THERE IS a rough physical law to the effect that the carrying power of water increases as the sixth power of its velocity, which is to say that a stream moving two miles an hour will carry particles sixty-four times as large as the same stream moving one mile an hour, and that one moving ten miles an hour will carry particles a million times as great.1 A stream that in low water will deposit even its fine silt and sand, in high water will roll enormous boulders along its bed, and sometimes one can stand near the bank and see a rock that looks as big as a small house yield and sway with the force of the current.
Where the Colorado River entered the granite a few miles below the Little Colorado the channel was narrow, the river engorged, very deep, and very swift. It took hold of a boat irresistibly: the characteristic reaction of our diarists was awe. More times than once Bradley was led to report rapids as the worst of the trip so far, and all of them felt the gloom of that black inner gorge and the poverty of the narrow sky.2 To add to undernourishment and exhaustion and strain they had nights of rain that caught them miserable and unprotected on bouldery shores, days of alternating sun and rain that first drenched them and then boiled them in temperatures of 115°. Rarely was there a decent camping place; they stopped where daylight or endurance ran out on them. With very little shore, the river did not even provide adequate firewood. Curling up on the edges of cliffs, among boulders, on wet spits of sand, they made out as they could. And along with their discomforts there was an increasing but unspoken fear.
Partly the lack of shores did it, the way the river sometimes took up all the space and left them no place for lining, no trail for a portage. Rapids that they feared to run they ran because they could do nothing else, and as they came plunging through the waves, tossed from one side to the other by the cushion of the water piling against great rocks, they often had no chance to inspect the river ahead, to search out channels, to guard against falls. They went with the recklessness of Sam Adams, not for lack of better sense but in sheer helplessness.
The pretense that it was a scientific expedition had worn thin. Every barometer they had was out of commission, so that they had lost track of their altitude and had no way of telling how much fall there was before the Virgin. Even an accurate view of where they had been was denied them, after Howland lost in a swamping his map of the river from the Little Colorado down, and all his notes with it. Anxiety closed around them like the dark rock, and looking up lateral gorges to the outer walls so high and far above, to the buttes and towers and enormous pediments and alcoves of the cliff-edged plateaus that now rose above them more than a vertical mile, they could add claustrophobia to their burdens, and the haunting speculation of what it would mean if they had to try to climb out.
Unrelieved labor, incessant strain and anxiety, continuing rain, a river that seemed every day to grow worse, and for food the same moldy bread, spoiled bacon, stewed apples, and for commander a man who they felt would risk all their lives for an extra hour of geologizing, an extra night of squinting at a star.
When they ran into the granite on the second day below the Little Colorado — one of the days that Bradley recorded as the wildest thus far — the Emma Dean was smashed under by a wave and ran swamped for half a mile before its crew got it into an eddy. Bradley and Walter Powell brought their boat through with the loss of an oar, the third escaped with a shaking up and a ducking. That night as they slept among boulders and on ledges so narrow that only Sumner and Major Powell found space wide enough to make a double bed, Bradley huddled off by himself and wrote up his secret diary in the rain. They had better lie quiet, he said, or one of them would be in the river before morning.
Some of them were in the river every day now. Hawkins capsized and lost his oars the next morning, and after only two and a half days in the Grand Canyon their supplies were again wet and spoiling. At the mouth of a beautiful clear creek coining in from the north they camped to saw out more oars and dry the food. That was Silver Creek, which Powell later, on a lecture tour, rechristened Bright Angel Creek to make a singularly happy contrast with the Dirty Devil above. The cutwater of the Emma Dean was broken and all of them were exhausted. Even Bradley was willing to lay over a day for a rest. Immediately Powell, seizing the opportunity, took off up the canyon to geologize.
As if to emphasize the need for haste, the Bright Angel layover was hard on the rations. There they finally threw away what remained of the bacon, so many times spoiled and dried and boiled and redried that they gagged at it. And Billy Hawkins, making biscuits on a rock, had the misfortune to let the saleratus get sawed off into the river by the line of one of the boats. From that time on they ate unleavened bread.
