HOT SULPHUR SPRINGS was rich in celebrities during the last week of August, 1868. Schuyler Colfax, the meteoric young Speaker of the House, orator and public darling, the Great Smiler, destined as Grant’s first Vice-President to be one of the sad casualties of the Gilded Age, was camped on the bank of the Grand with a party that included Governor Hunt of Colorado Territory, ex-Lieutenant Governor Bross of Indiana, a collection of generals and politicos and mere gentlemen, several ladies, and one of the most eminent journalists of his time, Samuel Bowles of the Springfield Republican.1 As Colfax would become a symbol of the corrupting influence of boodle, and have his ethical edges blunted by the indefinitely expansionist and exploitative temper of Grant’s regime, Sam Bowles would develop into his resistant opposite: a public man of probity, a voice in the wilderness, a member of that group of Liberal Republicans, including Carl Schurz, Abram Hewitt, Whitelaw Reid, and by fits and starts Henry Adams, which through the seventies fought against bribery and collusion and the piracy of the national domain.
There is no evidence that Colfax learned anything in particular from his excursion into the Rockies, or that the West meant any more to him than it did to most politicians. Since the war had wiped out all the paired rivalry between slave and free, of which Missouri Compromise, Wilmot Proviso, Clay’s Great Compromise of 1850, and Stephen A. Douglas’ Kansas-Nebraska Bill were all political and historical milestones, politicians could relax about the western territories, let them form and come on as nature and population directed. Colfax was more interested in the ladies of the party anyway. One of them, Nellie Wade, he married shortly after their return.2 But Sam Bowles was a man who had been to see the elephant, and could name some of his parts. As the author of Across the Continent, published in 1865, the record of an excursion which Colfax had shared but not so much taken to heart, he spoke with authority on western travel and resources and problems. On this trip, as on the previous one, he was writing regular letters back to his paper,3 and after an evening around the campfire talking with the returned mountain climbers he devoted one to the Powell expedition.
Powell could have asked for no better break than the respectful attention of Bowles. Because of the presence of Byers, the party was already getting local publicity in the Rocky Mountain News. Home-town Illinois papers, especially the Bloomington Pantagraph, were keeping their ears open for word of the expedition’s doings. Now word would go wider, to a national audience. And though Bowles was not an infallible judge of men - he had called Lincoln a “Simple Susan” — Powell could have been under no misapprehension about the value of his good opinion.
Bowles wrote that he had made “familiar and friendly acquaintance with Professor Powell’s scientific exploring party,” and said pleasant things of their zeal and the value of their collection of more than two hundred species of birds. He commented too on the finances of the expedition, and on the fact that “Professor Powell ... draws upon his private purse for all deficiencies, and these must be many thousands of dollars before he gets through.” (Powell would not have sown that seed without hoping that governmental help might grow from it.)
But Bowles was more interested, as Powell was, in the future plans of the party than in its past accomplishments. “From here the explorers will follow down the Grand River, out of the Park into western Colorado, and then strike across to the other and larger branch of the great Colorado River, the Green, and upon that or some of its branches, near the line of Utah, spend the winter in camp ... preparing for the next summer’s campaign. The great and final object of the expedition is to explore the upper Colorado River and solve the mysteries of its three hundred mile canyon. They will probably undertake this next season by boats and rafts from their winter camp on the Green.”
Thus the plan that Powell and Jack Sumner had talked over around the campfire the year before, the project that above all other aims of the expedition fired Powell’s imagination, but the part about which he had apparently said least when lining up his backing among the universities and museums. Collecting was never a major aim, but an excuse. “The continent,” Gilpin had bawled at the Fenians on July 4, “is known to our people.” Powell knew better, and so did Sam Bowles.
“The mocking ignorance and fascinating reports of the course and country of the Colorado ought to hasten them to this interesting field. The maps from Washington,4 that put down only what is absolutely, scientifically known, leave a great blank space here of three hundred to five hundred miles long and one hundred to two hundred miles broad. Is any other nation so ignorant of itself?”
He spoke of the river, of the legendary canyons, cataracts, falls, and of the widespread belief among Indians and mountain men that no one who ventured on that river would ever emerge from it alive.5 But in talking with Powell, he was struck not only by his enthusiasm but by his coolness and resolution: “The whole field of observation and inquiry which Professor Powell has undertaken is more interesting and important than any which lies before our men of science. The wonder is they have neglected it so long. Here are seen the central forces that formed the continent; here more striking studies in physical geography, geology, and natural history, than are proffered anywhere else. New knowledge and wide honors await those who catalogue and define them. I can but think the inquiry, vast and important as it is, is fortunate in its inquirer. Professor Powell is well-educated, an enthusiast, resolute, a gallant leader. ... He is in every way the soul, as he is the purse of the expedition....”
