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Exploring the Colorado River: Firsthand Accounts by Powell and His Crew

Exploring the Colorado River: Firsthand Accounts by Powell and His Crew

by John Wesley Powell, John Cooley (Editor)

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When geologist Powell and his party of explorers first assayed the Colorado in 1869, it was North America's longest stretch of uncharted river. This is the story of that three-month, thousand-mile excursion, told in the words of the men who negotiated and mapped the river, through their journals, accounts, and letters. Black-and-white illustrations.


When geologist Powell and his party of explorers first assayed the Colorado in 1869, it was North America's longest stretch of uncharted river. This is the story of that three-month, thousand-mile excursion, told in the words of the men who negotiated and mapped the river, through their journals, accounts, and letters. Black-and-white illustrations.

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Dover Publications
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6.14(w) x 9.26(h) x 0.46(d)

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Exploring the Colorado River

Firsthand Accounts by Powell and His Crew

By John Wesley Powell, John Cooley

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 1988 John Cooley
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-16987-3


Preparations for Departure

This opening section serves as a prologue to the river voyage and introduces, at length, the two most colorful characters and journal writers of the expedition. Their accounts, unlike the raw and immediate trip journals, were written many years after the adventure. Since even Major Powell did not write about this phase of the expedition, it is fortunate that Hawkins and Sumner recorded their first encounters with and impressions of the Major and his entourage of students and naturalists, between autumn 1867 and 24 May 1869.

Powell and his dream of exploring the Colorado must have had magnetic pull on both men, for Sumner, who ran a trading post, and Hawkins, who had purchased his supplies for a winter of trapping, both decided to join the Major's party. They also made arrangements to sell Powell their supplies and equipment, probably imagining he had greater financial backing than he did. Both men complained, at the end of the voyage, that Powell never adequately compensated them for their equipment and expenses, which may well be the case since he financed the project himself with minimal public support.

Because Sumner's and Hawkins's accounts were written years after the trip, they should be read as the fixed attitudes and settled stories each established regarding Powell and the voyage. One can also see this tendency at work in Powell's account, which starts on 24 May. It was written about five years after the experience, even after the second expedition (1871–72), and published in 1875. In all three accounts, while one misses the directness and immediacy of a journal entry, one can see what the whole experience, including its many subadventures, came to mean to these three narrators. Unlike John Wesley Powell, Hawkins and Sumner did not achieve fame, high position, and a place in history. They were relegated to the position of footnote figures in the exploration of the West, and they knew it. Thus, when asked to write their recollections of the experience, with the hindsight of having read Powell's published account, they had at last some opportunity to tell the tale their way. Consequently, each claims a major role in initiating, planning, and preparing for the voyage, leaving, if we were to take their accounts as fact, almost nothing for Powell to have done except follow orders. Since Powell had enjoyed a distinguished Washington career, some of the criticisms of Sumner and Hawkins, who wrote their accounts a few years after his death in 1902, may have stemmed from bruised egos at having been left behind. Regardless of their motives, the three narrative voices of Powell, Hawkins, and Sumner present an interesting study in contrasts: the parallax of personality and selective memory. Since readers may be as interested in narrative personalities as in accurate historical representation, there is little point in trying to isolate the truth, if indeed there is such a thing, from some colorful journalistic bullwacking by Sumner and Hawkins.

Hot Sulphur Springs, Colorado

Jack Sumner Account of Fall 1867 In the fall of 1867 Major J. W. Powell came to me at my trading post in the Hot Springs in Middle Park, Colorado, bringing letters from Denver parties requesting me to show him the country at large, and give him all the information I could, especially in regard to the natural history of the Park and adjacent country. I saddled up and took him around to about all the points of interest, making daily collections of the various animals at that time inhabiting that part of the Rocky Mountains. They were elk, mule deer, mountain sheep, antelope, and the various fur-bearing animals, three kinds of bear—the grizzly, the cinnamon, and the black—beaver, otter, marten, and mink; the grey wolf and his bastard cousin, the coyote, wolverine, silver cross and red foxes, besides some smaller animals generally classed as vermin by a free trapper, of no value for furs, but of great interest to the naturalist.

In our evening talks around the campfire, I gave the Major some new ideas in regard to the habits of animals, as he had gotten his information from books, and I from personal observation of the animals themselves, in a perfectly wild state. We differed widely, especially so in regard to beaver and how they worked. I had to take him to a beaver village on the sly and let him see for himself before I could get that silly idea out of his head that beaver use their tails as trowels and sleds in building their dams....

After spending two or three weeks wandering in the Park, the Major seemed to get stuck on me for some reason or no reason at all, and wanted me to leave Middle Park, and go with him the following summer to the Bad Lands of Dakota on a geological trip. I declined the proposition and fired back at him the counter-proposition—the exploration of the Colorado River of the West, from the junction of the Green and Grand rivers to the Gulf of California. He at first scouted the idea as foolhardy and impossible. I urged on him the importance of the work, and what a big feature it would be in our hats if we succeeded. After several windy fights around the campfire, I finally outwinded him, and it was agreed that he should come out the following spring and we would make the attempt. I believe Major Powell states in his report that the exploration of the Colorado River had been in his mind for years. He mentioned nothing of the kind to me previous to our discussion and agreement. The ideas was certainly not his own.