Below Bright Angel they got through one laborious day without accident. On the afternoon of the next a furious thunder shower drove them to what shelter they could find among the rocks, where they sat dripping and heard the thunder bounce from cliff to cliff and saw hundreds of flash-flood rivulets burst over the walls above them. The more their need for haste, the less haste they seemed able to make. “Hard work and little distance seems to be the characteristic of this canyon,” Bradley wrote. Then on the 19th the Emma Dean swamped again, and Bradley’s boat, sweeping to the rescue, struck on her cutwater with a jolt that started her nails. Two more oars went in that rapid, and all the boats now were so battered that they had to be calked every day. For the sixth day out of the last seven they lay down in soaking blankets. But that night when it cleared off, a great drying fire restored them. So bedraggled were they that they did not start until noon the next day. They were all looking ahead, watching for that break in the walls that might be the Grand Wash Cliffs.
It seemed as if they might have reached it, or neared it, for the walls did fall back a little and the rapids were further apart. In a half day’s run, including a portage and two linings, they ran ten miles. The next day was again for Bradley “first for dashing wildness of any day we have seen or willsee.” Swept broadside down upon a rapid, Powell’s boat rebounded from the cliff and was carried into a narrow slot with no shores to land on. Ahead a bend cut off the view. From around it came the “mad roar” that had taught them caution many times already. Here they could not be cautious if they would. Powell stood up, hanging to a strap that ran from gunwale to gunwale, trying to spot a channel through the long, winding chute of white water. Their luck held. All they got out of that one was a tremendously exhilarating ride for ten precious miles before the roar of another heavy fall below made them pull ashore to reconnoiter. By the time they had portaged that, they were out of the granite.
Their cheers had in them something of the hysteria of strain, and they did not stay cheerful long. Barely had they adjusted themselves to milder water when the river turned sharply from its north-by-west course and bored back almost straight east into the granite again. Overhead the clouds gathered blackly, and it rained.
Their hypnotized spirits now rose and fell with the river, and changed with its course. When, away back at the Little Colorado, they had discovered their latitude to be as low as that of Callville, they had been cheered, but the river taught them to wait and see, for it persisted in running back toward the north with them: Now it rubbed in the lesson of skepticism by taking them back into the hard rock they feared. “If it keeps on this way,” Bradley wrote, “we shall be back where we started from, which would make us feel very much as I imagine the old hog felt when he moved the hollow log so that both ends came on the outside of the fence.” 3
Still, there was nothing they could do except to keep rooting at the log. They fought their way down to spend another night on the rocks, with a bad rapid facing them as soon as they should wake up, and its roar an uneasy sound in their dreams. But next day the unpredictable river switched again. After two hard miles the hated granite sank under toward its home at the earth’s core. The rapids, though tremendous, seemed by Grand Canyon standards lighter.4 On the afternoon when they ran out of the granite they made ten miles.
The following day they made twenty-two with great cheerful-ness, and their cheer was doubled by the great marble cave in which the Major chose to camp — dry and spacious and out of the interminable rain. Around their fire they sat speculating on how far Grand Wash might be, for the Mormons whose notes on the river from Grand Wash to Callville were in the Major’s pocket put the Wash no more than seventy or eighty miles below the mouth of the Little Colorado. On the dogleg river they had already gone more than one hundred twenty. They must be very close, perhaps within a day’s running. Ahead, they convinced themselves, the river seemed to widen and the current to slack off. They examined their flour — one sack plus enough for a meal or two — and gauged the skimpy supply against the possible miles ahead. They were half naked, bearded, skinny, and their dreams were haunted by visions of gargantuan meals, but they knew they would make it now.
The river relented. On August 25 they made thirty-five marvelous miles, in spite of a hard portage around what they called Lava Falls, where a basalt flow had first dammed the canyon and then been cut clean through, and in spite of a near accident when the iron strap in the bow of one boat pulled loose and almost let the boat get away in a rapid. All the boats, clearly, were about as used up as the men. They drove themselves.
The opening of their last sack of flour was a solemn moment, and a warning. Down a violent stretch of river where lava made continuous but not major rapids they ran the battered boats recklessly, lining only once in thirty-five miles when they landed on the wrong side of a rapid and couldn’t get across to run it safely. Another good omen: the dry abandoned dwellings and granaries of ancient Indians that they had been seeing among the cliffs ever since Glen Canyon gave way to signs of life. In an Indian garden they found squash big enough to eat, and stole a dozen to make green squash sauce, their first fresh vegetable food since the disastrous potato-top greens in Uinta Valley fifty days before. Though the nearly vertical walls of the inner gorge grew higher and higher, their two-day run of seventy miles put them close to two hundred miles below the Little Colorado. “A few days like this,” Powell said, “and we are out of prison.”
