A River Running West: The Life of John Wesley Powell

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If the word "hero" still belonged in the historian's lexicon, it would certainly be applied to John Wesley Powell. Intrepid explorer, careful scientist, talented writer, and dedicated conservationist, Powell led the expedition that put the Colorado River on American maps and revealed the Grand Canyon to the world. Now comes the first biography of this towering figure in almost fifty years—a book that captures his life in all its heroism, idealism, and ambivalent, ambiguous humanity.

In A River Running West, Donald Worster, one of our leading Western historians, tells the story of Powell's great adventures and describes his historical significance with compelling clarity and skill. Worster paints a vivid portrait of how this man emerged from the early nineteenth-century world of immigrants, fervent religion, and rough-and-tumble rural culture, and barely survived the Civil War battle at Shiloh. The heart of Worster's biography is Powell's epic journey down the Colorado in 1869, a tale of harrowing experiences, lethal accidents, and breathtaking discoveries. After years in the region collecting rocks and fossils and learning to speak the local Native American languages, Powell returned to Washington as an eloquent advocate for the West, one of America's first and most influential conservationists. But in the end, he fell victim to a clique of Western politicians who pushed for unfettered economic development, relegating the aging explorer to a quiet life of anthropological contemplation.

John Wesley Powell embodied the energy, optimism, and westward impulse of the young United States. A River Running West is a gorgeously written, magisterial account of this great American explorer and environmental pioneer, a true story of undaunted courage in the American West.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Co-winner of the 2001 National Outdoor Book Award, History/Biography Category

John Wesley Powell led a rich and varied existence. He was an explorer of great renown, a scientist, a soldier, a writer, and a conservationist. He served (and lost an arm) in the Civil War and led a heroic and dangerous expedition down the Colorado River that revealed the Grand Canyon to the world. In A River Running West, award-winning historian Donald Worster offers the first complete biography in more than half a century of this monumental figure, revealing the man behind the legend.

John Vernon
...gathers together more material on Powell than that contained in both previous biographies combined, and the result is a more complex and richly detailed picture of a man he sees as an exemplary 19th-century American.
New York Times Book Review
Library Journal
Anyone fortunate enough to stand on the rim of the Grand Canyon will look for the Colorado River, the natural force that created this indescribable sight. One has to look carefully, however; from the rim of the canyon the river is often hard to find and certainly doesn't look powerful enough to have carved out the largest canyon on the face of the earth. One man made it his life's mission to explore, map, survey, and often exploit this wonderful, rushing, ever-changing river. Even today, when much of the Colorado has been dammed, diverted, and channeled, the experience of a raft ride through the Grand Canyon is a thrilling and sometimes dangerous experience. If Powell's name is not as familiar as, say, Lewis and Clark, it is not for his lack of achievement. An indifferent student who lost his right arm during the Battle of Shiloh, he was a self-made and self-taught man who had the distinction of removing the last area in the contiguous United States marked "Unknown" on most maps. Worster has written a thrilling, suspenseful, and definitive biography of Powell, a man with many faults but also with undeniable courage. Reader Edward Holland brings the right amount of dignity and humor to his recitation, although it takes a while to get used to his pronunciation of the river as the "Colo-raw-daw." An essential purchase for all large public libraries, this introduces listeners to a man who had a major role in the exploration and development of the West. Joseph L. Carlson, Lompoc P.L., CA Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
From the Publisher

"A River Running West is a full-gauge biography, a rich broth of detail about Powell's life and times. Those who know his story will discover many fresh tidbits and informed insights. Those who don't will find no better introduction...[Worster] does what great historians do best: he gives context to contingency." -- Stephen J. Pyne, Science

"It's a case of man and mountain matching one another: Donald Worster is one of the finest American historians of his generation, and John Wesley Powell one of the most impressive Americans of his time. This book is very accessible, very thorough, and very welcome."--Larry McMurtry, author of Lonesome Dove, Crazy Horse, and Roads

"Another sublime contribution to the historical literature of the American West from Worster.... A top-drawer biography, at once scholarly and popular, generous in its intelligence, rich in context and anecdote."--Kirkus reviews

"In this superb book, Worster backs up his claims about the depth and breadth of Powell's vision as 'one of the leading interpreters of the West, an influential voice on its land and water issues as well as its treatment of indigenous peoples.' Worster captures Powell's rich life and the life of a nation struggling to come to grips with its vast resources."--Audobon

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780195156355
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
  • Publication date: 11/28/2002
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 688
  • Sales rank: 672,035
  • Product dimensions: 9.19 (w) x 6.00 (h) x 1.75 (d)

Meet the Author

Donald Worster is Hall Distinguished Professor at the University of Kansas. His books include The Wealth of Nature, Under Western Skies, and the Bancroft Prize-winning Dust Bowl. He lives in Lawrence, Kansas.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter 5

Down the Great Unknown

The Green River begins among the high, persistent glaciers and ice-cold tarns of the Wind River Range in Wyoming. At first a mere trickle from the rooftop of the continent, it swells to muddy grandeur along its 730 miles through alpine meadows, sagebrush flats, spectacular sandstone canyons, and alkaline wastes. Entering Utah, it bends around the east-west trending Uinta Mountains, forming Browns Park and the deep chasms of what is now called Dinosaur National Monument. Resuming its course south, the river flows through the Uinta Basin and the dry Gunnison Valley to a confluence with the Grand. Altogether the Green falls nine thousand feet, many of them foaming white-water rapids. The river's name may derive from the brush growing along its banks, offering a brilliant contrast to the often blasted country on either side, or from the name of a St. Louis businessman who dealt in furs. The legendary heart of the fur trade and the scene of its annual rendezvous, the Green was known to trappers by an Indian name, the Seedskadee.