High praise, and early in his career, and in a place where it might serve him later.
To put against the legendary terrors of the Colorado River Bowles could find only one hopeful thing: the reputed passage of some part of the Colorado canyons down to the Mormon port of Callville by James White, a trapper, in 1867. Though White’s full story did not make the columns of the Rocky Mountain News until January, 1869, it had been written a full year earlier and published both in General Palmer’s Report of Surveys across the Continent and in the Transactions of the St. Louis Academy of Science, and so fascinating a tale was bound to circulate among miners and mountain men. There is plenty of evidence that Powell as well as Bowles knew the story; there is also evidence that Powell did not believe it, even after he had hunted up White and talked to him.6 James White’s tale of a wild river journey of eleven days on a crude raft tied together with lasso ropes had some elements of truth in it. At least White had floated out into the edge of civilization at Callville on September 8, 1867, half naked, blackened with sun, starving and demented, on a cobbled raft. But he was either so far out of his head that he had lost all capacity to observe clearly and measure distance accurately, and had come a far shorter distance on the river than he thought he had, or he was one of the West’s taller liars.
In any case, much of his story belongs in the tradition of Gilpin, whose own vision of the future took account of these same canyons with equal, but different, fantasy: “The dorsal mass of the Andes [the American cordillera or Rocky Mountains], thus perforated through from base to base, and athwart its course, by a river of the first magnitude, is formed, to its snowy summit, of the upheaved auriferous and igneous rocks!”
In this, as in other judgments, Gilpin could hardly have been less accurate, but his gaudy speculations were certainly matched around many a prospector’s fire, and the canyons which lured Powell with their possible doors to knowledge and fame lured Jack Sumner and some of Sumner’s friends with the dream of bars where no man had ever dipped a pan, ledges where gold could be crumbled off with the fingers. Yet there were the tales Bowles spoke of, that the river went underground, leaped falls higher than Niagara, ran between walls vertical to the water’s edge for scores of miles. And even if one believed that James White had really run all the rapids of the Colorado on his raft, and so proved the river navigable, one could not take serious comfort from the spectacle of his shriveled, blackened, gibbering body being hauled ashore at Callville. However one looked at it, the prospect was adventurous.
The passing of August and the departure of the Colfax party marked a change in the composition and temper of Powell’s Rocky Mountain Scientific Exploring Expedition as specific as the chilling of the mountain weather into fall. During the first week of September the greenhorns, no longer so green, had the experience of digging rifle pits and standing all-night watch against an expected Indian attack. Word came through that the town of Montgomery had been burned to the ground and dozens of whites massacred. A few days later the report was amended, by grapevine from Empire, to say that the town of Montgomery was safe, but that nineteen men of the Powell expedition had been killed.
Finding this report somewhat exaggerated, they had their jumpi ness allayed. But the atmosphere had changed, nevertheless, as Middle Park cleared of dudes and the party prepared to move westward into the real wilderness toward a winter camp first projected somewhere on the Green but later changed to the valley of White River. White or Green, it would be a sterner experience than they had yet had, and the journey westward along the unused stage route that Berthoud had blazed in 1861 with Jim Bridger as a guide would be a wilder wayfaring than any of them had made.
Their membership had altered too. Professor Thompson and his wife had gone.east, as had the Reverend Daniels. Mrs. Powell was now the only woman. The college boys, Keplinger and Farrell and Durley and Allen and Bishop, were still along; so were Doctors Vasey and Wing and Powell’s brother Walter, big-voiced, rather surly, and unpredictable. But along with this nucleus of Illinois intellectuals and college boys was a group of mountain men that Sumner and Powell had recruited in Middle Park.
One was O. G. Howland, once a printer on Byers’ Rocky Mountain News, a literate atavist from Vermont, who wore a patriarchal beard. Others were his younger brother Seneca, Bill Dunn, Gus Lankin, and Billy Rhodes, all trappers. Rhodes, for reasons he kept to himself, went sometimes by the name of Rhodes and sometimes simply as Missouri. He was a camp cook, something of a joker, an uneasy sleeper, and on the trip westward along Berthoud’s uncertain and difficult track he once shot a flying hawk with his rifle at two hundred yards.7
They were all men who had sniffed the wind westward. By Sumner’s account, which is by no means reliable, they had planned on their own hook a prospecting trip down the river, and threw in with Powell for the mutual assistance they could give each other. The trappers’ mountain experience and knowledge of Indians would be of advantage to Powell, as would their pack outfits. Powell’s scientific intelligence and his potential ability to enlist governmental or institutional support would help the mountain men where they were weakest. The trappers’ rifles were insurance against hunger during the winter months, while the semi-official status of the Powell party, and their privileges at army posts through the resolution of Congress, might be a deterrent to too great insolence on the part of the Utes.