Collecting the specimens I had gratuitously gathered for him in the Middle Park region, Major Powell departed for the States, agreeing to be back as soon as the grass started the following spring, and we would then commence the generally supposed foolish and impossible task. Each of us was to bear, share and share alike, all of the expense. I remained in Middle Park that winter collecting for the Smithsonian Institution.

Major Powell appeared on the field at Berthoud Pass the following June (1868), with a gang of twenty-five or thirty college students from fifteen to twenty-five years of age, with no experience whatever. They were good enough in their place, but about as fit for the work supposedly to be ahead of us as I would be behind a dry-goods counter, or hell for a powder house. He then told me he had changed the original plan of attack, as he had secured authority from Congress, through the influence of Senator Trumbull of Illinois, to draw supplies for twelve men at any western army post whenever the supplies were called for, which was a pretty good thing, as supplies were very expensive at all frontier posts.

Summer Account of Summer 1868 After remaining at Berthoud Pass for two or three weeks, the outfit moved down to Hot Sulphur Springs and made that place headquarters for the remainder of the summer, collecting, mapping the country, and measuring various mountains around the extreme head of Grand Rivers, and made the first ascent of Long's Peak, August 4th, 1868.

William Hawkins Account of Summer 1868 In the summer of 1868, I was camped at Hot Sulphur Springs in Middle Park, Colorado, with my pack train of two mules and two horses. I was at that time trapping. My headquarters camp was 100 miles west, but in the summer I would take the furs I had caught during the winter out to Denver and sell them, and then put in three months packing provisions to my camp for the next season's trapping. I had gone out as soon as the snow was so I could cross the mountain range, and had already made two trips and was on my third and last for that summer when I heard of Major J. W. Powell's proposed expedition. Returning, I camped at Jack Sumner's place at Hot Sulphur to rest my animals three or four days. I think it was the second day after I got to Sumner's post that Major Powell's pack outfit came in and camped a short distance from where I was. It was the custom of us mountaineers as well as the Indians to find out where strangers were going and what for, since we as well as the Indians respected each other's trapping grounds. Therefore, I went over to Powell's camp to find out what his intentions were.

I found the Major a very pleasant gentleman and very easy to get acquainted with. I asked him his business in that part of the country, and he stated his final object was the exploration of the Grand Canyon of the Colorado.

Next morning Sumner and Major Powell came over to my camp, where Dunn had spent the night with me, and Sumner spoke up and said that the Major would like us (Dunn and me) to join his party for the winter, as well as for the trip down the canyons of the Colorado. I told the Major that Sumner was thinking of selling his trading post, and that he, Dunn, and myself were going to try the canyons as far as Cottonwood Island. I told him that I had already packed my year's supplies in from Denver. The Major replied, "Those things are just what we want, also your mules and horses. I will buy them and pay you just what you can sell them for elsewhere." I told him I would think the matter over and let him know in the evening. In the meantime he and Sumner arranged a trade for Sumner's supplies at his post.

White River Camp to Green River

Sumner Account of Fall 1868 In October we commenced moving everything to the White River country. We had to pack in relays, as there was a lot of stuff of no use whatever. As game was plentiful on the route, we lived well and finally got bag and baggage to the White River and built winter quarters on the north side of the White River at the point afterwards made historical by Nathan Meeker, who built an agency there for the Ute Indians.

Later on Meeker and all the men of the agency were killed and all the women kept prisoners for some time, and they would have been killed, too, but for the influence of Chief Ouray of the Uncompahgre band of Utes. A similar fate was narrowly averted for our party of '69 through the friendship of Chief Antero of the Uinta tribe of Utes and myself. Major Powell had measured off some geological work and set some stakes. The Utes thought that meant farming, and of course they would not have it that way. As we were only ten to about a thousand, our cake would have been dough if they had not been well talked to and the obnoxious stakes pulled up and thrown into the White River.

It has always been a strange thing to me that educated men seldom use common sense in their dealings with wild Indians. Meeker proposed to make the Utes good farmers and highly civilized in a few days. We know the results. Powell had a notion that his name and prestige would carry him anywhere, a common and very often a fatal mistake with army officers. Note the cases of Col. Fetterman and Gen. Custer, I doubt very much if Lewis and Clark could have traveled across the continent but for the cool head and quiet ways of Clark in dealing with the Indians. Fremont would have been stopped at the forks of the Platte but for the cool heads of his guides and scouts.

Hawkins Account of Winter 1868–69 We made our Winter camp on White River, hunting, trapping, and gathering specimens. In the spring of 1869 we moved to Green River City, and waited for the arrival of Major Powell and the boats from the East.

