedition, in 1868, camping at a trading post in Colorado. Powell told Hawkins he planned to explore the Colorado River, and convinced him to join in. Powell promised Hawkins payment for his animals and supplies (but the payment never eventuated). 
    • When Powell and his wife were staying at the home of a judge on their way to Green River in 1868, the judge suggested that a quiet intelligent young officer in the garrison, Sergeant Major Bradley, would make a useful member of the party. Sergeant Bradley was a frequent caller at the judge’s home and had made good use of his library. Bradley was somewhat interested in the geology of the region and was most anxious to get out of the army. So, Powell took care of Bradley’s release from the army in exchange for service through the Colorado River.
    • Goodman encountered the team very late in the game, as they were all preparing to depart on the voyage at Green River. He begged to join the party for the adventure. He had been around the camp for some days and appeared to be strong and willing. He was accepted without question by all of the party. 
  • Prior to leaving for the expedition, the men all gathered at Green River in the winter of 1869 and waited there for the end of the cold weather, preparing for the voyage and holding out until the temperatures became more suitable for sailing. Major Powell found his crew impatient to get moving after the long winter of inactivity. They had already been at Green River for three weeks, and had found little else than raw whiskey and Ah Chug’s (a local baker) apple pies to interest them. Sumner was a notable fan of the raw whiskey at Green River. 
  • Powell considered this expedition not only a feat of charting new American lands, but also a feat of charting the natural science of the area. Each crew member was expected to keep a journal, in which he details his experience of the science he encountered. Some crew members were assigned specific scientific measurements to be taken every day (for example, Old Shady and Dunn were assigned the barometric measurements, which means they had to record the altitude of the boats and of the canyon walls at every turn). 
  • In addition to writing in their journals and recording scientific data, crew members were also expected to manage their boats. Powell emphasized that he needed his each crew member to be as strong of a sailor as he was a scientist. Powell assured his men that although the scientific observations were the objective of their exploration, each man was expected to do his share of whatever physical work and danger would be encountered. Every man was to be a boatsman first.

All crew members were expected to participate in hunting, trapping, and gathering food (but Dunn, the Howlands, and Sumner would do this the most). For further information on 19th century hunting and trapping techniques on the western frontier, click here.


The Removal of Indigenous People
  • Though it came to fruition under Andrew Jackson’s administration in the 19th century, the idea of “Indian removal” has its origins rooted earlier, in the 18th century. A form of Indian removal was first proposed by one of our Founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson found Indigenous People to be culturally inferior economically, due to their lifestyle and traditions. He believed that the prevalent semi-nomadic lifestyle of many Indigenous tribes, their communal agricultural practices, and their hunting traditions did not use the land efficiently. He assumed that if the Indigenous People adopted a European style of agriculture and settled in European-style towns and villages—only then would they progress from their natural “savage” state to “civilization.”
  • The Louisiana Purchase of 1803 provided a neat solution for Jefferson, one in which Indians would not have to choose between assimilation and extermination. The government could relocate Indians further westward, delaying the inevitable acculturation, while opening up the vacated lands to white settlement.
  • Later, President James Monroe expanded on Jefferson’s ideas and beliefs on Indian removal in an 1825 address to Congress. He abandoned the idea that the Indigenous People could be assimilated into white culture, and he argued that, therefore, it would be to the benefit of the tribes to be removed from their lands for their well-being. He is quoted saying in that address,

The removal of the tribes from the territory which they now inhabit . . . would not only shield them from impending ruin, but promote their welfare and happiness. Experience has clearly demonstrated that in their present state it is impossible to incorporate them in such masses, in any form whatever, into our system. It has also been demonstrated with equal certainty that without a timely anticipation of a provision against the dangers to which they are exposed, under causes which it will be difficult, if not impossible to control, their degradation and extermination will be inevitable.”

  • As president, Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act into law on May 28, 1830. It authorized him to reserve land west of the Mississippi River and exchange it for Indigenous land to the east of the Mississippi. Those Indigenous People who did not wish to relocate would become citizens of their home state.
  • Removal was not met with gratitude or joy by the Indigenous People forced to leave their homelands. Indigenous participation in removal was meant to be voluntary, and the act required the U.S. government to negotiate fairly with the tribes, but this was not often the result. Many tribes were forcibly removed from their lands, in particular the Cherokee, Choctaw, Creek, Chickasaw, and Seminole. This series of forced migrations became known as the Trail of Tears.
  • The Indigenous people were not provided with the adequate supplies they were promised, and as a result many perished on the forced migration due to disease and starvation. Of the 15,000 Creek who marched to their new home in Oklahoma, only 3,500 survived the journey. Similarly, of the 16,000 Cherokee who were forced to move from several south-eastern states to present-day Oklahoma, 4,000 died due to disease, starvation, and adverse weather conditions. In all, tens of thousands of American Indians, some estimates are close to 100,000, lost their lives and their homelands in the series of forced migrations which lasted through the 1840s.