It was a prison even to him now, not a happy hunting ground of science. And the river knew better than they did. On the morning of August 27 it swung south, and since the dip of the beds was to the north, they rapidly ran into lower and lower formations. If it kept up this way they would be back in the granite. By nine o‘clock they saw the dreaded rock, brown here instead of black, but unmistakable, rising up from the shoreline. They had to portage at the very entrance to the granite gorge. By eleven they came to a place that forced them ashore with sinking hearts.
Later river runners, with some justification, have disputed Powell’s description of that rapid, both as to its violence and to its shape. 5 There can be no doubting the fact that it looked to them, in their demoralized and discouraged state, like the worst thing on the river. Sumner’s journal calls it “a hell of foam”; Powell and Bradley agree in calling it the worst they had met. “The billows are huge,” said Bradley, “and I fear our boats could not ride them if we could keep them off the rocks. The spectacle is appalling to us.” 6
It should have been. They had five days’ rations remaining. Above the narrow inner gorge the outer walls stepped back in lofty and perhaps unclimbable cliffs. The nearest Mormon settlement was miles away to the north across unknown plateaus and deserts. To run the rapid was, as far as Powell could see, pure self-destruction. Above the pounding water rose abrupt granite cliffs. Trying the right bank, they could find no way either to portage or to line. Crossing over above the rapid, they tried the left, working along the craggy granite to try to get a view of the river below the first fall. The cliff shut off the water.
Telling about that day in his published Report, Powell records an adventure that neither his own daily notes nor the journals of Bradley and Sumner mention. He says that, intent upon seeing and appraising the rapid, he worked out upon the pinnacles and crags of the cliff and once more, as in Desolation Canyon, got himself “rimmed.” He was four hundred feet above the boulder-strewn water, clinging to the rock with his one hand, when he called for help. He says that the men climbed close above him and dropped him a rope, but that he dared not let go to grab for it. Hanging grimly, unable even to advise them because he could not see his own position, he clung while two men hurried down the cliff and came back with a pair of the largest oars. Themselves working on a perilous edge, they reached out an oar and finally jammed it in a crevice beyond Powell so that they could pinch him in against the cliff and hold him there. Then they jammed the second oar below him, and carefully he turned himself until he could step on this oar and inch back to safety.
How they may have looked at one another, whether or not they may have cursed him to themselves for being maimed and a burden, how fully they may have laid their situation at his door, no one will ever know. Since the journals do not mention the episode at all, it may not even be true. It may be a piece of fiction suggested by his previous rimming and inserted into the narrative as peculiarly effective here.7 Perhaps it is part of that impulse to self-dramatization that had led Powell to make speeches on top of Long’s Peak, and sit on a spectacular crag above Flaming Gorge producing rhetoric for the Chicago Tribune. But even if the story is not true, it ought to be. There could have been no more striking symbolic summary of the fix the whole expedition was in than the spectacle of the maimed leader hanging perilously between advance and retreat, unable to move either way, on a crag of the hated granite.
Without getting a really good view, they spent another hour trying to see from the left-hand cliff, and in the afternoon crossed again to try the right, but without success.
After almost a full day of studying the situation, Powell could see no way except to let down over the first fall, run the rapid to the head of the second, and then pull like fury to the left to avoid a great rock against which the river poured a curving, boiling wall of water. It was not a plan that appealed to him; it appealed even less to some of the men. Bradley, who had reported rebelliousness before, reported it again: “There is discontent in camp tonight and I fear some of the party will take to the mountains but hope not.”8
Crossing the river again and camping in the mouth of a lateral gorge, they had both certainties and uncertainties to contemplate as they chewed on their leathery unleavened bread. There were the alternative uncertainties of a fearful nest of rapids with an unknown river below, and a perhaps equally dangerous climb out some side gorge onto the plateau and across it to the Mormon settlements northward. And there were the desperate certainties of failing supplies, failing boats, failing strength, failing nerve. Sitting apart from the others and writing up his notes, Bradley called it “decidedly the darkest day of the trip.”9
Of all the men who had accompanied Major Powell through a summer of natural history in the Colorado parks, a winter of studying Indians and topography from the base camp on White River, and more than three tense months in the canyons, O. G. Howland was best fitted by education and interests to be a companion for the commander. He was the oldest in the party, though at thirty-six, less than a year older than Powell, he was hardly decrepit to match his beard. Like Sumner, Hawkins, and his brother Seneca, he was technically entered on the expedition’s roll as a hunter, but he was no buckskin savage. Since arriving in Denver in 1860 on the tide of the Colorado gold rush he had been a printer and editor of Byer’s Rocky Mountain News, business agent for a Methodist Episcopal magazine known as the Sunday School Casket, member and later vice-president of the Denver Typographical Union Local No. 49, and secretary and member of the board of the Nonpareil Prospecting and Mining Company. Judged by his letters to the News, he was the most literate and articulate of the group. By Powell’s own testimony, he was of a “faithful, genial nature.” When Powell took a companion with him on his exploratory climbs around the canyon rims and up side gulches he almost always took his brother, Bradley, or the elder Howland. Bradley was the only member of the party over thirty, outside of Howland and Powell, and he had been an army non-com long enough to learn discipline.