Sumner Account of Pall and Winter 1868—69 We camped on White River from November, 1868, until next March, collecting and exploring the country for a hundred miles around, the snow being too deep for us to make any very extended trips. Major Powell's students had by this time dwindled down to one out of the twenty-five, and he was terribly homesick. March 4th, 1869, we abandoned our winter camp and started through pretty deep snow for Bear River, about sixty miles northwest on the old trail to Brown's Hole. We reached Bear River in three days and found no snow at all, good grass, and plenty of antelope but no other game.

Next day the main party pulled on, Major Powell going back to the States to make preparations for our Colorado River journey. Howland, Dunn, and I remained behind to examine the country adjacent to Bear, Little Snake, and Vermilion rivers. We spent several days in the work and then moved on to Brown's Hole, where we camped for about two weeks and had lots of fun. Deer were very plentiful and the water fowl were in flight, so we had duck soup and roasted ribs about every meal. After we got tired of our camp in Brown's Hole, we proceeded on our way to old Fort Bridger by way of Henry's Fork, seeing nothing of interest but a fight between a large flock of mountain ravens and a mountain lion in the cliffs of a cavernously eroded butte—a form of butte characteristic of that graveyard of prehistoric reptiles. We reached Fort Bridger, and then on to Green River Station on the Union Pacific railroad, where we camped and awaited orders and in the meantime tried to drink all the whiskey there was in town. The result was a failure, as Jake Fields persisted in making it faster than we could drink it.

Green River City, Wyoming

Sumner Account of Spring 1869 About May 12th, '69, Major Powell returned from the States with the four boats which had been built in Chicago from plans I drew at our winter quarters on White River. Three of them were twenty-one feet long, six feet wide and two feet, two inches deep, decked fore and aft about five feet, and with water-tight compartments. The pilot boat, the "Emma Dean," was sixteen feet long, four feet wide, and twenty inches deep. Major Powell brought out a lot of necessary trinkets, and also a young scientific duck who was not at all necessary. However, he did not give us much time to imbibe his wisdom, as he stayed only one day. One good look at the Green River and the gang was enough. He vamoosed the camp that night, and we were left in darkness, mourning bitterly. I then induced Seneca Howland, Frank Goodman, and Andy Hall, the latter a rollicking young Scotch boy, to cast their lot with us. George Bradley, a sergeant from Fort Bridger, also joined us at Green River, he having been discharged by order of Gen. Grant especially to go with us. He was something of a geologist and, in my eyes far more important, he had been raised in the Maine codfishery school, and was a good boatman, and a brave man, not very strong but as tough as a badger.


Green River City to Flaming Gorge

After nearly a month of final preparations, while encamped just below the transcontinental railroad bridge at Green River City, Wyoming, Powell's party of ten men and four boats was finally set for departure on 24 May. They were ready to test the worthiness of their new boats and their own strength of limb and character. Although the boats proved to be enormously heavy, cumbersome, and, with their long stern sweeps, barely maneuverable, still they were stout, solid craft that withstood tremendous beating.

Even though the entire voyage took only seventy-one days, Powell had no idea what to expect in the great unknown before him and thus took boats big enough to accommodate equipment and food for ten months. Not only were the boats designed to Powell's amateur specifications, he also selected a crew of amateurs. Except for Bradley, they possessed very limited boating and river experience, nor were they trained as naturalists, geographers, cartographers, or geologists.

Joining the voices of Hawkins and Sumner are those of Bradley, whose steady and reliable journal appears on every day of the expedition, and Powell, first his verbose account of the day-to-day experiences and then his clipped journal entries, forming a contrasting medley of voices. The journal voices of Bradley and Sumner give us, in contrast to Powell's descriptive passages, very detailed notes on such practical and mundane considerations as the size of rapids, the difficulties encountered, the number of miles completed. Greater contrast in subject and perspective there could hardly be. Powell's account reveals his search for the best perspective of the river and surrounding region; he climbs while his crew is repairing boats, hunting for supper, or gathering firewood. Here and throughout the narrative, Powell's attention is occasionally drawn to practical matters and the crew's grumbling or concern, but usually he lifts his eyes and his pen to record the wonders of this region.

Bradley, 24 May 1869 Left Green River City, Wyoming, with four boats (The "Emma Dean," "Maid of the Canon," "Kitty Clide's Sister" and "No Name") and 10 men (Prof. Powell and Brother, the Howland brothers, Wm. Dunn, Wm. Rhodes, Andy Hall, Frank Goodman, Jack Sumner and myself) at about one o'clock P.M. for the purpose of exploring the Green and Colorado Rivers. Passed rapidly down with the tide [current] almost without effort for about 8 or 10 miles when we encamped for the night in a cottonwood grove. The night was pleasant with indications of approaching rain. Made geological survey, found nothing worthy of note.


Excerpted from Exploring the Colorado River by John Wesley Powell, John Cooley. Copyright © 1988 John Cooley. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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