Ute Cultural Practices
  • Keystone cultural practices for the Utes included their language, horse ownership, and the traditional ceremonies of the Sun Dance and the Bear Dance.
  • Utes enjoyed a varied diet of over 150 kinds of plants and dozens of meats. Daily life was structured around the collection of these food sources by ‘mapping onto the land,’ meaning that hunter-gatherer groups moved through the environment to collect resources, moving encampments to resources rather than moving resources to encampments. Groups would travel through the environment with purpose, migrating according to the season and availability of foods. Land and resource ownership was determined generationally and by resource.
  • White settlers on Ute lands in the 1850s and 1860s created tensions not only between Euro-American and indigenous peoples, but also between the Utes and the Plains American Indians. The arrival of nearly six thousand white settlers presented new competition for food sources—as bison, antelope, and deer became valuable commodities for the settlers. This added competition forced Plains Indians to expand their hunting territory, encroaching on traditional Ute hunting grounds. Plains Indians used neighboring Ute camp stores and white American settlements as additional food sources, resulting in frequent raids.
  • By the 1870s, many Utes began to adopt white Euro-American practices in an effort to achieve social peace, such as wearing European clothing and keeping livestock other than horses.
  • To access the Ute Creation Story, click here. To access a 2016 Ted Talk on this creation story and on Ute culture, click here
  • Learn to speak Ute by clicking here!
  • For a detailed history of the Ute Tribe’s origins, click here and here
  • For further reading on Ute history, language, and cultural elements, click here
The Ute Tribe Today
  • The Ute Tribe today is situated on a 1,064 square mile (681,000 acres) reservation, located in scenic Southwest Colorado, between Durango and Pagosa Springs. 
  • The official website of the Southern Ute Indian Tribe advertises the activities and sights to see on the land, as the tribe largely relies on money made through tourism. The reservation includes the Sky Ute Casino Resort, an RV Park and fairgrounds on which large events are held (such as the annual Southern Ute Tribal Fair and Powwow, rodeos, horse shows, and cattle shows), a museum, a community center with extensive athletic facilities and Lake Capote. Reservation tourism numbers are also drawn from access to Navajo State Park, the Chimney Rock National Monument, and San Juan National Forest
  • The Southern Ute Tribe has approximately 1,400 tribal members, with half the population under the age of 30. 
  • The tribe is governed by a seven member Tribal Council elected by the membership.
  • Watch this compilation of interviews with modern-day members of the Ute Tribe, produced in 2014, focusing what their Ute identity means to them.

Click here to see a video of Ute Tribe members in the University of Utah’s football halftime performance!

Anne Bailey

Anne Bailey, or “Mad Anne,” was a frontier scout of the Revolutionary War. In 1791, Fort Lee soldiers noticed that they were significantly lacking gunpowder when they received word that Native Americans were preparing their assault on Fort Lee. Recognizing that their dwindling supplies would prove to be an insurmountable obstacle, Bailey rode to Lewisburg, gathered as much gunpowder as her horse could carry, and galloped back as fast as she could. The round trip was 200 miles long. What’s more, it was written of in a 23-stanza poem by Charles Robb, entitled “Anne Bailey’s Ride.” Click here to read the poem! 

Calamity Jane

Calamity Jane was a gun-slinging woman of the wild west who rejected every aspect of traditional prairie wife expectations. She was orphaned at the age of 12 and was desperate to make a living for herself by any means necessary. Her full name is Martha Jane Cannary, but she took on the moniker when she became the head of her family. Life was not easy for her, especially as an illiterate, impoverished woman, and it is suspected that sometime in her teenage years she turned to prostitution. It was during these especially difficult years that she realized that life suddenly became easier if you presented yourself as a man and took on male characteristics. Her infamous “cowgirl” persona began to grow when she wound up in the lawless town of Deadwood, South Dakota where she mingled with some of the most notorious criminals of the era. It is also where her life’s hardships began to catch up and she became known for her hard drinking. It is difficult to tell what is myth and what is truth surrounding Calamity Jane, although it is generally believed that she once rode a bull down the center of a busy town street! For however many garishly fictional stories she is mentioned in, she is also noted as being a kind woman who extended help to the underprivileged. She attended several expositions and even peddled her mostly fraudulent autobiography out. By the end of her life, she had tired of her wild persona and she was debilitated by the crippling effects of alcoholism. She died in the year 1903 at the age of 51.