Powell had assumed throughout his 1867-68 explorations that the Grand was the true source of the Colorado River and the logical starting point for penetrating the western country. In 1875, however, he acknowledged that it was the Green, not the Grand, that is "the proper continuation of the Colorado," and he was right. The Green is four hundred miles longer than the Grand, drains an area nearly twice as large, and therefore by the rules of geographical nomenclature ought properly to be considered the upper mainstem. In 1921 the state of Colorado, with support from the U.S. Congress, perversely declared the Grand to be that mainstem, as though chauvinism could repeal the facts of nature. Powell, whatever his earlier confusion, wisely chose to launch his exploring boats into the waters of the Green, though he had not tracked its point of origin among the Wind River glaciers.

Powell had another, more compelling reason for starting out on the Green in his journey down the Colorado River. Early in 1869 the transcontinental railroad had crossed the Green, making it possible to unload boats directly from a flatbed car into water flowing to the Gulf of California. While Lieutenant Ives and others had tried to push heavy steamboats upstream from the Gulf, until the Grand Canyon blocked their passage, Powell had decided that a better strategy was to put small wooden boats into the upper basin and descend on the power of the current. He later explained to the English writer William Bell that he had talked with Indians and white hunters, consulted the Mormons in Utah, read reports of the government surveys, and with his own eye examined the upper reaches from its banks and canyon walls, until he was convinced that he could successfully go down the entire river in small boats. But first he needed to find money to buy those boats.

When he and Emma left their winter quarters on the White River to go back east, via Green River City (or Stanton), Emma went to Detroit to stay with her parents while Wes stopped in Chicago. There took his boat sketches to a master boatmaker, Thomas Bagley, whose workshop was located where Clark Avenue meets the Chicago River. Powell ordered four boats made to his carefully considered specifications. Three of them were to be twenty-one feet long, four feet wide, and two feet deep, each made of oak, double-ribbed with wineglass transoms (they strongly resembled ferry tenders used on Lake Michigan), and each divided into three compartments, the fore and aft compartments decked and watertight in anticipation of rough waves. The fourth boat was to be a shorter, lighter craft of pine, sixteen feet long and similarly divided into compartments. The first three needed to be heavy and rugged in order to carry food supplies through dangerous, rock-filled rapids, while the smaller boat should be fast and maneuverable to pilot the expedition through treacherous places.

While the boats were under construction, Powell went after a renewal of funding from his benefactors. The 1868 resolution of congress, allowing him to draw free rations from western army posts for twenty-five men, was still in effect; he could take part of his meat rations in the form of cash, which allowed him to hire four hunters to supply his party with fresh meat along the way so they did not have to subsist on bacon only. Other support came from the Smithsonian Institution and the Chicago Academy of Science in the form of scientific instruments, but money for the boats must come from the Illinois Natural History Society (of which he was still secretary), the Illinois Industrial University, and various private sources, including $2,000 of his own salary. In other words, this first expedition down the Colorado was not to be a federal project.

On 7 May, after giving an interview to the Chicago Tribune and promising them a few reports from the field, Powell left to rejoin the Colorado River Exploring Expedition, now gathered at Green River City. The boats proceeded him, gratis, on an earlier train. Waiting to receive and outfit them were the core of his brigade encamped a half mile from the Union Pacific Railroad bridge. Most of them had arrived weeks ago and had long exhausted the scarce entertainments of the town. They had taken some of their meals at the Fields' boarding house and others at Ah Chug's dining room at the train depot. They had drunk Jake Fields's home brew and staggered back to camp through the dusty streets, past adobe and wood frame buildings, many of which were uninhabited since the railroad construction crews had moved on. They had cleaned their guns a few times, thought about the fabled country that lay downriver, and waited with increasing impatience....

Excerpted by permission of Oxford University Press. Copyright © 2001 by Donald Worster.
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  • Posted December 17, 2011

    Great Biography, wonderful story!

    This is one of those books that I have kept aside in hardcover as well as digital format. For those who love a well-told tale, a fascinating life, real adventure and a love of history, this is the perfect book. Five stars!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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    Posted May 29, 2014

    To the medicine cat from Cherrykit

    "Where and who is the medicine cat?" Cherrykit wailed. Her paw was throbbing and her ear had a nasty cut. "Im wounded!"

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    Posted May 26, 2014


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    Lavenderpaw ♡

    Woke up and trotted into the clearing. -Lav &#9829

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    Moonfur i need to talk to you

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    E c h o

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    Posted April 30, 2014

    cat from emberclan

    Im 12 and i have a bf...

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    Posted May 6, 2014

    In 6th grade going to 7th im 12 and a half

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    Posted May 28, 2014

    Rockpaw to Lavenderpaw

    Hey wanna go hunting? My mom left to go search for my dad and left me in charge. My mentor hasent been here so i guess its ok. Wanna go?

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    Posted May 18, 2014

    To to Eclipsesun

    She is a girl.) Spottedfawn carries in marigold and sets it near the sleeping places. She padds out, head down.

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    Im 13

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    Its ok purrs i can wait but right now yawns i need rest pads to the nursery

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