History books have long credited John Wesley Powell with being the first to navigate the Green and Colorado rivers when he floated their seemingly impenetrable torrents in 1869.
But history books may be wrong. Evidence instead points to Denis Julien - a famed Utah fur trapper, who navigated the Green and Colorado in a sailboat as early as 1836.Archaeologists base that on an inscription found on a cliff face near Hell Roarin' Canyon. The inscription bears the name D. Julien, along with a date of 3 Mai 1836. It also includes a depiction of a single-masted boat and what has been described as a "flying sun."
Department of Interior and state history officials recently nominated the site, due west of Moab, for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places.
The inscription is one of five Julien inscriptions along the Green and Colorado rivers, apparently made on the same trip, and the best of eight known Julien inscriptions on the rivers.According to Bruce Louthan, district archaeologist for the Bureau of Land Management and chairman of the Grand County Historic Preservation Commission:
"It is clear from the progression of dates, i.e. May 3 at Hell Roarin' and May 16 at Bowknot Bend some 16 miles upstream, that the voyage was south to north against the current. This would have made the use of a sail virtually imperative."
"If this analysis is correct, Julien may have been the first to complete a round trip on the river. Although (fur trapper William Henry) Ashley used hide-covered boats in 1825 in the uppermost reaches of the Green River, Julien's solidly backed autobiography on the rock at Hell Roarin' Canyon secures his claim to be the first to navigate the lower reaches of the Green River and Cataract Canyon on the Colorado."
What makes Julien's daring feat even more remarkable was his age at the time, estimated to be about 64 years.
Julien was an extraordinary fur trapper and explorer, Louthan said. An American of French-Hugenot extraction, he was born about 1772, presumably in the St. Louis area. He married an Indian woman there in 1793 and fathered three children.
In 1816 and 1817, he received licenses to trade in the still little-known upper Missouri River area. By 1827 (relatively late by mountain-man standards), he crossed the Continental Divide for the first time in the company of Francisco Robidoux to "retrieve some caches in the direction of the land of the Utes."
"Research has shown Julien to be an elder statesman among the so-called mountain men, with longevity that spans the whole era of florescence in the American beaver fur trade," Louthan said.
Despite his relatively late arrival in the Rocky Mountains, Julien's mountain-man legacy has proved much more enduring than earlier trappers. He was a rarity in that he was literate, leaving his name on cliff faces along the Colorado and Green rivers. Some are now beneath Lake Powell.
It was the apparent dwindling supply of beaver that spurred Julien to explore the rugged and unknown Green and Colorado river areas of Utah. By the 1833 annual mountain-man rendezvous in Wyoming, most of the beaver in the mountains of that vicinity had been trapped.
That prompted a lot of speculation about the unexplored lands to the southwest. Some researchers today see Julien's inscriptions as "intended to claim the turf for trapping as much as to insure a record of his vulnerable passage."
The inscriptions are found all the way from the Uintah Basin in northeastern Utah to Glen Canyon in southeastern Utah. The last known Julien inscription is dated 1844 in Arches National Park, after which nothing is known about what happened to the famed trapper. One writer claims he moved on to California.
The Westerners Club of Salt Lake City and the Dan O'Laurie Museum of Moab recently made a latex mold of the Hell Roarin' inscription - the most complete and meaningful of all Julien inscriptions - in order to ensure preservation of the original while still allowing public display.