Down the Great Unknown: John Wesley Powell's 1869 Journey of Discovery and Tragedy Through the Grand Canyon

Down the Great Unknown: John Wesley Powell's 1869 Journey of Discovery and Tragedy Through the Grand Canyon

by Edward Dolnick


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Down the Great Unknown: John Wesley Powell's 1869 Journey of Discovery and Tragedy Through the Grand Canyon by Edward Dolnick

Drawing on rarely examined diaries and journals, Down the Great Unknown is the first book to tell the full, dramatic story of the Powell expedition.

On May 24, 1869 a one-armed Civil War veteran, John Wesley Powell and a ragtag band of nine mountain men embarked on the last great quest in the American West. The Grand Canyon, not explored before, was as mysterious as Atlantisand as perilous. The ten men set out from Green River Station, Wyoming Territory down the Colorado in four wooden rowboats. Ninety-nine days later, six half-starved wretches came ashore near Callville, Arizona.

Lewis and Clark opened the West in 1803, six decades later Powell and his scruffy band aimed to resolve the West’s last mystery. A brilliant narrative, a thrilling journey, a cast of memorable heroesall these mark Down the Great Unknown, the true story of the last epic adventure on American soil.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780060955861
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 09/17/2002
Series: Harper Perennial
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 400
Sales rank: 237,757
Product dimensions: 5.30(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Edward Dolnick is the author of Down the Great Unknown, The Forger’s Spell, and the Edgar Award-winning The Rescue Artist. A former chief science writer at the Boston Globe, he lives with his wife near Washington, D.C.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

The Challenge

Noon, May 24, 1869

The few inhabitants of Green River Station, Wyoming Territory, gather at the river front to cheer off a rowdy bunch of adventurers. Ten hardy men in four wooden boats had spent the morning checking their gear and their provisions one last time -- bacon, flour, coffee, spare oars, sextants and barometers (their leader, the skinny, one-armed man in the Emma Dean, fancied himself a scientist). Their plan could hardly be simpler. They will follow the Green River downstream until it merges with the Grand to become the Colorado, and then they will stay with the Colorado wherever it takes them. They intend in particular to run the river through the fabled chasm variously called Big Canyon or Great Canyon or Grand Canyon, a region scarcely better known than Atlantis. No one has ever done it.

The men hope to make their fortunes; their leader plans to emblazon his name across the heavens. They are brave, they have new boats and supplies to last ten months, they are at home in the outdoors. Most important, they are ready to risk their lives.

At one o'clock, the Emma Dean, the Kitty Clyde's Sister, the Maid of the Ca–on, and the No Name push themselves out into the current. A small American flag mounted on the Emma Dean flaps proudly in the breeze. Most of the crew are still a bit bleary-eyed. As a farewell to civilization, they have done their best to drink Green River Station's only saloon dry. Now they are suffering what one of them describes as "foggy ideas and snarly hair." The small crowd gives a cheer, the leader doffs his hat, and the four boats disappear around the river's first bend.

John Wesley Powell, the trip leader, was a Civil War veteran who had lost his right arm at Shiloh. Thirty-five years old and unknown, Powell was a tenderfoot who barely knew the West, a geology professor at a no-name college, an amateur explorer with so little clout that he had ended up reaching into his own (nearly empty) pocket to finance this makeshift expedition. His appearance was as unimpressive as his résumé -- at 5 feet, 61/2 inches and 120 pounds, he was small and scrawny even by the standards of the age, a stick of beef jerky adorned with whiskers.

To Powell, a natural leader, all that was unimportant. Overflowing with energy and ambition, he was a man of almost pathological optimism. With a goal in mind, he was impossible to discourage.

He had devised an extraordinary goal. In 1803, with the full and enthusiastic backing of the president of the United States, Lewis and Clark had opened the door to the American West. In 1869, with almost no government support, John Wesley Powell intended to resolve its last great mystery. By this time, the map of the United States had long since been filled in. For two centuries, Boston had been a center of learning and culture. New York and Philadelphia were booming, Nashville and New Orleans struggling to recover from the Civil War. California's gold rush was almost a generation in the past. In May 1869, the pounding of a ceremonial spike at Promontory Summit, Utah, marked the completion of the transcontinental railroad.