But the same qualities that made Howland a companion and friend for Powell half unfitted him for the grueling adventure of the river. He had a certain scientific and literary curiosity, and part of his job was to map the river and make notes as they went, but his appetite for knowledge was nothing like Powell’s omnivorous passion, and though he was an outdoor man and a sportsman he had not quite the hardihood or the youth of the hunters and Andy Hall. Also, he had been the unlucky one. His momentary error of sight or judgment had led to the wreck of the No-Name, the loss of a third of their provisions, and their present starving and desperate condition. The comparative meagerness of their scientific results could be traced to his misfortune in twice losing his maps and notes in swampings. Possibly the sense of personal failure troubled him. Just possibly Powell or his brother, under the increasing strain, may in some moment of irritation have thrown it up to him. Conceivably too, as Sumner and Hawkins many years after the fact asserted, the Major and Bill Dunn may have rubbed each other the wrong way, or trouble may have brewed between the moody Walter Powell and Dunn. Bradley’s journal mentions no such cause of discontent, however, and he was not one to spare the Major when he thought Powell needed criticism. Sumner’s journal is equally bare.
Put it down to strain, to the steady corrosion of strength and nerve. Lay it to the dark oppressive granite, to the repeated hope that they had run out of it for good and the each-time-greater anger and disappointment when the river switched them back into it. Put it down to the rapid they now faced without a clear chance to run, line, or portage. Put it down to a growing lack of confidence in Powell’s judgment or the reliability of his scientific observations, to the gnawing need for a square meal or to the arrival at an ultimate ceiling of endurance. Whatever it is put down to, it was clear to Powell on the night of August 27 that the whole expedition was close to where he himself had been that afternoon on the cliff, unable to go forward or back.
That was even clearer when Howland came to him after supper and asked him to walk up the side canyon for a little talk. Howland had been talking things over with his brother and Bill Dunn. It was madness and suicide to try to go on. He proposed that the whole expedition abandon the river and make its way out to the Mormon settlements on the Virgin. If Powell would not take the whole party out, the Howlands and Dunn would go by themselves. They had had enough.
Powell had strong arguments. He knew that they could not be more than a few days’ run from Grand Wash, he knew that the river had been falling so fast that it could not possibly have much further to fall to the level of Callville. But Howland had a stronger one. He had only to point to the furious string of rapids that blocked their way downriver. Even if past them there were calm water all the rest of the way to the Virgin, those were enough.
In the end they agreed not to say anything to the other men until Powell had had time to plot their position by dead reckoning to find out exactly where they were. It was a clear night; he got a meridian observation with the sextant and found that it agreed pretty closely with the plot. By airline, they could not be more than forty-five miles from the mouth of the Virgin, twenty miles from which there were Mormon towns. Moreover, for a good many miles above the Virgin the Mormon party under Jacob Hamblin had found low walls and no bad rapids on the Colorado. The eighty or ninety meandering miles of river still ahead might contain no more than a day or two of bad water.