Harry Allen

Harry Allen was one of the first widely-known trans men on the American frontier. He was born in 1882. He was a sensation in the newspapers of the Pacific Northwest and, he was famously arrested for dressing in men’s clothing.

Rabbit & Hail-Storm

Rabbit and Hail-Storm were two male members of the Sioux tribe, who had one of the first queer relationships written about by frontier explorers. Frances Parkman, an American historian who toured the Oregon Trail in 1846, recorded in his famous narrative a “romantic” friendship between the two male Sioux. This was one of the first rare allusions to male-male intimacy in American popular literature not involving cross-dressing; Parkman’s own descriptions of Hail-Storm, in fact, stress his sensual beauty. Hail-Storm was about sixteen years old when Parkman encountered him, and he wrote of him, 

“… His light, graceful figure reclining on the ground in an easy attitude, while with his friend the Rabbit, who sat by his side, he was making an abundant meal from a wooden bowl of wasna, which the squaw had placed between them… No doubt the boy’s heart was elated with triumph, but he betrayed no sign of it. He even seemed totally unconscious of our approach, and his handsome face had all the tranquillity of Indian self-control, a self-control which prevents the exhibition of emotion without restraining the emotion itself. It was about two months since I had known the Hail-Storm, and within that time, his character had remarkably developed. When I first saw him he was just emerging from the habits and feelings of the boy into the ambition of the hunter and warrior… As I first remembered him he always shunned the society of the young squaws, and was extremely bashful and sheepish in their presence; but now, in the confidence of his new reputation he began to assume the air and arts of a man of gallantry. He wore his red blanket dashingly over his left shoulder, painted his cheeks every day with vermilion, and hung pendants of shells in his ears…” 

Parkman also noted Rabbit in his writings, when he added, 

“Neither should the Hail-Storm’s friend the Rabbit, be passed by without notice. The Hail-Storm and he were inseparable; they ate, slept, and hunted together, and shared with one another almost all that they possessed. If there be anything that deserves to be called romantic in the Indian character, it is to be sought for in friendships such as this, which are common among many of the prairie tribes.”

Susan Shelby MaGoffin

Susan Shelby Magoffin was an American diarist who, as an 18-year-old in 1846, was one of the first women to detail her personal experiences of the Santa Fe Trail. Having married a trader the year before, she and her husband travelled into Mexico through the Santa Fe Trail. Magoffin’s entries were filled with observations regarding important interactions with Indigenous people and Mexicans occupying the lands across which they travelled, wildlife, and various terrains, as well as her personal highs and lows. Although she was able to afford carriage travel alongside

servants and a personal maid (on account of her being born into a wealthy Kentucky family) it soon became clear that her journey would be fraught with unforeseen physically and mentally exhausting hurdles, including a miscarriage and serveral pregnancies. Discomfort at its peak, she writes, “I do think a woman emberaso [pregnant] has a hard time of it, some sickness all the time, heartburn, headache, cramps, etc, after all this thing of marrying is not what it is cracked up to be.” In July of 1847, Magoffin came down with yellow fever. Two months later, on September 8th, she wrote her final entry. After having returned to Kentucky and subsequently moved to Missouri with her husband, Magoffin passed away in 1855 at the age of 28. 


Jaclyn Backhaus is a playwright, educator, and co-founder of Fresh Ground Pepper theatre festival. Her work includes Men On Boats, India Pale Ale, You Across From Me, Folk Wandering, and You On the Moors Now. She was the 2016 Tow Foundation Playwright-in-Residence at Clubbed Thumb, and she is the recipient of the Jody Falco and Jeffrey Steinman Commission for Emerging Playwrights from Playwrights Horizons. She has also received the Ars Nova commission for Bull’s Hollow. Backhaus holds a BFA in Drama from NYU Tisch. She grew up in Phoenix, Arizona, but currently lives in Queens, New York. She is of Punjabi, German, and botanical descent.

Director Sarah Wansley

Production Stage Manager Max Breit & Stage Manager Janae Beaver

Costume Designer Alyssa Rosenberg

Actor Chloe Rice (Hall)

Actor Myca Hinton (O.G. Howland/Tsauwiat)