The Rockies and the Sierra Nevada and Yosemite and Death Valley were old news. Miners in search of gold, trappers in quest of beavers whose pelts could be transformed into hats for London dandies, a host of government and railroad surveying parties, all had criss crossed one another's steps in even the most isolated spots of the American continent.

Except one. One mystery remained. In the American Southwest an immense area -- an area as large as any state in the Union, as large as any country in Europe -- remained blank. Here mapmakers abandoned the careful notations that applied elsewhere and wrote simply "unexplored." Venture some Westerners knew that the region was desolate and bone-dry; they knew the Colorado River ran through it; they knew that canyons cleaved the ground like gouges cut by a titanic axe. Beyond that, rumor would have to do. Men whispered tales of waterfalls that dwarfed Niagara and of places where the mighty Colorado vanished underground like an enormous snake suddenly slithering down a hole.

Powell aimed to fill in that blank in the map. His plan, such as it was, took audacity to the brink of lunacy. Once they were well under way, he and his men would have no supplies other than those they could carry. They had no reliable maps -- none existed -- and their route stretched across a thousand miles of high desert. It was Indian territory, and peace had yet to break out. There were no white settlements (or settlers, for that matter) anywhere along their river route nor within a hundred miles on either side.

The Grand Canyon itself, Powell knew, was many hundreds of miles, downstream. It was the final canyon the expedition would pass through -- and the longest and the deepest and the least known -- but they would have to confront countless obstacles before they ever drew near it. The first three-fourths of the route, Powell guessed, led through a series of virtually unexplored canyons. The last one-fourth, if he and the crew were still alive, would be the Grand Canyon.

Powell's friends feared he was throwing his life away. On May 24, the day he set out, his hometown newspaper had reported on his plans. "It would be impossible for a boat constructed of any known material, upon any conceivable plan, to live through the canyon," one supposed expert declared. "We do not know what kind of boats Professor Powell purposes to descend the Grand Canyon," the newspaper cautioned, "but we greatly fear that the attempt to navigate by any means whatever will result fatally to those who undertake it."

Table of Contents

Chapter 1The Challenge1
Chapter 2The Crew9
Chapter 3The Launch23
Chapter 4Ashley Falls37
Chapter 5Paradise53
Chapter 6Disaster57
Chapter 7Shiloh69
Chapter 8The Hornets' Nest79
Chapter 9Hell's Half Mile91
Chapter 10Fire105
Chapter 11The First Milestone115
Chapter 12Hoax127
Chapter 13Last Taste of Civilization137
Chapter 14Trapped147
Chapter 15"Hurra! Hurra! Hurra!"159
Chapter 16Outmatched169
Chapter 17Flash Flood181
Chapter 18To the Taj Mahal193
Chapter 19Grand Canyon205
Chapter 20Time's Abyss215
Chapter 21The Great Unknown227
Chapter 22Sockdolager239
Chapter 23Fight251
Chapter 24Misery259
Chapter 25Separation Rapid267
Chapter 26Deliverance275
Chapter 27The Vanishing279

Reading Group Guide

The story of Lewis and Clark is one of the most well known adventure tales in American history. The story of the first successful expedition down the Grand Canyon is far less known yet equally important to the opening of the American West. Few Americans know the full story of the canyon's exploration, but finally Edward Dolnick offers readers a thorough and thrilling account of John Wesley Powell's 1869 expedition "down the Great Unknown."

Writing so the reader has a sense of being there, Dolnick uses first-hand diary and journal entries from the men who made the historic journey. Drawing on his own impressions from four trips down the Colorado, Dolnick skillfully weaves together historical fact and personal accounts with a great understanding of the geology of the canyon itself.