He was several hours establishing to his own satisfaction that there was no possibility of serious error in his calculations. Then he woke Howland and spread the plot on the sand and showed him. This is how he told it later:
We have another short talk about the morrow, and he lies down again; but for me there is no sleep. All night long, I pace up and down a little path, on a few yards of sand beach, along by the river. Is it wise to go on? I go to the boats again, to look at our rations. I feel satisfied that we can get over the danger immediately before us; what there may be below I know not. From our outlook yesterday, on the cliffs, the cañon seemed to make another great bend to the south, and this, from our experience heretofore, means more and higher granite walls. I am not sure that we can climb out of the canon here, and, when at the top of the wall, I know enough of the country to be certain that it is a desert of rock and sand, between this and the nearest Mormon town, which, on the most direct line, must be seventy five miles away. True, the late rains have been favorable to us, should we go out, for the probabilities are that we shall find water still standing in holes, and, at one time, I almost conclude to leave the river. But for years I have been contemplating this trip. To leave the exploration unfinished, to say that there is a part of the cañon which I cannot explore, having already almost accomplished it, is more than I am willing to acknowledge, and I determine to go on.10
He woke Walter Powell and told him of the decision that must be made. Walter promised to stay with him. He woke Billy Hawkins, the irrepressible, and Andy Hall, the lighthearted, and Sumner, the hardy, and Bradley, the saturnine, and they promised the same. Though reduced, it would still be an expedition.
Breakfast on August 28 was “solemn as a funeral.” In silence except for the pounding roar of the rapid, deep in the gloomy rock where the early sun could not reach, they ate Hawkins’ flat biscuits and drank their coffee and avoided each others’ eyes. They had finished eating when Powell asked his question. With five men behind him he could ask it bluntly. Did the three want to come along, or climb out?
Seneca Howland, left to himself, would have stuck, but neither he nor the other six could persuade his brother and Bill Dunn. They had all climbed enough on the walls to know the possibility of unbroken, unscalable cliffs stretching for miles. But they thought they could make their way out one of the side canyons, and they were sure they could kill game on the plateau. They were mountain men, the wilderness was their natural home. Listening to the arguments of the others, they shook their heads; in the end Seneca Howland dcided to stay with his brother.
They were given two rifles and a shotgun and invited to take their share of the miserable rations. It was to their credit, and evidence of friendliness between the two groups, that they refused. The three crossed the river with the others, helped them unload the leaky Emma Dean, which was to be abandoned, and assisted in portaging the two large boats over a thirty-foot rock and lining them down the first fall. Hawkins left a pan of biscuits on the rock for them. Sumner gave Howland his watch to deliver to his sister, Mrs. William Byers, in Denver. Powell wrote a letter to his wife. The records of the expedition were, as Powell thought, divided, each party taking one complete copy. At the head of a two hundred yard rapid between the two falls each entreated the other to change its mind. They shook hands; there were tears. “They left us with good feelings,” Bradley wrote, “though we deeply regret their loss for they are as fine fellows as I ever had the good fortune to meet.”11 Bradley was a grumbler, but he rose nobly to occasions.
So the parting at Separation Rapid was not quite Sam Adams’ experience of collecting a purse and sending someone home as a “common nuisance,” nor was it marked by the quarreling and accusation and blame that attended the breakup of Adams’ volunteers. Neither was it what some unaccountably virulent enemies of Powell asserted later: a harsh discharge of three men at a place and in circumstances that might mean their death. Neither was it what some of Powell’s defenders have tried to make it, a craven desertion by three cowards. It was a sad parting at the brink of two dangers, by men who respected one another.12
The original ten were now six, the four boats two. What had been rations for ten months was now rations for five days. What had been thrilling was grim. From up on the cliff the Howlands and Dunn watched as Powell stepped into the Maid of the Canyon and the men shoved off into the waves along the right-hand wall. The river seized them. They shot down a hollow, up a wave, past a rock half buried in the foaming water. The oarsmen pulled madly at the clumsy oars — a job of enormous difficulty in a boat leaping through waves at a speed of twenty miles an hour, tossed now up, now down, the water falling away suddenly so that the oarblade bites air, then surging up to bury the oar to the handle. To hit a hidden rock with an oar was to risk shattering it or having it driven into the oarsman’s body; to catch a crab was to lose all chance of control. They rowed as the river had taught them to row, pulling hard for the tongue of the second fall. There the boat was all but snatched from under them. They shot down the fall and burst into the great back-cresting waves at its foot. Instantly they were full of water, but half swamped they still rowed like madmen, pulling across the current. The wild pile-up of water against the righthand rock caught them only partially. They raced up the sloping wall of water, fell away to the left, down into a hole, and were through into the diminishing tailwaves. The whole rapid had taken perhaps a minute. While they pulled for shore to bail out, the Kitty Clyde’s Sister plunged through the tailwaves and was with them, safe. Powell afterward thought the rapid, in spite of its fearful look, no worse than others they had run. Bradley continued to think it the worst to date, until they met another one that afternoon.
