Deep in the Canyon

A look at the famed 1869 exhibition from the mouths of the explorers themselves.

Those familiar with the history of the American West know of John Wesley Powell and his role in its exploration. Michael Ghiglieri has painstakingly gone through all the documents produced by the individuals who were part of his famed 1869 Grand Canyon expedition, as well as other primary and secondary sources, to give us the fullest picture yet of what actually happened in First Through Grand Canyon: The Secret Journals and Letters of the 1869 Crew Who Explored the Green and Colorado Rivers.

Ten exhibition members began at the Green River in current-day Wyoming on an odyssey lasting over three months. One quit after two weeks. Of the remaining nine, three kept journals or notes that survived--Powell himself, John Colton Sumner (at Powell's request) and George Young Bradley (secretly). Three besides Powell sent letters of various length--Andrew Hall, O. G. Howland and Powell's brother, Walter. One more--William Robert Wesley Hawkins--left two interviews from 1907 and 1919, as well as one letter written late in life.

After a lengthy introduction, Ghiglieri presents the chronology of the trip with each participant's material given in order of the events recorded. He then tells what later happened to each of the nine.

Ghiglieri's meticulous research hardly portrays Powell as the heroic leader many consider him. Lewis OR Clark, he wasn't: brave (he had but one arm), but often inept, sleazy and a poor leader of men. And lucky to live when hierarchical loyalty counted for more than today; those who actually carried the expedition (Bradley, Sumner and Hawkins) missed the age of the whistle blower.

While most expedition members were experienced mountaineers, few knew much about riverboats. Neither did Powell, or he wouldn't have had them built with their cargo compartments at the ends of the hull instead of the middle, as he did for the 1871 journey. Ghiglieri should know. Besides holding a doctorate in biological ecology, he's been a wilderness river guide throughout the world and has spent more than 1,700 days on 630 river trips and rowed or paddled 38,000 miles in the Canyon.

In one case, Ghiglieri goes over the top in claiming that only river runners can really fully understand boating the Grand Canyon. Lack of firsthand experience CAN be compensated for by competent research; otherwise Victor Davis Hanson and John Keegan would be disqualified from writing about ancient warfare. Some on-the-ground knowledge IS relevant, though. I recall a Wyatt Earp "expert" from New Jersey writing about Johnny Ringo's death and wondering if black powder left powder burns.

Ghiglieri has also authored three other books on river running (as well as three books on wild chimpanzees) and knows the river much better than Powell and his folks ever could. And he can write engagingly and with wit.

Other things about the nine give us insight on their times. They were young, mostly under 30, and they were short by our standards--the tallest was 5 feet 9, and Powell was only 5 feet 6 1/2. Some, like Major Powell and his brother, were Civil War vets (on the Union side). And the physical hardships they endured on the trip--days of sogginess and inadequate food mixed with never-ending anxiety--tell us how tough THAT great generation was even when poorly led. Many were able to write reasonably well despite limited formal educations; Ghiglieri presents spelling and punctuation as he found it.

Bradley's clandestine journal is the most fun. "Day 19, June 11.69 ... The Major as usual has chosen the worst camping-ground possible" is typical of the private irreverence shown his boss. Hawkins, who outlived them all, said even more.

Readjusting Powell isn't Ghiglieri's only controversial piece of revisionism. On day 97, Aug. 28, three members--O.G. and Seneca Howland and William Dunn--decided they'd had enough and broke off from the main party to hike out. The memorial near the spot says "killed by the Indians," the accepted villains for over a century. Ghiglieri doesn't think so. He nominates the Mormon outpost he believes they came upon and gives some interesting reasons. He presents; you decide.

The most tragic part of that decision to separate was two days later--the others were through the canyon and ran into three locals fishing. Powell and his brother peeled off to head for civilization. The remaining four kept going--Hawkins and Hall all the way to the Sea of Cortez!

First Through Grand Canyon is a great read and a fine addition to Arizona history.

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