On May 24, 1869, a one-armed Civil War veteran named John Wesley Powell and a ragtag band of nine mountain men embarked on the last great quest in the American West. No one had ever explored the fabled Grand Canyon-to adventurers of that era it was a region full of mystery and peril. The ten men set out from Green River Station, Wyoming Territory, down the mighty Colorado River, in four wooden rowboats hoping to map the region, study its geology and make history. Little did they know they would be lucky just to survive. They were woefully unprepared, unequipped, and inexperienced, yet what they lacked in practical know-how, they made up for in sheer bravery and determination. The men of the Colorado River Exploring Expedition were avid explorers, but by no means were they experienced river runners. Six of the men, in addition to Powell, were Civil War veterans, five wereself-proclaimed mountain men and all were ready to risk life and limb for the sake of a grand adventure. The expedition included Powell's younger brother Walter; Jack Sumner, a mountain guide and outfitter; Oramel Howland, a hunter and sometime printer and editor; his younger brother Seneca, an ex-soldier; Billy Hawkins, also a war veteran; Bill Dunn, another mountain man and acquaintance of Sumner's; and finally, George Bradley, one last Civil War veteran.

For Powell, the journey was as much about intellectual exploration as pure adventure. As they made their way down the river they learned through trial and error how (and when) to run rapids and alternately, how to line or portage them when the rapids were beyond their ability. Along the way, they stopped to take barometric readings, mark their maps, and collect rock and fossil samples. All the while, they faced the possibilities of drowning, losing their supplies or one or all of their boats, running into unfriendly Indians or starving to death if their food rations ran out before they reached their destination.

Every day the men faced grueling work in the hot sun and often survived on little more than bacon, bread, dried apples and coffee. Hair-raising rapids appeared around nearly every bend and whether running, lining or portaging them, the danger was equally palpable. Aside from the physical dangers of the river, the men also had to deal with the mental toll that such challenges could take, and keeping morale up was a continuous struggle. The men often grew impatient with Powell who wanted to proceed slowly in order to record his scientific observations, while they were anxious to move downstream through the final rapids of the Grand Canyon.

At last, ninety-nine days, a thousand miles and nearly 500 rapids after leaving Green River Station, Powell and five of his men came ashore near Calville, Arizona. They arrived in three boats with five days' worth of rations left, completing a journey few thought they would survive, and in the process, resolving the last great mystery of the West.

Questions for Discussion

  • Given the extent of exploration of the West in the early to mid 19th century, were you surprised to learn that the Grand Canyon had not really been explored until Powell's expedition in 1869? Why do you think it took so long for someone to have the courage to explore it?

  • Do you think Powell realized how terribly unprepared and unskilled they were for this journey? Do you think he was reckless with his own life and the lives of his men? Do you think the other men were truly aware of the danger they faced?

  • What do you make of the fact that Powell kept two diaries of the journey? Do you think his published account, which was dictated several years after the actual expedition, was credible? Why or why not? Does that question diminish the feat he actually accomplished?

  • What type of a leader do you think John Wesley Powell was? Do you get the impression that the men respected him or just put up with him as their leader? What qualities of a good leader did he exhibit? What qualities was he lacking that could have made for a better trip?

  • The author spends two full chapters graphically detailing Powell's service in the Civil War. Discuss the ways that Powell's war experiences may have affected his ambition, his fearlessness, and his leadership on the journey through the Grand Canyon.

  • Dolnick notes that one of the biggest challenges Powell and his men faced, was the uncertainty of what lay before them. What kind of men can face not only terrible physical danger, but also keep their nerve day in and day out to deal with the emotional toll of facing unknown challenges?

  • Discuss the challenge the men faced in deciding whether to run, line, or portage each rapid. Given the tight supply of their food rations, do you think Powell was right to insist on being more conservative even if it would take them longer to reach their destination?

  • In the notes section, Dolnick explains that he stuck to the facts as known in telling the story saying, "I have chosen to leave the gaps rather than guess at how they might be filled. We lose the glossy finish of fiction but gain the tang and texture of reality" (p.293). Do you agree with his philosophy of telling the story this way? Did you feel that anything was missing from the story that you would like to have known?

  • Compare Powell's exploration of the Grand Canyon with modern day adventures you've read about such as climbing Mount Everest. Are there similarities in the kinds of people who undertake these challenges? Although technology is far more sophisticated today, are there similarities in the challenges themselves? What do you think motivates these people?

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