Below the rapid, according to Powell’s Report, they landed and fired off their guns in the hope that the three hunters would climb down and rejoin them. But they did not come, and the boats went on.13 They had dangers enough of their own to occupy them. Powell’s journal entry for the day of parting is indication of how even so serious an event had to take its place in the day’s routine. His journal reads simply, “Boys left us. Ran rapid. Bradley boat. Make camp on left bank. Camp 44.”14
In that one brief entry are contained not merely the schism that all but destroyed the expedition, but the incident that of all their summer’s adventures was perhaps most hair-raising. “Bradley boat,” the Major says. What he thus reminded himself of was a climactic little episode. As the wreck of the No-Name in Lodore initiated them to disaster and taught them caution, so Bradley’s adventure below Separation Rapid ended their river dangers in desperation and cool skill. They had come a long way from the initial amateur ishness and inattention to Bradley’s complete adequacy to his job, from Powell’s first caution to his final recklessness.
Like many another rapid, the big one (Lava Cliff) six and a half miles below Separation struck Bradley as the worst they had met on the river. The stage of water has such an unpredictable, even unbelievable effect upon specific rapids that there would be little chance of checking his judgment, even if that rapid were not now silted up at the head of Lake Mead.15 But it was bad enough. Sumner referred to it as “another hell.” Powell landed to look it over, and found that along one side a line could be taken up on the basalt cliff and the boats lined from above. But when he arrived back on the riverbank he found that the men had already started one boat, Bradley‘s, down toward the head of the fall. She was in fast water, too much in the sweep of the current for them to pull her back, and their line was not long enough to be taken up over the cliff. They took a bight around a rock and hung on while one went for more rope.
Meantime Bradley, in the very sag of the fall, found himself swinging at the end of a mighty pendulum. The current set in close and fierce against the basalt wall, and suspended as he was from above, he yawed in a wide arc out into the rapids and then was slammed back in against the cliff. Standing in the boat, he fended himself off with an oar, but the moment he stopped the inward swing the waves snatched him outward again. Powell saw him take quick looks down river, saw him look at the straining, worn line, saw him reach in his pocket for his knife.
Before he could cut the line the whole sternpost was jerked out of the boat, rope and cutwater flew thirty feet into the air, and the Sister was off like a horse from the starting line. Bradley dropped his knife and leaped to the steering oar, fighting to get her bow pointed downstream, for to go over broadside-on would be certain wreck. One stroke, two, three, and just as he hit the fall he turned her. She went clear under in a welter of white, came up on a huge crest, went down again and out of sight beyond some rocks. In half a breath she shot into the open, Bradley still standing, and swung into an eddy. Bradley waved his hat in triumph, but from where Powell stood it was impossible to see how badly the boat was damaged, and he feared both it and Bradley might go down into the whirlpool.
Powell shouted at his brother and Sumner to run along the cliff to help below. Then with Hawkins and Hall he leaped into the second boat, pushed off, and went over the falls any way the water took them, endways and sideways, blind with water, beaten almost out of the boat by waves. It was an act totally uncharacteristic, reckless beyond anything he had permitted himself or his men all the way down the river. It is as good documentation as any for the desperation of their case.
Bradley had to rescue them, capsized and strangling, and help them pull their boat to safety against the cliff. There was handshaking around to match that when the Howlands and Goodman were rescued from their island at Disaster Falls. Powell said nothing ever thrilled him so much as to see Bradley swing his hat from the spinning boat after running her through. It is clear from his various accounts of the trip that Bradley, more than any other member of the party, had his complete respect as a man of skill and courage. As for Bradley, his diary was getting used to superlatives. This ride, he said, “stands A No. 1 of the trip.”
That was the last big roar from the river dragon. Two or three miles below that great rapid the river swung northwest. By night-fall they were out of the granite. By noon of the next day, after a swift uneventful run, they passed through the sudden portal in the Grand Wash Cliffs and saw rolling country, low walls, distant mountains.
Where they camped that night is not certain. To be appropriate, it should have been in the little loop that now, as part of Lake Mead, on the Nevada-Arizona boundary, is known as God’s Pocket. They were in God’s pocket sure enough. Their joy, Powell says, was almost ecstasy, though even in that relaxed and triumphant camp, in the clear night, with an unreal wide sky over them, they speculated a long time on how the Howlands and Dunn were faring, how they had managed on the cliffs, whether they might now be in the high plateau forest filling themselves with venison or wild mutton or whether they might be stuck in some gulch groping for a way up and out. They could say I-told-you-so; they could also, more generously, hope the others’ luck had been equal to their own.
For there was no doubt that they were now “out of prison.” On August 30 they scared away one band of naked Paiutes and talked to another family that Powell coaxed near by speaking Ute to them. From the Indians, however, they learned little and got no food, and so they pushed on. Just after the noon stop they saw four men pulling a seine in the river. They were a Mormon named Asa and his two sons and an Indian, and they were there on instructions from Church headquarters in Salt Lake City to watch the river for wreckage or bodies from the Powell Expedition, reported lost weeks ago in the depths of the Colorado canyons.
That was the first official notice Brigham Young ever paid to Major Powell. He would pay him more later; the two would become something like friends, and Brigham would draw on Powell for scientific information useful to his empire. His interest now was something more than mortuary, something more than merely humanitarian. For Powell’s river party was in a way doing Brigham’s business for him, exploring the heart of the country on whose fringes Brigham’s colonists had scratched out precarious toeholds of settlement. If Asa and his sons and their Indian companion waiting in the glare of the red mudflats at the mouth of the Virgin saw no bodies floating by, they might at least intercept something else — records or wreckage — from which to piece together information about the canyons. They intercepted more than they expected, and yet their humanitarian and mortuary gesture was not to be entirely wasted either.
Nine men had plunged into the unknown from the last outpost of civilization in the Uinta Valley on the sixth of July, 1869. On August 30 six came out.
After the first exuberant greetings from the three-times-reported dead, after the sybaritic banquets of bread and butter and cheese and watermelons that Bishop Leithead sent down from St. Thomas, after the devouring of the first mail since leaving the Uinta Agency almost two months before, after the triumph and the congratulations, there remained the anticlimax of disbandment. Powell divided among his ragged volunteers the little money he had to spare, and gave them the two boats to continue on down. Of the four, Bradley and Sumner would leave the river at Yuma, and only Hawkins and Hall would run the Colorado’s whole length to tidewater. For Powell’s purposes, there was no use in going farther. Ives had surveyed up this far; steamboats had charted the full length of the lower river. As exploration, the expedition had ended at the Grand Wash Cliffs. Only the loyalty of five men and Powell’s own resolution had kept it from ending in failure on the very brink of success, at Separation Rapid. What had been a tight and even tense organization, a desperate comradeship, a true expedition, had begun to crumble with the departure of the Howlands and Dunn. Now with the bond of danger gone it suddenly dissolved. Almost lamely, Powell and his brother shook hands with the other four and turned north with their Mormon hosts to St. Thomas and on over the Beaver Dam Mountains to St. George, the capital of Brigham Young’s southern province. As they went they inquired of everyone they met for word of the three who had elected to fight their way out overland.
At St. Thomas there was no word, at Santa Clara no word, at St. George, well into the edge of civilization and linked to Salt Lake by a carriage road and the Deseret Telegraph, still nothing. The church authorities sent out riders to outlying ranches and to the Paiutes of the plateaus, but they disappeared into that silence from which the Poweils had themselves only just emerged. They waited, though they were wild to get home, and the Deseret Telegraph had sent out ahead of them messages that assured them a hero’s welcome. Perhaps then more than any time earlier they felt the implacable emptiness through which they had labored for a hundred days. Other western explorations had met Indians, buffalo and antelope and elk, grizzlies; they had passed alertly through a wilderness that teemed with life. Their own had passed through a wasteland naked even of game, sometimes even of vegetation, and its trademark was the ancient and terrible stillness which was all they heard now, waiting in St. George. That stillness had not been broken a day later when they had to leave.
They were only two days on their way, somewhere up along the Mormon Trail that followed the abrupt eastern edge of the Great Basin, when word of Dunn and the Howlands caught up with them from St. George. The three had climbed the wall and made it to the forested top of the plateau. They had made it no farther. They lay out there now somewhere beside a waterpocket, stripped and filled with Shivwits arrows, victims of an Indian misunderstanding and of their own miscalculation of the algebra of chance.
And so back home to Normal on the palace cars, reading of their own exploits and the lonely death of their companions as they went. Now came the round of entertainments and the jubilance of congratulation from friends in Illinois, and now the many-times-repeated story of the adventure began to be sandpapered and smoothed in the telling around dinner tables and on the lecture platforms of Salt Lake, Detroit, Cincinnati, Wheaton, Chicago, Hennepin, Bloomington, towns that had once known Powell as an independent sort of boy interested in bugs and snakes, and cities that knew him now as a famous explorer. On the river Powell’s persistent caution had infuriated Bradley and Sumner and the rest, but to the home folks and the jealously askance colleagues of Normal University he must have looked like a lucky gambler. Sam Bowles writing from the dude camp in Middle Park had been precisely right: the Powell expedition was fortunate in its leader. The exploration had been of a peculiar boldness. It had also been spectacularly successful, and its success had been made piquant by tragedy.
Major Powell came back to Illinois, and eventually on to Washington, a national hero, a club-car celebrity. People found him romantically maimed, awesomely resolute, winningly genial and enthusiastic, a persuasive talker. He showed none of the signs of self-importance or a swelled head; then and later he was what a colleague called him, a “notably magnetic man.” The nation that had scarcely heard of him until Risdon announced his death went out of its way to notice and praise him now.
He had unlocked the last great unknown region in the country and made it his own, and in that region so simple and so empty of people, scientific knowledge lay on the surface like the moss agates and jasper geodes of some of its valleys, ready to be scooped up in the hand. Powell’s mark was already on it. Its mountains and creeks and buttes bore names he and his men had given them. And his mark would be on it more, by his own determination and the national consent.
The Congress which had twice listened suspicious and unconvinced to his requests for help would shortly appropriate $10,000 to assist his continued geographical and topographical exploration of the Colorado River, and set him up in business in a western survey competing with those of Clarence King, F. V. Hayden, and Lieutenant Wheeler.
But there was one dissenter amid the chorus of applause. Almost as soon as the news of Powell’s success started eastward along the wires, the Omaha Republican printed a complaint against “a recent explorer, who has expended nothing individually and incurred none of the hardships inseparably connected with the development of the west ... ” and “whose vision was so remarkably acute, that at the distance of three hundred miles from Green River, he could see the canons of the Colorado in all their length and depth, and whose letters stated that he was the first to ascend Long’s Peak, when it is a matter of public notoriety, that women and men had gone before him for the past ten years, the date of whose ascent was marked upon the place of his triumph.” The much-publicized Colorado River exploration was a sell. “Through all the cañons,” the correspondent said, “I have ascended and descended several times within the past three years.” 16
Like a feisty dog yapping on the fringes of a parade, Sam Adams was pursuing with senseless single-mindedness the shadow of his delusion. It was his idiot function to go on pursuing it. Major Powell, having catapulted himself into prominence by a piece of adventure, would devote the next ten years to justifying the adventure by the manifold work of revealing and opening his chosen part of the West. The exploration, spectacular though it was, was only a preliminary move, a means to an end. The end was new knowledge, and new knowledge would be the peculiar contribution of the United States Geographical and Geological Survey of the Rocky Mountain Region, J. W. Powell in Charge, which Congress voted into existence on July 12, 1870. It did not have that comprehensive title when it was. created; if it had any official name at all, it was the “Geographical and Topographical Survey of the Colorado River of the West,” and for part of its existence it was called the “Geological and Geographical Survey of the Territories, Second Division.” The name does not matter: call it the Powell Survey. What matters is that its work was a continuity constantly enlarged but never interrupted for the next nine years.
What also matters is that Powell committed himself, enlisted himself at a strategic moment in history as a scientist in the service of the government. He was not yet a full-fledged federal employee, for until 1872 he continued to draw his salary from Illinois State Normal University, and until that year he maintained his official residence in Normal rather than in Washington. But in 1870 he put his foot in the door and got his eye fixed on what was beyond the door. His future was predictable from that point, because all his life his only direction had been forward.
Significantly, he committed himself to government science and the public service at almost the precise time when Henry Adams, after more than a year of trying to stomach the spectacle of Reconstruction politics, threw up his hands in disgust and abandoned a government that appalled him in favor of an academic life in which he had only a partial or tentative faith. Adams’ disgust with Grant’s Washington was well earned. But so was Powell’s allegiance. For Powell’s involvement in Washington was not with its political maneuvering, though he found himself forced to learn that game too. His involvement was with the unopened West and with the instru mentalities of science that, centrally directed in the public interest, might be used to open it. And that was a part of Washington’s function that within a year would excite the enthusiasm even of Henry Adams.